The Shetland salmon industry hit back angrily today at accusations that farm sites in the isles contain high levels of sea lice.
Industry bodies and individual producers were quick to dispute claims made in a report by angling organisation the Salmon and Trout Association (S&TA).
It reveals the results, obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, of inspection visits to Scottish salmon farms by government inspectors between 2009 and 2010.
Most of the salmon farms in the report are in Shetland and according to the STA 31 had average female sea lice numbers per fish above those recommended by the Code of Good Practice for Scottish Finfish Aquaculture. These include nine farms belonging to Hjaltland Seafarms and several belonging to Scottish Seafarms.
Some 40 farm sites were said to have been affected by other sea lice issues, 13 were guilty of irregularities in recording sea lice and eight were having difficulties with resistance to or lack of efficacy of sea lice treatments.
The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) said that although sea lice had been a well-reported challenge to the industry in Shetland during 2009, the picture had improved greatly by 2010 with a much lower incidence and fewer treatments required.
SSPO chief executive Scott Landsburgh said the industry was working with the government to improve sustainability.
Mr Landsburgh said: “Yet again, this single issue pressure group has failed to understand the figures, which demonstrate an extremely high level of compliance. Salmon farming works within strict guidelines applied by regulators and the law. The industry has ambitions for sustainable growth and plans are being constructed in consultation with regulators and the Scottish government.”
Hjaltland Seafarms Ltd managing director Michael Stark said that although the company had had sea lice problems in the past there were none now. Mr Stark said: “We have absolutely no sea-lice issues.” He attributed this to the move to a “single year-class operation”, in which all the fish in neighbouring sites are at the same stage.
Although the company had used “licensed therapeutics” in the past, the new system has “greatly reduced the requirement for treatment”.
Mr Stark said: “We are really happy. Some sites don’t even need treatment. We have chosen as a company to be absolutely pro-active, it’s the way [fish] farming should be in the future.”
No-one was available at Orkney-based Mainstream Scotland Ltd as the person dealing with sea lice was on holiday. The company had four sites where sea lice were above industry recommended levels.
Three Unst sites operated by Lakeland Unst Seawater were said to by the report to have high sea lice levels.
Production manager Colin Blair said: “There have never been any issues with sea lice at Lakeland Unst and [there has] never been any treatment required or carried out. We have to do lice counts every week as part of the industry code of good practice.”
Representatives from Hoganess Salmon, which had two sites, Westside Salmon and Uyeasound Salmon Co, both with one site on the list of farms exceeding the sea lice threshold, could not be contacted.
S&TA, formed in 1903, is a UK-wide umbrella body which represents anglers, fisheries people and those interested in the management and conservation of the aquatic environment.
Its report identifies “issues of concern” within the industry and criticises the state of record keeping in the Scottish salmon industry.
Currently, fish farm inspectors’ written records do not take into account week to week fluctuations and instead take data from the last inspection date, meaning it is impossible to know the full impact of levels of sea-lice for any given farm, it claims.
The report states that this system creates “a serious lacuna in Scottish law” and cites the Norwegian system, where any member of the public can access on-farm sea lice data as an example of good practice.
It points out the low frequency of farm visits and questions the fact there are no unannounced or spot-check inspections which “might normally by expected in such regulatory regimes” and suggests that with farms being given up to, in some cases, 10 days, “a degree of preparation … is likely to occur”.
Further, it criticises government agency Marine Scotland for reversing the decision to publish results of reports from detailed salmon farm audits, citing “pressure from the aquaculture industry” as the cause.
S&TA chief executive Paul Knight said: “This dossier lays bare the reality of what is happening on Scotland’s marine fish farms. The breaches of the industry’s own Code of Good Practice, in which the Scottish government places so much faith, are so widespread as to call into question the code’s basic credibility.
“There are no unannounced inspections. They are all by prior arrangement – with up to 10 days’ notice given. This gives ample time for the farm operators to carry out as much remedial action as possible.
“These are the Scottish government’s own inspections. They indicate a disregard for the environment, yet no enforcement action has been taken by the government against the companies concerned. The dossier is very strong evidence of the desperate need for strict regulations that are properly enforced.”
Compiler of the report and solicitor to S&TA’s Aquaculture Campaign, Guy Linley-Adams, said: “The information contained within the inspectors’ reports gives the lie to the bland re-assurances we are given by the salmon farming industry and indeed Scottish government that the industry is properly regulated.
“The devil is in the detail – now we have seen at least some of that detail and it is not pretty, revealing the true extent of the threat to wild fish conservation from sea lice emanating from Scottish salmon farms.”
The association is now calling for the Scottish government to amend legislation create greater transparency and more accountability in the fish farming industry.
Mr Knight said: “The right of the Scottish people to see detailed information about sea lice numbers on any fish farm, bringing Scotland into line with Norway, can be secured through a very simple amendment to secondary legislation. We would urge the next Scottish government to do just that.
“Further, there is no co-ordinated farm-specific statutory recording of a lack of efficacy of, tolerance to, or resistance to sea-lice treatments in Scotland, unlike in Norway where it is a legal requirement to report such events to state authorities. This also requires an appropriate amendment to bring Scottish law into line with Norway.”