The Scottish Government’s green watchdog suppressed a critical report on pollution after private lobbying by the fish farming industry, according to internal emails published by The Ferret.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) bowed to pressure from the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) not to publish an article in August 2016 highlighting concerns about a fish farm pesticide killing wildlife.
The decision followed SSPO paying for two dinners out for Sepa executives. One at a restaurant in Perth in November 2015 included four senior Sepa staff and fish farm company directors, and the other in April 2016 involved Sepa chief executive Terry A’Hearn.
Sepa is accused of having “cravenly kowtowed” to salmon farming companies by environmental campaigners. But the idea that Sepa could be influenced over a couple of dinners was dismissed as “risible” by SSPO.
On 5 August 2016 Sepa emailed SSPO with a draft of an article it was proposing to publish on the use of pesticides to control sea lice. The article was due to coincide with new scientific evidence suggesting that contamination of the seabed was causing “substantial, wide-scale reductions” in crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans.
SSPO, however, refused to make a contribution to the article. It warned that a proposed Sepa statement on future use of the pesticide emamectin was “pre-emptive, controversial and could undermine commercial confidence in the industry”.
SSPO chief executive Scott Landsburgh told Sepa: “Should you publish this statement in its current format, I suspect that it will lead to a good deal of media scrutiny which will seek to undermine the industry’s reputation and will probably damage all of our reputations.”
Instead he urged Sepa to agree “a consensual position based upon mutual respect for all parties and to hold a media line based on openness (without divulging unestablished concerns) and reassurance.” He proposed a joint media statement saying that “further research is required to reach a firm conclusion”.
Landsburgh also emailed Sepa boss A’Hearn directly saying he was “disappointed” that Sepa was proposing to publish its plans for emamectin, marketed as Slice. SSPO had been “trying to agree a common media position with all parties in order to minimise the controversy,” he said.
“I believe that it is in all our interests to deal with such a sensitive subject delicately and proportionately,” Landsburgh added. “At a stroke, a published position like this will become the centre of media attention and will make it difficult for some accommodation in the future.”
No statement on emamectin was published by Sepa in 2016, though it did post online a statement announcing a “tightening” of the pesticide’s conditions of use last week (see below). This immediately followed Sepa’s release of the emails in response to a freedom of information request by Don Staniford from the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture.
“It is shameful that Sepa has once again cravenly kowtowed to pressure from the salmon farming industry,” alleged Staniford. He criticised Sepa for accepting hospitality from the industry.
He said: “Instead of reducing the use of toxic chemicals the salmon farming industry has focussed attention on lobotomising Sepa and silencing criticism of this polluting industry.”
SSPO confirmed that it had asked Sepa not to publish a statement. This was “because the article to be put into the public domain was going to be out of context,” said an SSPO spokeswoman.
She added: “The idea that SSPO could influence Sepa executives over a couple of dinners is risible. The dinners were arranged to discuss general environmental policies across the world.”
A’Hearn confirmed that four Sepa staff had attended a dinner hosted by SSPO in November 2015, and that he had attended an SSPO dinner in April 2016. According to his declaration of hospitality released by Sepa, his first meal cost about £30, and the second £50.
“Engagement between Sepa and other organisations, including regulated operators, occasionally includes hospitality, subject to strict rules,” said A’Hearn.
“Sepa considers a wide range of views in its decision-making process, but the final decision is always our own, as it was in this case.”
Crackdown on fish farm pesticide that kills wildlife
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) is cracking down on toxic pollution from fish farms blamed for wiping out wildlife across widespread areas of the seabed.
The government watchdog has begun a review of the discharge licences of 360 fish farms around the coast to restrict the use of the pesticide emamectin. The chemical is fed to caged salmon to kill the sea lice that plague them.
Sepa’s surprise move follows the revelation that emamectin and another pesticide had contaminated 45 sea lochs in breach of environmental limits since 2006, putting marine wildlife and human health at risk. It also comes after emails showing that Sepa had bowed to industry pressure not to publish a statement on ememectin in August 2016 were released under freedom of information law.
A major scientific study had found “unexpected” links between “very low” levels emamectin and the loss of crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans, Sepa said. The agency is now reviewing its environmental safety limits for the pesticide to check they provide “adequate environmental protection”.
The study, commissioned by Sepa from the Scottish Aquaculture Research Forum, concluded that the use of emamectin at fish farms “was associated with substantial, wide-scale reductions in both the richness and abundance of non-target crustacea”.
It said that “toxic effects occur at levels much lower than those that are currently detectable”, and suggested that there was no threshold below which emamectin would be harmless.
“The evidence suggests that benthic crustacea may not be adequately protected by the current regulation of emamectin use in Scottish salmon farms,” the study warned.
There was “an urgent requirement to consider the likely ecosystem consequences of large-scale reductions in crustacean richness and abundance at the scale of sea-lochs,” it recommended.
According to Sepa, the study, which was completed in August 2016, found “a subtle but detectable, and unexpected, association” between emamectin and impacts on the marine environment. “Very low concentrations of the medicine may have affected crustaceans in the seabed,” it said.
Sepa is now reviewing all fish farm licences “tightening conditions for the medicine’s use” after discussions with the UK government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate. “We are beginning the issuing of these new licences this week, and this will be completed by the end of April,” Sepa said.
Restrictions would remain in place while Sepa and the fish farming industry conducted further research on possible environmental effects. “The impacts of sea louse medicines are monitored by Sepa on an ongoing basis, and corrective regulatory actions taken where necessary,” it stated.
Sepa’s move was welcomed by environmental groups, though they urged the agency to go further. They pointed out that the amount of emamectin used by fish farmers in Scotland had risen sixfold between 2002 and 2015, partly because sea lice were becoming increasingly resistant to treatment.
Sepa’s announcement was “welcome but overdue”, according to Dr Richard Luxmoore, the senior nature conservation adviser with The National Trust for Scotland. “It is worrying to see confirmation that these chemicals are having a seriously detrimental effect on marine wildlife over a far wider area than has previously been acknowledged,” he said.
“Given that fish farms have been using these treatments within European protected sites, one wonders what damage they have been doing over the years.” The Ferret reported last week that campaigners were planning to lodge a formal complaint to the European Commission alleging the law had been broken.
Guy Linley-Adams, from the wild fish campaign group, Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, called on Sepa to cut the amount of salmon that could be kept at fish farms. That was the only way to reduce the number of sea lice that escaped, infested and killed wild fish, he argued.
“Sepa should now also scrap any idea of allowing across-the-board increases in permitted biomass. The fundamental problem here is that Scottish Government policy, to expand fish farming at all costs, is way out of step with what the sea lochs can actually support.”
The Scottish Government has backed a fish farming industry plan to double production by 2030. Sepa also now has a legal duty to create “sustainable economic growth”.
Don Staniford from the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture described the findings of the scientific study as “shocking”. Sepa had “no choice” other than to act, he argued.
Fish farmers had been stopped from using another pesticide to kill sea lice, teflubenzuron, in 2015, he said. “Now Sepa must ban the use of emamectin on salmon farms.”
The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, which represents fish farming companies, pointed out that Sepa had considered the scientific evidence and discussed it with government veterinary advisers. “That is an appropriate way to go about things,” said the organisation’s spokeswoman.
Sepa’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn, stressed that it was not banning the use of emamectin. “We have not published a new policy on emamectin, but are tightening Sepa licences to more closely reflect the product conditions of use, and are also strengthening the approval processes contained within our licences.”
The Scottish Government highlighted that fish farming had the potential to contribute £3.6 billion annually to the Scottish economy and support 18,000 jobs by 2030. “The Scottish Government has a proportionate approach to balance growing aquaculture sustainably and protecting the environment,” said a spokesman.
Cover image thanks to Malcolm Morris, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons, and photo thanks to Garitzko via Wikimedia Commons.
A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 5 March 2017.