The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) is facing criticism after it decided not to punish a fish farming company caught on film with lice-infested salmon.

Anti-fish-farm campaigners accused the SSPCA of having a conflict of interest and have demanded “complete transparency”. SSPCA, however, has denied any conflict of interest.

On 3 September The Ferret published film taken from inside a salmon cage at Vacasay fish farm in Loch Roag off the island of Lewis. It showed scarred and frayed salmon being eaten by hundreds of sea lice.

Sick salmon at Scottish fish farm revealed on film

The film prompted an investigation by SSPCA, which sent inspectors to visit the fish farm. “Our senior inspector on the islands spent several days investigating the concerns that had been raised and the owners co-operated fully,” said SSPCA chief superintendent, Mike Flynn.

“The fish involved have been receiving treatment and all measures possible are being taken to ensure their welfare.”

The firm that runs the fish farm, The Scottish Salmon Company, issued a statement saying that SSPCA was taking no further action. “It was wholly satisfied that as a company, we are taking all possible steps to protect the welfare of our fish and effectively deal with the naturally occurring issue of sea lice,” said a company spokesman.

“The SSPCA spent several days inspecting our operations in the area. An inspection of this kind relating to the welfare of our fish is unprecedented, but we cooperated fully throughout.”

The Scottish Salmon Company also criticised the film which has been watched by over 70,000 people. “The video footage is both highly out of context and alarmist,” the spokesman said.

“If it is from our site, it was obtained by an individual trespassing. Fish health and welfare is fundamental to responsible salmon farming and intrinsic to our operations. We invest heavily in managing the health of our stock.”

He added: “We remain fully committed to responsible farming practices and stringent health management of our stock. The quality standards we operate under – both regulatory and voluntary – are evidenced by the results of the inspections this week.”

It’s like a fox being placed in charge of the investigation of who killed all the chickens. Don Staniford, Scottish Salmon Watch

Don Staniford, from Scottish Salmon Watch, accused SSPCA of having a “clear conflict of interest”. Ronnie Soutar, the head of veterinary services for another fish farm company, Scottish Sea Farms, has recently been appointed as chairperson of SSPCA.

“It’s like a fox being placed in charge of the investigation of who killed all the chickens. It makes you wonder what level of welfare abuse has to be recorded to trigger a prosecution in Scotland,” Staniford said.

“If The Scottish Salmon Company is not found guilty of a breach of the Animal Health & Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 in the case of Loch Roag then the law clearly needs to be changed. To restore any kind of consumer confidence in Scottish salmon, an independent review of welfare on Scottish salmon farms must be carried out as a matter of urgency.”

In Norway, which has a major fish farming industry, two fines have recently been imposed for breaches of animal welfare law. Leroy, which co-owns Scottish Sea Farms, was fined £127,000 after salmon suffered serious sea lice damage in 2016.

According to the Norwegian fisheries ministry in June, another fish farm company had been fined £460,000 after “a massive sea lice infestation causing severe injuries in the salmon”.

The Norwegian news website, Salmon Business, declared that the Lewis film footage was “grotesque” and “in no way, shape or form” acceptable. “This is a prime example of an appalling farming operation and a horrific lack of respect for elementary animal welfare,” said publisher, Aslak Berge.

“Now’s the time to clean up the mess. To stand upright, and through action take responsibility, and provide credible assurances that this will not recur. One million euro fines, corresponding reactions in Norway, should serve as a realistic indicator of what they can expect to be faced with.”

Animal tragedy in Scotland: In no way, shape or form is this acceptable

Trygve Poppe, an emeritus professor and leading fish vet from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, described the film as “shocking”, but cautioned that injured fish may sometimes cluster together. “These pictures show us that there is a fundamental health and welfare problem in the industry, but this fact is hidden for most people,” he told The Ferret.

The Lewis footage was shot by Corin Smith, a photographer and fly fishing guide. “The SSPCA now as a matter of urgency need to reveal the details of their investigation,” he said.

“Given the level of public concern and shock, not to mention condemnation in the strongest terms from within the salmon farming industry, it will severely undermine the credibility of the SSPCA if they are not completely transparent about how they have reached this surprising decision to close the case so quickly.”

Smith has made all his footage available online. “I think it is essential for the credibility of the SSPCA, and the Scottish salmon farming industry, that as soon as possible the public have the opportunity to scrutinise the details of this case and the SSPCA’s decision making process,” he added.

“Frankly if the SSPCA is saying that hundreds of tonnes of dead salmon and thousands of fish in an appalling state of health is business as usual, that is a shocking indictment on the reality of farmed Scottish salmon.”

The Scottish animal welfare charity, OneKind, which is campaigning for a moratorium on the expansion of the fish farming industry, also requested more information from SSPCA. “We would like to hear from the investigating agencies what measures have been put in place to satisfy them that animal welfare is now fully protected on this site,” said OneKind policy advisor, Libby Anderson.

“Given the level of animal suffering documented in the photographic evidence, we would have expected this case to be the subject of a report to the Procurator Fiscal.”

The SSPCA, however, denied any conflict of interest. “Our chairman, Ronnie Soutar is a highly qualified and respected vet with nearly 40 years veterinary experience in dealing with all animals and has specialised in farm fish welfare since the early 1990s,” said the society’s Mike Flynn.

“All livestock, including farmed fish, require veterinary input, treatment and expertise. Whilst our board members have input in our overall strategic goals, they do not have any input in our day-to-day operational matters.”

Scottish Sea Farms also defended the role of its chief vet. “Ronnie Soutar is a highly skilled, experienced vet who cares deeply about animal welfare and is well-respected across both private practice and the farming sector,” the company said.

“Neither the chair, nor any other board member of the SSPCA, is involved in operational matters. Their role is one of governance of the charity itself.”

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, which represents fish farm companies, accepted that the film was disturbing. “The video footage and images circulated in the media recently are horrible to watch,” said chief executive, Julie Hesketh-Laird.

“I can completely understand why people would be disturbed by them. I am, too. But there is a problem here with using isolated footage and creating an assertion which lacks context and scientific veracity about the impact of salmon farms on wild salmon stocks.”