SEPA tries to refute that it has a case to answer in salmon farm breaches of Environmental Quality Standards

In an article published last Thursday, 13th June, we made it public that the Salmon & Trout Association Scotland had revealed that sea-bed monitoring under Scottish salmon farms reveals breaches of Environmental Quality Standards at nearly one in five fish farms for residues of sea-lice treatments toxic to lobster, crabs and prawns.

Information obtained under Freedom of Information by the Salmon & Trout Association Scotland (S&TAS) from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) shows that toxic pollution is carrying on unabated despite the requirement to meet set environmental protection standards.

We said – and hold – that SEPA has a case to answer for the light touch regulation it deploys in this context.

SEPA statement

A spokesperson for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) says: ‘We refute these claims as they are based on figures which are inaccurate. Although evidence of sites exceeding our environmental standards is of interest to SEPA, and may lead to further discussion or investigation, the low level of the breaches, and the fact that almost 90% of sites are within our standards, indicates that SEPA is very much in control of the use of Slice.

‘We are concerned that the repeated misinterpretation of raw aquaculture data is painting a more negative picture than actually exists. Supplying the data and then having to correct such inaccuracies is particularly resource-intensive and uses up a significant amount of time which would be better spent resolving genuine issues.’

Information which SEPA says clarifies the data:

As is the risk with reports such as this, the presentation of data is somewhat misleading.
SEPA supplied data from 146 sets of sediment sampling and analysis. Some of these were duplicates from individual sites and, therefore, the data only represents results from 133 sites.

There also appears to be some misunderstanding in the S&TA’s interpretation of our standards. SEPA accepts that an area around a fish farm, known as the footprint, will exhibit some degree of impact from the farm’s operations. SEPA sets a standard for the maximum concentration of ‘Slice’ residues that must be met at the edge of the footprint of the farm – usually 100m from the cages.

This is known as our ‘far field’ standard, or Environmental Quality Standard (EQS), and is designed to protect the environment and other important commercial species such as crabs and lobsters. SEPA also seeks to measure concentrations of residues at the edge of the cages, but this is used for other purposes, such as determining monitoring strategies, as opposed to the protection of the environment. The far field EQS has a good deal of precaution built-in, meaning that environmental effects from minor exceedances are highly improbable.

Of the 133 sites, only 15 (11.3%) showed sediment residues of Slice in excess of our far field standard.
The degree of exceedance is also important before drawing conclusions on the significance of results or potential environmental effects. The analyses are carried out at 10ths of a part per billion. Therefore, there has to be a reasonable margin of error in the results. For this reason, SEPA is unlikely to take substantive action against sites or analyses displaying values slightly above our EQS, whereas significant breaches are more likely to result in action being taken. For example, values of 10x our standards would be considered serious and lead to the site being downgraded in our assessment scheme and could lead to licence variations to reduce impacts. Values of 2-10x our standard would be recognised as likely to be within, or close, to the margin of error in the analysis and would require less significant action.

For the 15 sites showing breaches of standards, the scale of exceedances are as follows:

  • 7 exceeded by less than 2x
  • 8 exceeded by 2 – 5.22x

While the higher values could certainly lead to further scrutiny by SEPA, they are not results that would precipitate immediate, serious action by the Agency.

Salmon & Trout Association Scotland response

This is a statement from Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor to the Salmon & Trout Association Scotland in response to the SEPA claims.

‘The S&TAS recognised that there are duplicate samples for a handful of the farms, but since only one of the farms reported as exceeding EQS or trigger values was a duplicate (Ardgour), the percentage of farms reported as ‘breaching’ in the S&TAS press release should, if we accept SEPA’s arguments,  be higher not lower than stated. But no doubt SEPA would have criticised us for failing to take into account the duplicates if we had not done so.

‘SEPA appears to be suggesting that a breach of the inner field trigger (ie the sea bed sampled at the cages) is not something that needs to concern anyone too much – but, as SEPA has previously acknowledged, this inner field figure is set to protect sediment re-worker fauna, mainly those few species of organic pollution-tolerant worms that consume the organic detritus that accumulates under a fishfarm, without which the sea-bed would be even more grossly polluted by feed and faeces under the cages than it is already under most farms.

‘As to EQSs, all EQSs are set at a precautionary level for a valid scientific reason. Napier University’s Review for the Scottish Executive (2002) Review And Synthesis Of The Environmental Impacts Of Aquaculture stated of emamectin benzoate that “there is relatively little information available on the toxicity of this chemical to marine benthic invertebrates in particular, and little is known about the potential long-term impacts of this chemical on the marine environment.” The EQS was set in 1999.

‘This is why there is a safety margin in the EQS, not so SEPA can use it to justify downplaying breaches of 2x or 3x the EQS. An EQS has a safety margin built in for a reason – usually that the ecotoxicological basis of the EQS itself is not always that certain when the EQS is first set by the scientists – it is not something that should be routinely traded upon, permitting regular exceedances  because it is somehow considered in some way ‘probably alright’ to do so.

‘As to margins of error in the values determined, there may well be margins of error, as with all sample analyses of residues, but SEPA seem happy to use these figures in their own reports (such as the annual Results of Screening Surveys reports, available online from SEPA) and particularly where the figures (presumably with such margins of error in them) are below the EQS, SEPA is content to use them to suggest that everything is satisfactory at a particular site.

‘If the errors in sampling emamectin in sediments are that bad, then SEPA should assume a certain number of the lower values it records or receives, that are  just below the EQS are, in fact, ‘false negatives’ and generally be a little more precautionary in their view of what the data shows.

‘As to the accusation of repeated misinterpretation, S&TAS refutes that completely  and would suggest that perhaps SEPA should itself publish an analysis of the chemical residue data it receives from fish-farmers, and not just its very small audit sampling programme, rather than the S&TAS and the public having to rely on making freedom of information requests.

‘Regulation 4 of the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 places a duty on all Scottish public authorities (SEPA included) in relation to the ‘active dissemination of environmental information’. Specifically, Regulation 4 (1) requires SEPA to “… take reasonable steps to organise and keep up to date the environmental information, relevant to its functions, which it holds and at least the types of information listed in paragraph (2), with a view to the active and systematic dissemination of that information to the public …….”. Paragraph (2) of Regulation 4 gives the types of information referred to in paragraph (1) and includes “(e) data or summaries of data derived from the monitoring of activities that affect or are likely to affect the environment”. That would seem to cover this fish farmer-reported data.’

A useful suggestion

Mr Linley-Adams suggestion ‘…that perhaps SEPA should itself publish an analysis of the chemical residue data it receives from fish-farmers’ is the simple and obvious solution to this dispute.

The publication of this data would make the picture perfectly clear and would authoritatively inform the concerned public of the extent of the sea bed polution from sea lice chemical drenching with Slice.

It is in everyone’s interests that this should be done without delay, not least in the interests of the salmon farms anxious to restore their credibility in a situation  where SEPA insists that there is no pollution worthy of variation of licence to a farm.

Note: The original article on this matter, published on 13th June 2013, is online here.

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2 Responses to SEPA tries to refute that it has a case to answer in salmon farm breaches of Environmental Quality Standards

  1. SEPA is guilty of apparent double standards in their ‘light touch’ regulation of salmon farm pollution, when compared with relatively more rigorous regulation of other Scottish economic sectors. Natural justice and economic literacy would both suggest that SEPA should introduce a level playing field policy on regulation of environmental pollution, because the important responsibilities it has to fulfil can only be hampered by evidence of partiality for the salmon farm sector.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  2. If SEPA is genuinely concerned with respect to what it claims, “repeated misinterpretation of raw aquaculture data”, then perhaps it should provide information that is readily readable by the general public?

    Recent information sent to Marine Concern is difficult at best, missing in places and simply not produced in others. SEPA have themselves to blame, there is already a group campaigning for ‘Simple English’ perhaps we should have another for Readable Environmental Accessible Data (READ)?

    While on this matter of data is an important issue of ‘changing goal posts’. In the past the allowable foot-print (the gunky area of detritus and excreta that exists under fish farms) I understand was 25 metres from the fish farm cages, now a modelling method is used which makes it almost impossible for the lay public/divers to observe.

    So who is covering up what? One thing for sure is that the seabed suffers under fish farms, unless there is sufficient flow to carry it away, but even then it has to ‘go’ somewhere! Chemical treatments are much, much worse!

    The recent finfish application in Loch Etive is a prime example of current issues; one farm, one tenth of the first proposal, in an adjacent location failed its current standards. There appears to be no over-all account taken of accumulation of problems caused by finfish farms. One fish farm representative even stated, “We are using new Dyneema nets (too tough for seals to damage, he stated)… but we still intend to shoot seals”! Do you not see the problem with that mentality?

    There is an easy solution to most environmental issues concerning the environmental impacts of finfish farms and that is closed containment, yet it appears that few officials even what to hear, let alone know about viable alternatives those, which could help wild salmonid, seals, and the entire food-web level that includes sea lice.

    With this massive increase in biomass and additional finfish farms we are in danger of potential industry collapse as has been seen elsewhere in the World when greed and profit surpass common sense and compassion for the environment in which it operates and other industries which rely on that environment, namely tourism and the fishing industry.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

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