Call to ban fish farm use of formaldehyde

Loch Lochy near Fort William

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Pressure is growing on the Scottish Government to step in and halt the use of formaldehyde on fresh water lochs across the West Highlands.

Campaigners for Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots (ISSF) have called for a total ban on the chemical at fish farms until a ‘proper’ public consultation on its use has taken place and they have tabled an online petition in support, bearing nearly 10,000 signatures.

It follows a Freedom of Information request earlier this year to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). It revealed more than 22 tonnes of formaldehyde had been poured into cages at 12 fish farms across Scotland between April and December 2019.

Fish farming companies are officially sanctioned by SEPA to apply the chemical to water as it is used to treat farmed salmon and control fungus, parasites, and disease.

The practice is legally permitted at a number of lochs, including Loch Tralaig near Melfort; Loch Shiel, Glenfinnan; Loch Lochy and Loch Arkaig, both Spean Bridge.

Campaigners have raised concerns about the impact on human health and wildlife, and ‘accidental overdoses’ – where more of the chemical enters the water than allowed.

The ISSF has now raised the issue with Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, and Gillian Martin, convenor for Holyrood’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee.

The ISSF opposes the use of formaldehyde, calling it a ‘cancer causing’ chemical used for embalming. Ministers have yet to formally respond to ISSF’s letter or the public petition.

However, the Scottish Government said in a statement to The Oban Times: ‘The use of formaldehyde is strictly regulated by the independent Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), and it can be safely used in fish farming.

‘Formaldehyde use in fish farming, as regulated, does not pose a risk to food safety.’

ISSF has encouraged people to lobby their local MSP, MP and local councillors.

It has also called on people to canvas support from their local fishery board, wild swimming clubs, conservation groups, local schools, community groups, angling clubs and bird watching groups.

Corin Smith, founder of ISSF, based in Perthshire, said it recognised formaldehyde had been used in farming for many years and that it broke down ‘relatively rapidly’ in water.

The concern is the quantities being used and accidental overdoses and their impacts.

Mr Smith said the effects of its use in a freshwater ecosystem in the quantities reported are not well researched or understood.

‘Many people would expect a more precautionary approach to have been taken and far greater consultation, given the potential for widespread use in a number of lochs and river catchments throughout north and west Scotland,’ he said.

‘Having reviewed existing literature it is not clear or well understood to what extent formaldehyde on freshwater fish farms will directly impact wild fish, of any species, at the alevin, fry or parr stages, or indeed aquatic invertebrates and other foundation organisms that are in proximity to freshwater fish farms. The extent to which its effects may cascade through an entire ecosystem, diminishing biodiversity, is therefore not well understood and the risks are unquantified.’

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) – which calls itself the ‘voice of Scottish farmed salmon’ – declined to comment on the specific claims made by ISSF.

However, it said its position on the use of formaldehyde is that it is a an ‘active ingredient’ in dilute form in a licensed medicine called formalin.

It said formalin is ‘fully approved for use by SEPA’ and is a medicine used in freshwater farms to ‘protect young salmon from water-borne challenges’.

‘Formaldehyde itself is a naturally occurring compound that swiftly breaks down in water and is therefore safe to use for both fish and the environment. Fish farmers are fully trained in the correct usage of any medicinal treatment used to protect fish health and welfare,’ said the SSPO.