Calls for a moratorium on new salmon farms in Scotland’s waters have been rejected by MSPs.
Members of Holyrood’s Rural Economy Committee said there was “insufficient evidence” to support banning new developments – but also stressed the need to “raise the bar” in regulating fish farms.
They also recommended regulators to have the power to step in and shut sites down if there are “serious fish mortality events”.
That was one of 65 recommendations for reform of the salmon farming industry in a report by MSPs on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee after an in-depth inquiry into the sector.
The committee highlighted the “economic and social value that the salmon farming industry brings to Scotland” by providing jobs and investment in rural areas.
But they added that the industry “also creates a number of economic, environmental and social challenges for other businesses which rely on the natural environment”.
Regarding concerns about the number of fish that have died in disease outbreaks, the report accepted there is “a level of mortality in in all livestock production” – but added that the current level of deaths was “too high in general across the sector”.
MSPs said they were “very concerned” about the “extremely high mortality rates at particular sites” – saying there should be no expansion at these until the problems are tackled.
The report also stated: “There should be a process in place which allows robust intervention by regulators when serious fish mortality events occur. It considers that this should include appropriate mechanisms to allow for the limiting or closing down of production until causes are addressed.”
The MSPs stressed the “highest possible environmental and fish health regulatory standards” should apply to the salmon farming industry in Scotland, but raised concerns that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union could mean that those standards become “misaligned” after Brexit.
This in turn could cause problems for fish farms in Scotland looking to sell to the European market, with the committee saying the Scottish Government should set out how it will work with UK ministers to ensure this issue is addressed.
Overall, the committee found that “maintaining the status quo in terms of the regulatory regime in Scotland is not an option”, as it called for “a comprehensively updated package of regulation should be developed by Marine Scotland and other regulatory bodies, both to ensure the sector will be managed effectively and to provide a strong foundation on which it can grow in a sustainable manner”.
Committee convener Edward Mountain said: “The salmon farming industry offers significant economic and social value to Scotland, providing jobs and investment in rural areas. There is a desire within the industry to grow.
“However, if this is to happen, it is essential that the serious challenges it faces such as the control of sea lice, lowering fish mortality rates and reducing the sector’s impact on the environment are addressed as a priority.”
He added: “If the reputation of Scottish salmon as a premium product is to be maintained, Scotland’s salmon farmers must demonstrate responsible and sustainable production methods.”
Labour’s Colin Smyth said the report should be “an urgent wake-up call to both the Scottish Government and industry”.
Mr Smyth stated: “The current soft touch approach to regulation is not fit for purpose and has failed to keep up with the growth in the industry.
“There is no hiding from the fact that the response to fish health issues such as sea lice and high mortality rates has not been good enough and unless urgent action is taken, the industry could well be irreparably damaged.”
Meanwhile, Green MSP John Finnie said: “In my view there’s plentiful evidence that a moratorium is justified, to give the industry and regulators time to control environmental pollution, high fish death rates and the impact of farm fish disease on wild fish.”
Julie Hesketh-Laird, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO), said: “The Scottish salmon farming sector is at a critical phase of its development and the committee’s recommendation that regulation should be improved to keep pace with potential growth is encouraging.”
She added: “We produce the world’s most sought-after farmed salmon and are fully aware that, with that, comes the responsibility to ensure world-class fish welfare and environmental standards.
“To that end, the sector is already voluntarily reporting lice levels and is world-leading in publishing survival data on a farm-by-farm basis and we are leading participants in the Scottish Government’s 10-year Farmed Fish Health Framework which will promote collaboration between industry, regulators and scientists to underpin long-term improvements in fish health and welfare.”
Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said that a number of the issues identified in the committee’s report were already being addressed through the Fish Health Framework working groups and the new wild and farmed salmon interactions working group.
“Aquaculture must be delivered and developed sustainably, with appropriate regulatory frameworks that minimise and address environmental impacts,” Mr Ewing stated.
But he added salmon farming was “hugely important to Scotland’s economy, particularly in remote and rural communities” and said it was “disappointing that the committee has not fully explored nor analysed that economic and social contribution and benefit more fully”.