Probe demanded into ‘inadequate’ protection of wild salmon

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) could be facing an official investigation into allegations that it has failed to prevent sea lice escaping from fish farms and killing wild salmon.

Two campaign groups have submitted a formal complaint to the Scottish Government’s post-Brexit watchdog, Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS), alleging that Sepa has broken the law by allowing lice to spread from caged to wild salmon in the sea.

Campaigners accused Sepa and the Scottish Government of “years of dithering and denial”. They said Sepa’s latest proposals for monitoring and limiting the lice that can plague fish farms were “wholly inadequate”.

Sepa insisted it had taken a “proportionate, evidence-based approach” and applied “appropriate management measures where required”. The Scottish Government said Sepa’s approach would “support the sustainable development of fish farming in Scotland”.

ESS told The Ferret it “thoroughly considers” any complaint it receives before deciding whether to launch an investigation. The salmon industry maintained there was “no evidence” that lice from farms were harming wild salmon populations.

Salmon cages in sea lochs can be infested by lice, which can escape and attach themselves to wild salmon and trout as they swim past. The extent to which this injures or kills wild fish has been a source of arguments for decades.

In 2018 an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament concluded that the regulation of fish farms must be improved. The Scottish Government set up the Salmon Interactions Working Group, which led to Sepa being put in charge of controlling lice from fish farms.

Sepa has since run two public consultations on its proposals, the first in 2021 and the second in 2023. In January 2024 The Ferret reported on Sepa’s latest plans to monitor and control lice numbers.

Now campaign groups frustrated by the lack of progress have filed a 34-page legal submission to ESS arguing that Sepa has failed to fulfil its legal obligations to protect wild salmon. The groups are WildFish, which is supported by anglers, and the Coastal Communities Network, which brings together 26 groups in Scotland keen to protect the marine environment.

The joint submission pointed to the latest evidence that wild salmon populations have plummeted. In December 2023 Atlantic salmon were internationally classified as endangered, with evidence that global populations fell by 23 per cent between 2006 and 2020.

Scientists at the inter-governmental International Union for the Conservation of Nature said one of the risks was “mortality due to salmon lice from salmon farms” which was “of great concern”. Lice eat salmon alive and, according to campaigners, as few as two can be fatal to young fish.

“The continued failure of the Scottish Government and its regulators to put in place proper controls to protect wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout is contrary to their legal obligations,” the joint submission concluded.

“The Scottish Government’s approach to the sea lice issue has been characterised both by its sluggish pace, and by the underlying unwillingness to take any steps that might constrain the growth of the politically-important Scottish salmon farming industry.”

Salmon ‘suck it and see’ process

WildFish argued that expanding the fish farming industry came at “an unacceptably high cost” to wild fish. “Sepa’s planned approach to controlling the scourge of sea lice from salmon farms remains wholly inadequate,” said the group’s Scotland director, Rachel Mulrenan.

Sepa’s proposals had “fundamental limitations”, she argued. Sea lice restrictions would only initially apply to new fish farm applications, and in 2025 would only affect 19 of Scotland’s 200 plus fish farms, she pointed out.

WildFish’s solicitor, Guy Linley-Adams, criticised Sepa’s plans as “simply not up to the job” of protecting wild salmon and sea trout. “They are based not on a properly precautionary approach, as the law requires, but on a process of suck it and see,” he said.

The Coastal Communities Network pointed out that Sepa believed its new rules would prevent further deterioration of wild fish populations. “We do not believe this to be true,” said the network’s spokesperson, John Aitchison.

“Now, more than ever, we need to take action on all the issues linked to the decline of wild salmon and sea trout. Sepa should apply the precautionary principle and reduce the sea lice on existing farms, to protect these iconic species.”

‘Sustainable development’ of salmon farming

According to Sepa, wild salmon are under threat from a range of pressures “including sea lice”. After listening to stakeholder concerns, it introduced a sea lice framework on 1 February 2024.

“Scotland is one of the first countries to take action to manage the risk posed by sea lice from fish farms and we are determined to make a difference,” said Sepa’s chief operating officer, Lin Bunten.

“Using international best practice and cutting-edge science, we are confident the sea lice framework employs a proportionate, evidence-based approach to assess risk and apply appropriate management measures where required.”

The Scottish Government backed Sepa’s approach, describing salmon farming as a “highly regulated industry”. It said “significant progress” had been made on the recommendations of the 2018 parliamentary inquiry.

“Our vision for sustainable aquaculture sets out the ambition for an aquaculture sector that operates within environmental limits, and recognises the considerable social and economic benefits the sector can deliver,” said a government spokesperson.

“The sea lice framework will support the sustainable development of fish farming in Scotland, helping to guide development to the right locations, whilst helping to ensure wild fish are protected.”

ESS chief executive, Mark Roberts, said: “ESS thoroughly considers all representations that it receives. Any decision to begin an investigation will be announced on the ESS website and the individuals or organisations making the representation informed.”

Salmon Scotland, which represents fish farming companies, argued that there was “no evidence” that sea lice from farms were harming wild salmon populations. “The main issues in Scotland are water quality and habitat loss,” said the group’s Dr Iain Berrill.

“We continue to work with Sepa on the development of its sea lice risk assessment framework to ensure it is balanced and proportionate.”

Cover image thanks to iStock/Gregg Parsons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet? Join our co-operative now to get unlimited access.
You can join using Direct Debit, payment card or Paypal. Cancel at any time. If you are on a low-income you may be eligible for a free sponsored membership. Having trouble logging in? Try here.
Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet?
Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.