Councillors are concerned that foreign fish farming companies are to be granted permanent ownership of sea sites around Shetland under new legislationm, it emerged this week.
The temporary works licences issued historically by the council through its ZCC Act powers are being superseded by planning consents granted under the Town and Country Planning Act. Planning board chairman Frank Robertson confirmed that these sites would be awarded in perpetuity. “It becomes a piece of real estate on the seabed,” he told the Full Council on Wednesday.
Councillor Allan Wishart said he was “very uneasy” about permanent ownership of marine sites and he called for strict conditions to be applied to new licences.
Jim Henry said there were concerns that some big salmon farmers held a number of fish sites which were not used. However, he was informed that licences would lapse after three years if there is no development.
Councillors have become wary of the aquaculture industry recently after learning of problems with companies failing to have adequate navigation warning lights on their cages and lines or having equipment on site which they had no consent for.
During a recent clampdown nearly a quarter of Shetland’s 202 active sites did not comply with their licence requirements. Equipment was later removed from five sites and applications for retrospective planning permission were submitted for another 15 sites.
Councillor Gary Robinson was confident the industry was dealing with the issue. However, councillor Jonathan Wills believed the system of control was “falling to bits”. The sea did not belong to the industry but to the public, he said. He was not interested whether or not the fish farmers would agree to tweak their operations to suit the authorities because as far as he was concerned they should “do what they are told”.
Of particular concern to him is the shooting of seals which might try to get at salmon in the cages, with one incident recently when carcasses washed up around the West Side.
He said Norwegians, who own most Shetland salmon farms, viewed seals as vermin and it was important to ensure that they understood British law, which protects the animals. “These people could go on destroying seals forever!” he said after learning that consents were to become permanent.
He was also “extremely concerned” that a condition could not be applied to a licence to force farmers to have adequate anti-predator nets, which might avoid the need to shoot seals.
He was supported by Rick Nickerson who said Shetland did not need any more negative publicity associated with dead seals. He said that given the millions of pounds of public money invested in the industry over the years there should be tougher grant conditions to include better monitoring of operations.
Head of planning Iain McDiarmid said the council actually had a very pro-active monitoring and enforcement regime for fish farms, which included inspections twice a year, usually from land, whereas in relation to general planning issues on land it only reacted to problems or complaints.
Meetings are to be held soon between the planning board, planning staff and the aquaculture industry to discuss management and control, particularly for disease and anti-predator measures.
Convener Sandy Cluness also asked new chief executive Alistair Buchan to bring a report to the council which will include information on anti-predator requirements and setting out the different roles and responsibilities of bodies that control aquaculture, including Sepa and the local authority.