Scottish Government research into pesticides used to control the lice that infest farmed salmon deliberately excluded impacts on the “wider marine environment”, internal emails have revealed.
The Ferret’s revelation has sparked anger from campaigners, who accused the government of ignoring the damage done by salmon farm pollution because it was “inconvenient”. They are demanding that the industry cease using the sea as a “dustbin”.
But the rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, has hit back, defending the research as “objective and independent”. He challenged those who wish the industry to be “terminated” to say how its thousands of workers could be redeployed.
The Scottish Government commissioned the research from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) in Edinburgh in 2019. The aim was to compare the cost-effectiveness of different methods of curbing the lice that eat caged salmon.
The resulting report was published in September 2020. It concluded that the most cost effective controls were adding pesticides such as emamectin to salmon feed, as well as deploying “skirts” to prevent lice from entering salmon cages.
But there has been growing concern about the dangers that emamectin — marketed as Slice — poses to crabs, lobsters and other marine wildlife in sea lochs. In a survey in 2017 the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) detected the pesticide in virtually all the 302 samples it took around eight salmon farms in Shetland.
Sepa concluded that the pollution was “significantly impacting” wildlife, that it was more widespread than previously thought, and that “existing approaches do not adequately protect marine life”. But The Ferret has reported that Sepa’s attempts to restrict the use of emamectin have so far been resisted by the salmon farming industry.
Now under freedom of information law the Scottish Government has released more than 80 pages of emails about the SRUC research. One on 29 October 2019 pointed out that public sector research “required” an assessment of environmental impacts.
The email continued: “Therefore having some information on key environmental impacts as part of the cost effectiveness analysis is crucial. We discussed at the inception meeting to keep this fairly focused, and not including interactions with the wider marine and environmental environment [sic].”
Another email on 29 August 2019 talked about the possibility of government funding to help with sea lice treatments. It asked “whether there is a role for government to invest in research and development of current and emerging treatment options with the view to helping the industry minimise the wider costs of treatment as well as maintaining company profitability.”
The emails were obtained by the campaigner, Corin Smith, who runs the Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots website. “This highlights the flawed methodologies being used to develop government policy in respect of the salmon farming industry,” he said.
“Simply ignoring the negative impacts and harms caused by the industry because they are inconvenient to a government policy which wishes to find reasons to see growth, does not lend itself to broad public support in the long term when these processes are inevitably held up to scrutiny and found to be flawed.”
Smith added: “The Scottish public prioritise proper protection of the environment over industrial exploitation. If the government wants to see salmon farming grow, it must reflect that balance in policy formation.”
The Coastal Communities Network, which involves 18 local groups in Scotland concerned about the marine environment, demanded a halt to pesticide pollution. “Coastal communities are fed up of the sea being used as a dustbin by this polluting industry,” said the network’s John Aitchison.
“It dumps all the pesticides it uses to treat sea lice into the sea, hoping they will be diluted before they do too much harm. These substances are really toxic to crabs, lobsters and prawns, which worries the fishermen who depend on catching them.”
Aitchison criticised the Scottish Government for excluding wider environmental impacts from the research. “It seems the Scottish Government was more interested in using their report to justify spending even more public money propping up a fish farming system that mass-produces sea lice,” he said.
“They are less interested in the cost of polluting the sea than in protecting these companies’ profits, despite the enormous cost of sea lice treatments. This is no way to spend taxpayers’ money.”
The Scottish Government stressed the economic benefits of salmon farming for remote and fragile communities. “This report offers objective and independent analysis on the cost effectiveness of treatments used by fish farmers to manage sea lice,” said the minister responsible for aquaculture, Fergus Ewing.
“It helps to build an understanding of the measures used by the industry to address these challenges and illustrates the important role of innovation and technology. A wide range of information is used to underpin both policy development and complex decision making in relation to treating fish to promote health and welfare.”
Ewing added: “This report contributes to the knowledge base, compliments our understanding of others aspects and is not intended to be used in isolation, but will be helpful to inform ongoing discussions on sustainable and cost effective sea lice management.
“Those few who, in principle, oppose all aquaculture in Scotland and wish it to be terminated, have never indicated how they think that the thousands of people employed in the sector would possibly be reengaged. This is a question that they should answer.”
Scotland’s Rural College declined to comment. The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO), which represents the industry, has said that it works hard to “minimise” the use of pesticides.
SSPO has published an analysis showing that pesticide use in 2019 was less than in 2017, 2016 and 2015. Their use was authorised by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, it pointed out.
The Ferret reported on 14 March 2021 that six fish farming companies in Scotland given government hand-outs of over £10 million had made profits of £926 million since 2010. A total of 20 aquaculture industry bodies received 104 grants amounting to nearly £20 million from the Scottish Government, its enterprise agencies and the European Union.
The emails released under freedom of information law
This story is the second in a series on fish farming funded by journalismfund.eu, an independent, non-profit organisation in Brussels that supports cross-border investigative journalism. Our investigations were carried in partnership with the Italian journalist, Francesco De Augustinis.
Cover image thanks to iStock/YevgenySemyonov.