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Wildlife objection to salmon farm spiked after industry lobbying

The Scottish Government’s wildlife agency withdrew an objection to proposed new salmon cages near the island of Barra after intensive lobbying by the fish farming industry.

NatureScot had concerns that waste from the cages would harm rare seabed wildlife. But it agreed to ditch its objection after the industry body, Salmon Scotland, put pressure on a senior Scottish Government official.

The industry lobbying was condemned by the Scottish Greens as “absolutely unacceptable”. Campaigners said it was “highly worrying” and “shocking” – and criticised NatureScot for “rolling over”.

NatureScot said it had been a “long and complex case” but after “constructive discussions” it had amended its objection. Provided conditions were met, the risk to wildlife had been “addressed”, it argued.

Salmon Scotland stressed that it was its job to “regularly engage” with government, and expressed gratitude for the Scottish Government’s “strong support”.

Scotland's seas in danger

The lobbying has been revealed by internal emails released by the Scottish Government to The Ferret under freedom of information law. Overall they show that senior ministers and officials have been lobbied by the salmon industry at least 20 times on nine issues in the last year.

In 2023 the salmon farming company, Mowi, proposed replacing 12 salmon cages with a circumference of 120 metres at Hellisay on Barra by five cages with a circumference of 200 metres. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) agreed to the changes.

But NatureScot objected on the grounds that waste from the cages could damage endangered maerl “mega-ripples” on the seabed beneath them. Maerl is a hard purple and pink seaweed that provides homes for scallops, sea cucumbers and starfishes.

salmon barra
Mearl ‘mega-ripples’ on the seabed (photo thanks to NatureScot)

On 1 September 2023 Salmon Scotland’s chief executive and former Liberal Democrat minister and MSP, Tavish Scott, wrote to the Scottish Government environment director, Kevin Quinlan. Scott said he was “very concerned” about NatureScot’s objection.

“I would therefore be grateful if you could look into this matter and ensure ministers are properly aware of all the factors that pertain to this and in particular the failure of NatureScot to engage,” Scott wrote.

“Should the development fail to secure the necessary permissions there is a risk that the existing farm will cease to operate. Consequently, in the event of this likelihood there are likely to be significant adverse socio-economic impacts to the Barra economy.”

Scott said that Mowi and Salmon Scotland were “disappointed” with NatureScot’s approach. Mowi’s monitoring showed that over the last ten years there had been “no significant effects on the surrounding environment”, he added.

Scott emailed Quinlan again on 11 and 12 October, pressing for a response. “I have been on the end of ‘in due course’ many times”, he complained. On 23 November Scott emailed a third time asking for an update.

On 27 November 2023 Quinlan replied. “Apologies for the ongoing delay in sending you a substantive response on this,” he wrote.

“I am pleased to let you know that NatureScot has recently confirmed the withdrawal of their objection to Sepa’s licence authorisation, based on an agreement that has been reached for an adaptive management approach to the operation of the site.”

He added: “The understanding of my team is that Mowi, NatureScot and Sepa are all content that this situation has therefore been resolved.”

Scottish Greens rural affairs spokesperson, Ariane Burgess MSP, argued that NatureScot should be free to object to salmon farms “without fear or favour”. 

She said: “It is absolutely unacceptable to see that Salmon Scotland’s chief executive, Tavish Scott, put considerable pressure on the Scottish Government in relation to an application from salmon farm multinational, Mowi.”

The campaign group, WildFish, warned that the influence the industry had on independent expert bodies such as NatureScot was “highly worrying”. Coastal communities and councils relied on impartial advice on the environmental damage that salmon farms could inflict.

“These emails make clear that this is emphatically not the case, with serious implications for trust in our democratic processes in Scotland,” said the group’s Scotland director, Rachel Mulrenan.

These emails show the shocking extent to which the salmon farming industry’s paid lobbyists can persuade ministers to override the protection of Scotland’s most precious nature conservation sites.

John Aitchison, Coastal Communities Network

According to the Coastal Communities Network, which brings together 25 local groups concerned about the marine environment, maerl beds can easily be smothered and killed by the huge amount of salmon faeces discharged from cages.

“These emails show the shocking extent to which the salmon farming industry’s paid lobbyists can persuade ministers to override the protection of Scotland’s most precious nature conservation sites,” the network’s John Aitchison told The Ferret.

“It happens behind closed doors, without public scrutiny, in this case with only NatureScot’s change of position as a clue to what has gone on.”

He added: “Scott seems to have persuaded ministers that the economic benefits to a private company and, to a much smaller extent, to Barra, should trump NatureScot’s efforts to protect the maerl, and NatureScot has caved in.

“What hope does Scotland have of tackling the biodiversity emergency if NatureScot simply rolls over when the country’s most highly protected sites are threatened by corporate lobbying?”

Barra salmon farm ‘long and complex case’

NatureScot defended its handling of the objection. “This has been a long and complex case and our priority throughout has been to safeguard the important seabed habitats at this established fish farm site,” said the agency’s head of sustainable coasts and seas, Cathy Tilbrook.

“Based on constructive discussions with Sepa, the local authority and Mowi, we have amended our ‘holding’ objection to a ‘conditioned’ objection. This means that, provided a series of robust conditions are applied to the planning consent and Sepa licence, we consider that the risk to protected maerl habitats has been addressed.”

She added: “This approach is linked to a monitoring and adaptive management plan, and we have highlighted that action may need to be taken to amend production in the future, should any evidence arise to suggest that there is an elevated risk of compromising the site’s conservation objectives.”

The Scottish Government said ministers and officials heard from industry sectors “which stand to be impacted by regulation, as well as those representing community, environmental and many other concerns.”

Salmon Scotland declined to comment directly on NatureScot withdrawing its objection to the Barra salmon cages. Instead, the group’s Tavish Scott reiterated an earlier response.

“We are the trade body for the UK’s biggest food export, representing the employers of 12,500 Scots, and helping to showcase a world-renowned, low carbon, and nutritious Scottish food on the global stage,” he said.

“So of course we regularly engage with government; it is our job. We are grateful for the Scottish Government’s strong support for our sector and continue to press for more streamlined regulation to enable us to meet the growing demand for the UK’s most popular fish.

“With the right support we can generate up to £1 billion a year for the economy, which in turn will create more revenue for vital public services.”

Mowi Scotland said it supported the response provided by Salmon Scotland.

The emails about Barra salmon farm released by Scottish Government

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