The Scottish salmon farming industry has been accused of taking advantage of the coronavirus emergency to “sidestep” environmental regulation.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has agreed to relax the rules governing monitoring, the weight of salmon in cages and how long they can stay there. This is to help fish farms cope with staff shortages caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The move has been welcomed by the industry, but come under fire from its opponents. They fear the changes will cause more pollution and more damage to marine wildlife.
Sepa has issued a “temporary regulatory position statement” on the fish farming industry covering 24 March to 30 June 2020. It recognises that “during a significant outbreak of Covid-19 the ability of operators to run their operations may be compromised by a lack of available staff”.
Salmon farmers “may be unable to comply” with environmental regulations “for reasons beyond their control”, Sepa’s statement said.
The collection, analysis and reporting of environmental samples may be delayed. This will “not be treated as a non-compliance” provided that Sepa is notified in advance and given a “suitable explanation”.
Harvesting of salmon may also be delayed, meaning that they may remain at sea in cages for longer than permitted. According to Sepa, breaches will be allowed providing an explanation is given in advance.
Salmon cages may also exceed their biomass limits, causing more seabed pollution. But again Sepa will permit the breaches as long as operators take “all practical steps to minimise the scale of exceedance” and give assurances that environmental harm will be minimised.
Salmon farmers allowed to ‘pollute with impunity’
Scottish Salmon Watch accused Sepa of “turning a blind eye” to environmental breaches. “Sepa is permitting salmon farmers to pollute with impunity,” said the group’s Don Staniford.
“Welfare abuse on salmon farms was shameful during 2019 and now Sepa is promoting conditions which serve only to exacerbate disease and mortality problems during 2020.”
The Scottish Salmon Think-Tank accused the salmon farming industry of “low” tactics. “Toxic salmon industry takes advantage of coronavirus to sidestep regulation and expand production,” the group tweeted.
The think-tank’s Lynn Schweisfurth claimed that the industry was being given preferential treatment. “The sole reason for expanding capacity of these farms – and therefore increasing the existing levels of pollution and disease – is simply to maximise the profits of the salmon industry,” she said.
“Every business is suffering at the moment, but it would be surprising if rules for all other sectors suddenly no longer applied. Are there new rules for local fishermen and crofters to allow them to profit from this emergency situation too?”
The Coastal Communities Network, which brings together sixteen groups concerned about fish farming, pointed out that allowing a greater weight of salmon in cages would cause more pollution. The industry’s request for the rules to be relaxed was “unwelcome but understandable,” said the network’s John Aitchison.
“We are concerned that the variations in Sepa’s regulations will be immediately adopted across the board, to save money, rather than only when an actual reduction in staff numbers on fish farms makes them essential. Any such relaxation must be for the shortest possible time.”
Aitchison warned that allowing a greater mass of salmon at sea and shorter fallow periods would boost the numbers of sea lice. They eat farmed fish, and can spread to wild salmon and trout.
He added: “If any good things follow the coronavirus pandemic, they should include the realisation that it is essential for fish farmers to move to using the best available technology, in order to cut pollution and sea lice to zero, while safeguarding coastal jobs.”
Scottish Greens food and farming spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, said: “The public health crisis we find ourselves in cannot lead to wholesale deregulation of food standards and animal welfare, so it’s vital that any emergency measures brought in are reviewed regularly and reversed as soon as possible.”
The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) stressed the importance of looking after the welfare of livestock and ensuring a supply of fresh food to UK supermarkets. The disruptions caused by reduced staff meant that fish may have to be kept in the water for longer with impacts on monitoring, fish health and fallowing, it said.
“We welcome the recognition by regulators that these are exceptional circumstances and are grateful for their pragmatic proposals. The flexibility around these issues will be extremely helpful,” said SSPO’s sustainability director, Anne Anderson, who worked as a senior regulator with Sepa until 2018.
“The sector’s commitment to communicate with Sepa will ensure that both regulator and companies can monitor progress and anticipate changing circumstances in order to take the necessary steps to look after the fish and the environment.”
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency argued that it had to respond to an unprecedented public health emergency. “It’s right that we help Scottish businesses responsibly adapt to this next period,” said the agency’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn.
“With Scottish Government designating 13 critical national infrastructure sectors vital to the functioning of society, we’re working together to help that national focus on food security, the provision of clean water and the maintenance of critical infrastructure and the support services on which we all rely.”
Sepa recognised the importance of Scottish salmon to national food security and the the impact of public health measures on farm employees. “We’ll adopt clear, short-term positions until 30 June which recognise that where businesses or sectors can continue to do so, they should continue to meet their license obligations,” A’Hearn added.
“Where they are unable to fully do so, they should prioritise conditions which directly protect the environment over those of an administrative nature. They should alert and work closely with Sepa and document the choices and actions they take.
“We expect Scottish businesses to adapt responsibly but our message is clear. If you try to do the right thing in this next period, you will find a helpful and supportive agency. If you deliberately do the wrong thing, you’ll get the uncompromising regulator your behaviour deserves.”