Government investigations into alleged animal cruelty after scarred, frayed and lice-infested salmon were filmed at a fish farm on the island of Lewis were a “whitewash”, according to a new report.
A year-long investigation by a campaigner has concluded that inspections by Scottish and UK government watchdogs giving Vacasay fish farm in Loch Roag the “all clear” were flawed.
The report alleges the fish farm was alerted to inspections in advance and that inspectors relied on information provided by The Scottish Salmon Company, which runs the farm.
The report comes against a background of continuing controversy over Scotland’s multinational salmon farming industry, which is aiming to double its business from £1.8 billion in 2016 to £3.6 billion by 2030.
Campaigners claim that millions of fish are being killed by disease, lice and other problems at fish farms. Fierce arguments have erupted over two large new fish farms proposed near the west coast islands of Arran and Canna.
Over 170,000 people have signed a petition urging the Scottish Government to phase out open-net salmon farms. The industry, however, defended the use of sea cages and insisted its “central objective” was protecting fish health and welfare.
On 3 September 2018 The Ferret published video footage shot underwater inside a cage at Vacasay fish farm, showing hundreds of sea lice feeding on salmon with open wounds, damaged tails and fins.
The video prompted investigations by the Scottish Government’s Fish Health Inspectorate (FHI), the UK government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA).
FHI issued the farm with an “advisory letter” requesting a review of the measures to control lice. The APHA concluded that “appropriate measures” were in place, and the SSPCA said that “all measures possible” had been taken to ensure fish welfare.
“The available data suggests the findings and conclusions reached by the APHA were premature and flawed, and therefore should be urgently reviewed,” he said.
“Both the FHI and the APHA relied entirely on information given to them voluntarily and at the discretion of The Scottish Salmon Company. There was no apparent effort by either agency to subsequently validate this data or source independent data to validate their findings.”
Smith’s report has evidence that FHI alerted the fish farm by phone three days before inspections took place. The farm was told what paperwork would be inspected and that a physical inspection would take place, he said.
“Physical inspection of salmon farm stock by the FHI and the APHA for sea lice numbers and welfare appeared to be operator led, superficial and lacking any rigour or standardised processes and procedures,” his report concluded.
Smith told The Ferret that in September 2018 Vacasay was “a welfare and environmental disaster”. Tens of thousands of salmon were eaten alive by lice at levels 1,300 per cent higher than they should have been, he claimed.
“That this open cage salmon farm received an all clear within 24 hours and no punishment other than an advisory letter is difficult to understand. The whole episode looks like little more than a Scottish Government whitewash,” Smith alleged.
“Instead of a robust, independent inspection regime with the genuine aim of protecting farm stock, wild fish and the environment from the impacts of industrial salmon farming, the Scottish Government is engaged in creating the illusion of regulation.”
The wild fish group, Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, also criticised government oversight. “It speaks volumes for the complete inadequacy of the current regulation and inspection regime for the salmon farming industry, that The Scottish Salmon Company has been able to carry on with its operations in Loch Roag as if the appalling events of 2018 never happened,” said the group’s director, Andrew Graham-Stewart.
The Scottish Government stressed that the UK government’s APHA was responsible for enforcing animal welfare law. “We have not seen the report by Mr Smith,” said a government spokesperson.
“However, salmon farming in Scotland has been the focus of two parliamentary inquiries and Scottish Government has been clear that the status quo is not an option.”
The government highlighted moves being made to strengthen the regulatory framework for fish farming. The reporting of sea lice levels was also being improved, it said.
“We will continue to deliver on our collective commitments and to support the sustainable growth of aquaculture in Scotland, an industry that makes an added value contribution of £620 million a year to the Scottish economy,” the government spokesperson added.
A spokesperson for APHA said: “Where welfare concerns are reported complaints are fully investigated by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. We do not comment on individual cases.”
The Scottish Salmon Company rejected any suggestions that it had failed to co-operate with inspections at Vacasay. “The Scottish Salmon Company complies with, and fully supports, all government agencies who conduct health inspections on our sites and therefore take allegations like this extremely seriously,” said a company spokesperson.
“This particular inspection dates back to 2018, in which we co-operated fully with APHA whose findings were made clear in an independent report. We strongly refute any claims that suggest otherwise.”
In October 2018 the company told The Ferret that warmer water had increased the “sea lice challenge” at Vacasay. “Our focus has been to manage the situation and sea lice numbers are now below code of good practice levels,” it said.
Corin Smith, however, maintained that fish farms across Scotland suffered similar problems to those filmed at Vacasay. Official figures showed that the premature death rate of farmed salmon across Scotland had increased 400 per cent since 2004, he claimed.
“It now averages one quarter of all farmed salmon dying before harvest,” he said. “Take a trip round the coastal villages of the West Highlands and the signs of dead salmon are seemingly everywhere, even spilling out on to local roads.”
An accident on the A86 near Laggan on 13 September spilled hundreds of dead salmon across the road and down the embankment. The fish were thought to be en route from a fish farm for disposal.
According to the Scottish animal welfare charity, OneKind, the salmon spill was “a particularly gruesome manifestation of mass mortality rates on Scotland’s salmon farms”. The group has called for a moratorium on the expansion of fish farming.
“The serious welfare issues on Scotland’s salmon farms continue as usual,” said OneKind director, Bob Elliot.
“Disease, lice infestations and mass mortality are rife on many of these farms, yet despite this, the industry, with support from the Scottish Government, is committed to doubling the salmon farming industry by 2030.”
Radical change was needed, Elliot argued, “so that farmed salmon are having quality lives and that salmon farming doesn’t harm the environment.”
Over 170,000 people from across Europe signed a petition to the Scottish Parliament in September calling for “a halt to the devastation of wild fish and surrounding ecosystems caused by open-net salmon farms.”
The petition, backed by Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland and the outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, demanded “an immediate ban on new open-net farms”.
Another petition opposing a new fish farm off the north east coast of Arran has been signed by over 5,000 people. It was started by the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST), which is worried about pollution damaging wildlife.
COAST claimed there was a “rising groundswell” of opposition to the planned farm. It staged a protest on Arran on 15 September, with over 100 islanders forming a human circle.
“We feel that the Scottish Government and its agencies are in a state of regulator capture,” said COAST chair, Russ Cheshire. The response of regulators was “lethargic”, suggesting they were reluctant to upset the fish farming industry, he argued.
But The Scottish Salmon Company, which is proposing the new farm, insisted it had received “supportive feedback” from Arran residents. The farm would create 10 new jobs and add £10 million a year to the economy, the company said.
“The environment and health of our fish are fundamental to our business and this proposal has innovation at its heart to deliver a responsible and sustainable development,” added a company spokesperson.
The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, which represents fish farm companies, insisted that fish were well cared for. “The salmon farming sector’s central objective is protecting fish health and welfare,” said the organisation’s sustainability director, Anne Anderson.
“All farming has challenges but the survival rate of fish on farms remains high at around 99 per cent per month as reflected in the sector’s public reporting.”
Anderson, who left a job overseeing the regulation of the fish farming industry at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in September 2018, resisted the suggestion that open net farming should be phased out.
“We farm salmon in seawater as that is where salmon naturally thrive. Net pens can be used very effectively without significant environmental impacts,” she added.
The salmon spill on the A86 happened when a lorry swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle, thus preventing a serious accident, she said. “This was cleaned up as quickly as possible.”