MSPs have recommended stricter checks on Scotland’s salmon farms after hearing of “extremely high” mortality rates at some sites.
However, members of the Rural Economy Committee rejected a call for an outright moratorium on new farms, saying there was “insufficient evidence” to support banning new developments.
The committee put forward a total of 65 recommendations to clean up the sector, including giving regulators the power to step in and shut sites down if there are “serious fish mortality events”.
Following an in-depth inquiry, the committee highlighted the “economic and social value that the salmon farming industry brings to Scotland” by providing jobs and investment in rural areas.
But they added that the industry “also creates a number of economic, environmental and social challenges for other businesses which rely on the natural environment”.
Regarding concerns about the number of fish that have died in disease outbreaks, the report accepted there is “a level of mortality in all livestock production” – but added that the current level of deaths was “too high in general across the sector”.
MSPs said they were “very concerned” about the “extremely high mortality rates at particular sites” – saying there should be no expansion at these until the problems are tackled.
The report also stated: “There should be a process in place which allows robust intervention by regulators when serious fish mortality events occur. It considers that this should include appropriate mechanisms to allow for the limiting or closing down of production until causes are addressed.”
The MSPs stressed the “highest possible environmental and fish health regulatory standards” should apply to the salmon farming industry in Scotland, but raised concerns that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union could mean that those standards become “misaligned” after Brexit.
This in turn could cause problems for fish farms in Scotland looking to sell to the European market, with the committee saying the Scottish Government should set out how it will work with UK ministers to ensure this issue is addressed.
Committee convener Edward Mountain said: “The salmon farming industry offers significant economic and social value to Scotland, providing jobs and investment in rural areas. There is a desire within the industry to grow.
“However, if this is to happen, it is essential that the serious challenges it faces such as the control of sea lice, lowering fish mortality rates and reducing the sector’s impact on the environment are addressed as a priority.”
He added: “If the reputation of Scottish salmon as a premium product is to be maintained, Scotland’s salmon farmers must demonstrate responsible and sustainable production methods.”
Green MSP John Finnie was among the voices calling for a moratorium on new farms.
He said: “In my view there’s plentiful evidence that a moratorium is justified, to give the industry and regulators time to control environmental pollution, high fish death rates and the impact of farm fish disease on wild fish.”
Julie Hesketh-Laird, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO), said: “We produce the world’s most sought-after farmed salmon and are fully aware that, with that, comes the responsibility to ensure world-class fish welfare and environmental standards.
“To that end, the sector is already voluntarily reporting lice levels and is world-leading in publishing survival data on a farm-by-farm basis and we are leading participants in the Scottish Government’s ten-year Farmed Fish Health Framework which will promote collaboration between industry, regulators and scientists to underpin long-term improvements in fish health and welfare.”