‘Penalties needed for fish farm escapes’, ghillies tell Holyrood review

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Mass escapes from fish farms should be the subject of regulation ‘due to the known negative impacts genetic introgression has on declining wild salmon’, says the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s fishing arm.

It’s one of the proposals river workers have put forward to the Scottish Government’s review of aquaculture legislation, being carried out by Professor Russel Griggs OBE.

‘Over a quarter of a million farmed fish have reported to have escaped from aquaculture operations in Scottish waters over the past five years, with numbers likely to be under-recorded,’ said the Scottish Gamekeeper Association (SGA) Fishing Group.

‘Given the negative impact that interbreeding between farmed and wild stock can have on the future survival of wild fish, appropriate penalties now need to be applied.

‘If the Scottish Government is not willing to introduce measures to improve security, triploid fish should be bred on fish farms to prevent genetic introgression in the event of escape.’

Triploid fish are often used in river stocking programmes, with an extra set of chromosomes ruling out sexual reproduction.

The Scottish Government has acknowledged genetic introgression to be one of the high level threats facing wild salmon survival, the group says.

At the COP26 event in Glasgow in November, a giant ‘salmon school’ sculpture of over 500 fish forms will greet delegates, highlighting their key role in ecosystems.

A spokesman for The SGA Fishing Group said: ‘There have been incidents where things like stormy weather has led to mass escapes. Storms happen in the sea, so this is not something which is entirely unforeseen. In those circumstances, there should be penalties or fines for farms, so that every care is taken in future to secure their site.
‘The impacts on wild fish from escapes are serious.

‘Obviously, in incidents where seals have breached nets, for example, and Scottish Government regulation prevents the management of seals, then a sliding scale of penalties would account for that type of occurrence appropriately.

‘However, regulation is needed or a solution must be found, such as using triploid fish, to prevent the damage to wild fish which are under considerable threat already from things like predation and a changing climate.’

In Norway, fish farms are fined heavily for escapes and the Norwegian aquaculture industry has a ‘zero escape’ vision. In the past decade over two million fish have escaped from farms in Norway.

The SGA Fishing Group, which ultimately wants fish farms to be sited on land in closed loop systems, also believes salmon farms must meet sea lice tests if they are to increase stock.

‘In Norway,’ the group added, ‘a traffic light system was introduced in 2017 whereby regulators could allow higher or reduced stocking densities, based on the impact sea lice from farms were having on wild fish.

‘High sea lice burdens can stress or kill wild salmon, and there is a strong correlation between proximity to open cage salmon farms and sea lice burdens on wild salmon.

‘In Norway, the pressure being exerted on wild salmon from sea lice is the key determinant upon which a farm can grow its output. That seems a sensible step. It would also reward farms who can prove consistently that they have sea lice infestations at recommended safe levels.’

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: ‘Escaped fish are in no one’s interest and their prevention is important for farmed fish welfare and to protect our iconic wild salmon.

‘We recently published an Aquaculture Code of Practice for containment and responded to the Salmon Interactions Working Group Report by committing to strengthen controls on sea lice and escapes, including plans to introduce penalties for fish farm escapes.

‘This follows the launch of an independent review of how fish farms are regulated in a move to make Scottish aquaculture legislation one of the most effective and transparent in the world. The review will report back in due course.’