saveseilsound campaigners respond to evidence given to Holyrood Committee

The saveseilsound Campaign Group is responding here to evidence taken by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment [RACCE] Committee on 5th and 12th December 2012.

The full records of these proceedings can be found online here.

The response is substantive, detailed, well evidenced and thought provoking on the vexed issue of industrial fish farming and its regulation. We commend its full reading.

saveseilsound campaign’s response to the committee

In some ways the issues arising at Seil Sound, Loch Shuna and Loch Melfort area could be a case study for what is going on elsewhere. You will find a progress report on where we are now, here on our website.

We start with the general comment that any system of regulation, be it aimed at doctors, lawyers, the police or industry, must aim at bringing the weakest performers up to scratch.

In taking evidence from Steve Bracken you are listening to a respected industry professional of vast experience, explaining what is happening inside an acknowledged market leader with what appears to be a genuine wish to remain in Scotland in the longer term and a pride in proper management and training structures.

Regrettably, for the sake of the environment, not all operators achieve the same standards.

For this reason you should be very sceptical about the value of assurances from industry representatives that voluntary disclosures are preferable to legislation in relation to matters such as sea-lice infestation.

Questions for the Industry

You could usefully ask Steve Bracken the following:-

  • To describe his company’s training structure and management systems and how they compare with other companies.
  • To describe his company’s policy for scoping new sites, in particular whether or not they are scoping inshore sites and semi-enclosed sea-lochs and voes, or do they prefer open sea locations with good tidal flushing?
  • To describe how much damage if any his company’s installations sustained in the storms that affected the Scottish West coast in May and December 2011.
  • To inform you about what inquiry if any the industry held internally following the loss of a complete farm, containing 300,000 salmon from Shetland in December 2011.

Double nets were only briefly discussed on December 5th.  The assertion by Steve Bracken that double nets do not work seems to have been accepted without any question as to whether the large mesh nets which did not fully surround the cage which Marine Harvest had tried were an appropriate design. The fitting of properly designed double nets would ensure compliance with laws to protect porpoise from harassment by seal scarers and  with  duties under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 that seals should only be shot “as a last resort”. Such nets would make  the use of seal scarers and the shooting of seals  unnecessary; the problem of escapes would also be reduced and the farms could market “seal friendly salmon”.

It is clearly possible to design effective double net systems as they are already used at  Marine Harvest farms in Canada to comply with American legislation which prohibits the selling of fish from farms which kill marine mammals. Will the Committee commission an independent engineer to look into designs for double nets which keep salmon and seals separated, without risk of entangling wildlife or reduction to water flow?

The use of seal scarers when there is an alternative appears to breach legislation, namely both the Habitats Directive and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act where it is an offence to “disturb deliberately or recklessly or to harass any cetaceans”.  Will the committee seek and publish legal advice on this subject?

Some of the statements made to you by Professor Thomas should not be accepted without further questioning and clarification.

Firstly he told you that salmon cultivation was about creating protein to feed
people. This is contrary to the figures put out by the industry he represents, which
claims a conversion ratio of 1.5:1. Other estimates range between 3:1 and 10:1. The
RACCE committee should be absolutely clear that finfish farming is not about solving the World’s food problems.

Secondly he claimed:

“The perception that the fish health inspectorate cannot take action in relation to wild fish is wrong.”
The latter statement is contrary to what saveseilsound and various other environmental bodies believe to be the case, as can be seen from the written comments submitted. For example it is known that SEPA do not regard sea-lice as pollution.

In a letter dated 28 August to Mike Russell MSP the Director of Planning for Argyll & Bute Council Angus Gilmour wrote:
“…. there is one area of complication associated with SEPA’s role and that relates to the ability to treat sea lice in a manner sufficient to safeguard the interactions between farmed and wild salmonids. Whilst Marine Scotland are concerned with the health and welfare of farmed fish and will require sea lice treatment to secure their interests, and SEPA consent both biomass and the administration of treatments in the interests of pollution control, it is for planning authorities to have regard to the interests of wild fish as part of the planning process.”

We believe that this places a quite unacceptable burden on local authorities such as Argyll & Bute, who have limited resources and no dedicated scientific staff in-house, whereas a simple legislative provision passing responsibility to either Marine Scotland or SEPA would provide the necessary environmental protection.

We believe that only in the case of notifiable diseases do Marine Scotland have to take action.    We think that they may do a small amount of monitoring for disease in wild salmonid fish. They should be asked to confirm this and how much time and money is spent. Various diseases that have been prevalent in farmed fish have been looked for in the wild. Do they do this on behalf of farmed fish interests only?

The RACCE Committee must not accept that this matter is already adequately covered by some legislation provision without clarification.

Thirdly while Professor Thomas was correct in stating that sea-lice did not originally come from the fish farms and that they have always been present in the marine environment this is not the issue. The problems come from keeping large populations of fish (typically 600,000 in a farm consented to 2,500 tonnes biomass),  thereby providing a massive breeding ground from which plumes of larvae will inevitably be released to infect passing wild salmon and sea-trout.

Strangely he also seemed to suggest that mature sea-lice can transfer from fish to fish, resulting in “strikes” of sea lice on cage fish by spring salmon. We suggest that this is fundamentally unsound. You should ask him to produce scientific evidence to back up his assertion, or to withdraw it.

In case members of the Committee are new to the science concerning sea-lice we commend the website of the Community of Arran Seabed Trust as a respected source of scientific information and in particular the paper by Dr Sally Campbell on sea-lice, which can be accessed online here.

Regarding the current non-availability of infestation data Ms Beamish was absolutely correct to emphasise that there is a legitimate public interest here. And why should companies that manage to keep infestations down through best practice get tarnished by those who fail to do so?

The Committee should be pressing for measures requiring the accurate recording of data in real time to be included in primary legislation.

Questions for SEPA

Douglas Sinclair should be asked why SEPA does not adhere to its own published policies for the siting of fin fish farms and relative environmental assessments. The policies to which we refer were summarized by SARF thus:

  • SEPA considers that there is an inherently higher environmental risk associated with fish farming development within narrow, semi enclosed sea lochs and voes, which have relatively poor dispersion characteristics. Many farms in such areas have reached, or are close to reaching, their maximum sustainable size and their scope for further expansion is very limited.
  • Accordingly, SEPA will favour the establishment, or expansion, of fish farm sites in more dispersive open-water and off-shore areas rather than those sites in enclosed areas.

The increasing size of fish farm units justifies, and can support, more sophisticated pre-development environmental assessment, pollution control strategies and monitoring.

At Seil Sound SEPA have agreed to an increase in permitted biomass of almost 100% in direct contradiction to all three of the above. Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse saw no need to call in the application, so a licence has been granted.

Douglas Sinclair did not disclose the number of cases where biomass had been reduced and was not pressed to do so. The answer is contained in the Salmon and Trout Association’s written evidence  that although 65% of reports in the two years to 2011 were unsatisfactory or borderline only in 8 cases was a reduction ordered, involving a reduction of just over 2000 tonnes across the entire industry.

No licences were revoked in the same period.

Further, saveseilsound asked the Crown Office Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit (WECU) to disclose the number of cases referred to it by SEPA in the period since its inception on 15 August 2011 to 31 October 2012. We now have the reply confirming that no cases were referred in relation to operators of fin fish farms in respect of their water-based or land-based facilities. In the same period two cases were referred in relation to operators of other water-based activities and 44 cases in respect of land-based activities.

As the period saw a number of major incidents including the loss of a complete farm containing about 300,000 fish this all suggests that SEPA regulates the industry with an extremely light touch.

Douglas Sinclair should be asked what investigations if any were done by SEPA after the loss of the Lakeland farm in Shetland a year ago and what the outcome was. In particular – What caused the farm to break free? Why did Lakeland not notice it had gone for several days? What action did SEPA take to ascertain/minimise the damage caused to the marine environment? What lessons have been learned?

Why did SEPA not refer the loss to the WECU?

Turning to our local waters as a case study, SEPA is currently in receipt of an application by Meridian (Lakeland) to permit the doubling of the permitted biomass at Pol na Gile, Loch Shuna from 750 tonnes to 1500 tonnes. Again the site is within a “narrow, semi enclosed sea loch”.

The existing salmon farm at Pol na Gile  was “Borderline” on its seabed self-monitoring results for the years 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2007, and “Unsatisfactory” for 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009. The self-monitoring survey carried out by Fish Vet Group on 22/04/2010 was “Satisfactory” however the Fish Farm Audit Survey carried out two weeks later on 06/05/2010 by SEPA found the site to be “Unsatisfactory” both for biology and chemistry.

Given that the seabed condition was “Unsatisfactory” or “Borderline” from 2001 until its most recent survey in 2010 (assuming that SEPA’s audit, rather than the self-monitoring, was correct in 2010), did SEPA  require any reductions in biomass at the farm during that period? If they did not what was the reason for this?

Meridian have produced computer modelling predicting that the increase will not result in an “unsatisfactory” seabed, however, the site has consistently proved that it is incapable of assimilating the waste from 750 tonnes. The same computer model  failed to correctly predict the deposition of pollution at Ardmaddy and the many other sites detailed in the S&TA report. Douglas Sinclair should be asked to confirm the policy adopted with regard to SEPA requiring an actual survey of seabed and tidal conditions rather than relying on computer modelling done by the applicant, with a note of the number of cases where this has happened.

Annex 1 of the SARF/Site Optimisation for Aquaculture Operations WP1 quotes a recommended separation distance between fin fish farms of 8 kilometres. Douglas Sinclair should be asked to confirm the policy whereby SEPA disregards the recommendation. For example if smaller farms can be closer together what is the maximum size of a small farm? (Pol na Gile is less than 2 kilometres from its nearest neighbour.)

Since 2005 the Allowable Zone of Effects (the area a farm is allowed to pollute) has been allowed to increase. The AZE boundary is now based on an Infaunal Trophic Index of 30 which means that the seabed within the AZE boundary is expected to be “degraded” but even outside the AZE the seabed will be “changed” by pollution and not, as one might expect, unaffected. As a result there is no indication of how far from a farm seabeds are expected to be unaffected by both organic and chemical pollution from that farm. Why have SEPA relaxed the environmental controls which apply to salmon farms?

Douglas Sinclair was correct to highlight  the problem that a farm can be consented for a higher biomass on seabed modelling than it would be consented for if the biomass was based on sea-lice chemical modelling. This problem became apparent in August 2009 at Ardmaddy when SEPA  had to allow a four-fold increase in the consented amount of Slice to try to control an infestation. The use of chemicals which are supposed to be restricted by EU legislation is expected to increase as sea-lice develop resistance. Will the committee consider recommending that  the biomass consented  to a farm is based on whichever model – organic pollution or sealice chemicals – gives the lower biomass?

Beggiatoa mats, the type of bacterial mat commonly occurring under fish farms, are an indicator species of highly polluted environments and flourish in conditions of low oxygen and high sulphur. SEPA have previously sought to minimise bacterial mats even under the cages.

However Douglas Sinclair is now on record (Sunday Times article by Jason Allardice on 9 December 2012) saying that the “formation of any [bacterial] mat can be best viewed as part of a post-impact recovery process”. He should be asked to supply the scientific basis for his statement. Does SEPA now intend to tolerate higher levels of bacterial mats around fin-fish farms?

East versus West

Finally turning to the evidence taken on 12 December we comment only on the East coast versus West coast issue. The reasons for the catastrophic collapse in wild salmonid populations along the Western aquaculture coast have long been the subject of contention between the industry and those who care for the environment.

It is a pity that the witnesses and the RACCE committee appeared to skate over the issue, which seems to us fundamental to the debate. We hope that you will return to it in more detail later. We commend an article by Roger Brook on the subject, which can be accessed online here.

Again an interesting case study can be found at Ardmaddy, which was a pilot relocation study sponsored by the Scottish Government, involving shifting 500 tonnes of production away from near the mouth of the River Ruel in Loch Riddon, where it had done enormous damage to stocks of wild salmon and salmonid fish. Seven years after the removal it seems that the latter are returning to the area, suggesting a clear link between the activities of fish farmers and the decline of populations of native fish.

We suggest that the effects of sea-lice on wild fish populations are close to having been proven beyond reasonable scientific doubt. Attempts by industry apologists to blame the admitted collapse on other factors should be subjected to the most critical analysis.

Ewan Kennedy for saveseilsound

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