The Scottish Government put pressure on its environmental watchdog to drop a plan to ban a toxic pesticide in 2018 so as not to upset the fish farming industry.
Emails released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) reveal that senior government officials intervened directly to delete any mention of the proposed 2018 ban from a policy briefing for the environment minister, Roseanna Cunningham, following a complaint from the industry.
The pesticide, known as emamectin and marketed as Slice, is widely used by fish farmers to kill the lice that plague caged salmon. But new scientific evidence suggests it is also causing widespread damage to wildlife in Scotland’s sea lochs.
The Scottish Government has previously dismissed accusations that it “muzzled” Sepa on Slice as “unsubstantiated and false”. It told The Ferret in June that officials didn’t make “any recommendation” on how to proceed.
But the emails show that government officials persuaded Sepa to “nuance” policy by omitting the 2018 deadline because it was regarded as a “ticking bomb” by the £1.8 billion salmon farming business.
This latest revelations on the “Slicegate” scandal have prompted critics to accuse the government of a “cover-up” and of “misleading the public”. Sepa had been “lobotomised” by civil servants acting on behalf of the industry, alleged one campaigner.
The government, however, reiterated that the accusations were false and insisted that it had never imposed a view on what Sepa should do. Sepa defended its regulation as “science-based” and said it had moved to tighten conditions on the use of Slice.
The controversy is due to be examined as part of a major investigation into the fish farming industry by the Scottish Parliament’s rural economy and environment committees early next year.
The released emails also disclose that Sepa drafted a press statement in May last year announcing that it would withdraw authorisation for Slice from 31 March 2018. According to an accompanying Sepa briefing, the pesticide can kill over 80 per cent of shrimps and other crustaceans at sites where it is used over several years.
Sepa’s press statement, however, was never issued because the agency ended up abandoning the proposed ban in favour of limited restrictions. This followed concerted pressure from the fish farming industry and the pesticide’s US manufacturer, Merck – as well as the Scottish Government.
Email strings made available by Sepa under freedom of information law show that Cunningham requested a policy briefing on Slice in August 2016. This followed an angry complaint about the proposed 2018 ban from the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation.
Sepa’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn, circulated a draft briefing saying that Slice was “likely” to be phased out in two years unless the industry made a “compelling” case to keep it.
But this prompted an objection from the Scottish Government’s then head of aquaculture, Willie Cowan. He accepted that the language had been “softened” but said he still had “real concerns” about the two-year timeline.
He wrote: “If you could nuance the defined two year ticking bomb (as the industry see it), shifting the onus to a timeline dependent on the needs of the required research to determine further evidence of impact then that would be preferable.”
In response A’Hearn redrafted the briefing to remove any reference to the two-year deadline. Instead he said there were “a number of possible solutions” which “depending on the additional research and analysis, could involve the phasing out of Slice”.
Another senior government official, George Burgess, then head of environmental quality, suggested another edit to remove a remaining reference to a time period. Cowan said he was “happy with that”, and in a one-word email A’Hearn responded: “Agreed.”
The altered policy briefing was then sent to Cunningham. Sepa subsequently dropped its plans for a 2018 ban, instead tightening conditions for using Slice and proposing further limitations for a minority of farms in “susceptible” areas.
How can we have confidence that our world-famous marine environment is being protected when the strings are being pulled by the main polluter? Dr Richard Luxmoore, National Trust for Scotland
The National Trust for Scotland condemned the intervention of the Scottish Government. “Political interference in the operation of a supposedly independent environmental regulator is pretty fishy, but when it is being done at the request of the industry that is being regulated it begins to stink,” said the trust’s senior nature conservation adviser, Dr Richard Luxmoore.
“How can we have confidence that our world-famous marine environment is being protected when the strings are being pulled by the main polluter and the law enforcer is put firmly back in its box? It’s like a story from the Wild West.”
Don Staniford from the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture accused the Scottish Government of misleading the public. “Civil servants acting on behalf of the salmon farming lobby successfully lobotomised Sepa,” he said.
“The parliamentary inquiry must investigate how Sepa allowed itself to be censored and sidelined. At best, these disclosures highlight collusion between the Scottish Government, the salmon farming industry and Sepa.”
Sepa released internal emails to Staniford last week with an unreserved apology for failing to release them earlier. It said it had made errors and not fulfilled its duties under freedom of information law.
The wild fish campaign group, Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland, accused Sepa and the Scottish Government of a “cover-up” on Slice. Both Sepa and the Scottish Government are under investigation by the Scottish Information Commissioner on the issue, the group said.
The Scottish Salmon Think-Tank, a new group of fish farm critics, argued that Slice posed a severe threat to creel fisheries. “It is shameful that the Scottish Government has chosen to prioritise the profits of big business above the well-being of coastal communities and the environment upon which their livelihoods depend,” said the group’s Lynn Schweisfurth.
Mark Ruskell MSP, environment spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “It’s wholly inappropriate for the Scottish Government to be editing out the conclusions of an independent environmental regulator on behalf of any industry.”
At no point have Sepa been constrained from delivering the advice and making the regulatory decisions which they feel to be necessary Spokesman, Scottish Goverment
The Scottish Government stressed that the use of chemicals in the marine environment was a regulatory matter for Sepa. “These documents do not in any way support the unsubstantiated and false claims being made,” said a spokesman.
“As the Sepa chief executive has made clear, he did not discuss this issue with the Environment Secretary and at no point have Sepa been constrained from delivering the advice and making the regulatory decisions which they feel to be necessary.”
He pointed out that officials have a duty to provide ministers with considered advice and to inform them of stakeholder concerns. “We regularly and frequently have dialogues with bodies such as Sepa,” he added.
“At no time do we impose a view of what they should decide to do and there is nothing to suggest officials made any recommendation on how to proceed in this case.”
Sepa stressed that it was right to talk to a broad range of stakeholders about regulating fish farming. “How we go about regulation is science based and to be clear, in April this year, Sepa moved to tighten conditions for the use of Slice, reviewing the permits of all fish farms using the medicine,” said CEO A’Hearn.
“In July we also launched a consultation on our intention to strengthen the regulation of the sector. The consultation included a review of the environmental quality standard for Slice where we called for evidence on its use to help inform future regulation of medicines used in the marine environment.”
The consultation closed on 30 September. “We’re now reviewing the responses which will inform the finalisation of our proposals for licensing of this sector,” he added.
The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation said it had submitted its views to the consultation. “Sepa has published interim arrangements for the use of Slice while further scientific work is undertaken,” said chief executive, Scott Landsburgh.
Photo thanks to David Dixon via CC by SA 2.0. A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 5 November 2017.