Marine conservationists are claiming a “landmark victory” after Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS) published a report on the use of acoustic deterrent devices (ADDs), also known as seal scarers, in salmon farming.
Critics opposed to ADDs said that ESS’s intervention on the issue has effectively led to a “de facto ban” on their use in Scotland. ESS was established as an “independent” environmental regulator following Brexit.
The Scottish Government said it welcomed the ESS report, adding that fish farmers “must obtain any relevant consents” or demonstrate that the use of ADDs will not harm marine mammals. There are no seal scarers now in use.
ADDs are used to deter seals from attacking fish farms by emitting a sound in the water they find unpleasant. The farmed salmon industry claims these deterrents are critical for protecting fish stocks because seals kill around 500,000 caged salmon each year.
Critics of ADDs described them as “sonic torture”, however, and claimed they cause hearing damage and stress in dolphins, porpoises and whales – and therefore breached legislation to protect cetaceans. They said there are alternatives for the salmon industry to use to protect fish farms from seals, including the use of stronger nets.
Opponents of seal scarers have now welcomed the report by ESS and claimed its intervention in the issue effectively “signals the end of ADD use” by salmon farms in Scotland.
ESS is charged with scrutinising both compliance with – and the effectiveness of – environmental law in Scotland, now that the EU and the European Environment Agency are no longer monitoring standards and the application of the law in the UK.
The report by ESS said it received allegations that fish farm operators had been using ADDs without a licence, and that concerns had been raised over “the sufficiency of Marine Scotland’s investigation and enforcement actions” to stop such practices.
This followed a report by The Ferret last June, which revealed the Scottish Government had launched an investigation after receiving complaints from environmental conservationists over the use of “seal scarers” by a company which has fish farms in Argyll and Bute.
Fish farms must obtain a European Protected Species (EPS) licence to operate an ADD unless they can demonstrate the equipment does not disturb porpoises.
According to ESS, Marine Scotland “appears to have entered into a new phase of enforcement work and is moving beyond relying on the aquaculture industry to self-regulate”.
The report said: “Marine Scotland have recently completed an ADD compliance plan and initiated inspections of fish farms in early 2022. In November 2021, a Scottish Government Aquaculture code of practice (published in September 2021) became subject to the enforcement powers provided in the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Act 2007.“
It continued: “This tightened the requirements on fish farm operators to apply for an EPS licence or prove a licence is not required, if they intend to use an ADD.”
The Coastal Communities Network (CNN) – which comprises of 22 community-based groups across Scotland – said it was “delighted” with the report from ESS, and pointed out it followed a referral made to the body in November 2021 by Guy Linley-Adams, a solicitor acting on its behalf.
The campaign group welcomed more inspections and tougher enforcement by Marine Scotland.
David Ainsley, from Sealife Adventures and CCN member, said: “This is a great result. Harbour porpoises and dolphins will enjoy greater protection as a result. Any salmon farmers who try to use ADDs must now expect enforcement action against them. CCN members will be watching – and indeed listening – for any lawbreaking and we encourage the general public, and any fish-farm employees, to report any use of ADDs at once.”
Linley-Adams, CCN’s solicitor, said: “At today’s date, there should be no use whatsoever of ADDs on salmon farms in Scotland. We also consider that it will be impossible for fish farmers to prove that ADD use will not damage or harm cetaceans. Further, it is impossible for [the] Scottish Government to issue ADD licences under the Habitats Regulations, because there are many satisfactory alternatives to ADDs.
“To that end, we have achieved a de facto ban on the use of acoustic deterrent devices in salmon farming. We would like to thank the ESS. Their staff deserve very great credit for the speed with which they have dealt with this matter and for delivering an effective outcome in their first resolution of an environmental issue brought to them since they were established. This augurs well for Scotland.”
Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell said: “I’m absolutely delighted that the intervention of Environmental Standards Scotland has now led to an effective ban on the use of ADDs.
“We’ve known for some time that these devices can cause significant harm to marine wildlife, and that there are other ways for the industry to protect their farms.
Regulations on seals and sea animals
A spokesperson for Salmon Scotland – which represents Scotland’s farmed salmon industry – said: “No ADDs are currently in use on any Scottish sea farm. Any application for their use is dependent on the Scottish Government sorting out their regulations and application process.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said ESS’s recommendations have been accepted and implemented in full.
They added: “Where fish farmers wish to use acoustic deterrent devices, their use must be compliant with the Habitats Regulations and the Aquaculture Code of Practice. In practice, this requires them to either obtain any relevant consents or to demonstrate that their use will not harm marine mammals.
“Marine Scotland undertakes regular compliance inspections and, to date, one deployed device has been detected. This was subsequently removed following enforcement action by Marine Scotland.”
This report was updated at 14.58 on 10 August 2022 to add comments from the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Government.
Photo thanks to IStock and jremes84.