Rules on the use of toxic pesticides by the fish farming industry have been relaxed because of the coronavirus emergency, prompting fears for marine wildlife.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) is permitting safety limits on one pesticide to be breached, and allowing another to be used more intensely. It accepts that both changes could cause environmental damage.
Sepa insists that relaxations of standards are necessary to help salmon farms cope with staff shortages and social distancing. Its moves have been welcomed by the industry.
But environmental groups fear that sea lochs may suffer from increased pollution, and fish farms let off the hook for past mistakes. They want the relaxations to end as soon as possible, and for the industry to change.
Sepa previously loosened restrictions on the weight and duration of salmon in cages at sea from 24 March. It said this was to help fish farms deal with staff shortages caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now it has allowed an estimated 14 salmon farms to breach safety limits on the use of emamectin. Marketed as Slice, this is fed to salmon to kill the lice that plague them.
Sepa has tried to ban emamectin because it also kills crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans but this has so far been fought off by the industry. Instead in October 2017 Sepa introduced tougher environmental standards on the chemical.
The new standards only applied to new or expanding farms. These are the ones that are now being permitted to breach the limits and discharge more emamectin into sea lochs.
Sepa did not name the farms, but reckoned there could be around 14 of them depending on circumstances. The use of more emamectin than authorised “will result in an increased extent of local impact on the seabed,” Sepa said.
According to Sepa, the industry requested the relaxations where emamectin was “the only practical option for maintaining control over sea lice during the Covid-19 outbreak.”
But Sepa added that salmon farms that do use more of the chemical will not be able to do so again “for a considerable period once this regulatory position ends.”
Sepa has also allowed salmon farms to break 24-hour limits on the use of another anti-lice pesticide, azamethiphos. This is known to harm shellfish, so Sepa has said its use can only be boosted where there’s no shellfish growers within 2.5 kilometres.
If lice get out of control they can cause “large scale mortalities” at fish farms and cause “increased risk” to wild salmon and sea trout, Sepa warned.
Allowing more pesticides is ‘scandalous’
The Coastal Communities Network, which brings together sixteen groups concerned about the marine environment, claimed that fish farms were the largest polluters of Scotland’s seas. “We do not want them to discharge any more pollution,” said the network’s John Aitchison.
“But we recognise that all industries face now staff shortages due to the coronavirus and that this will make normal operations difficult.”
He added: “The need to dump even more pollution in the sea during this crisis shows that it must give up its open nets and adopt closed-containment methods to capture its pollution instead, as any other responsible industry would do.”
Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, which campaigns on wild fish, called on Sepa to stick to its oft-repeated mantra that non-compliance was not an option. “What is important here is that Sepa does not inadvertently cut the industry any slack for mistakes it made before the Covid lockdown,” said the group’s solicitor, Guy Linley-Adams.
“It is also imperative that Sepa does not allow any prolonged grace period after lockdown is lifted.”
Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch said: “It’s scandalous that Sepa is now opening the floodgates to lobster-killing chemicals such as emamectin – a toxic chemical Sepa planned on banning back in 2016.
”Coronavirus is being deployed as a Trojan horse by salmon farmers waging a never-ending war on sea lice. Heaven knows what environmental damage this toxic industry will be guilty of by the end of June when the temporary rules are lifted.”
The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, which represents fish farmers, said it had been working with Sepa to find “pragmatic” ways to manage lice. “The absolute priority is protecting public health and companies are keeping staffing levels as low as possible and adopting government advice,” said SSPO’s sustainability director, Anne Anderson, who worked as a senior regulator with Sepa until 2018.
“We are pleased that Sepa and Marine Scotland have worked with us to find a suitable balance between protecting workers’ health and good standards of fish health and environmental management.”
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency said: “Sepa has carefully designed this regulatory position so that it will enable the sector to control sea lice in these exceptionally challenging circumstances in ways that protect against significant, long-term harm to Scotland’s coastal waters and keep any localised impacts to a minimum.”
It added: “Any farm that makes use of the temporary regulatory position must notify us. This is an important part of ensuring public visibility of the use of the regulatory position.”