Watchdog tightening rules on fish farms to protect wild salmon

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Protecting Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon is a ‘national priority’, says Scotland’s environmental watchdog SEPA, launching a consultation on wild salmon protection zones and a sea lice exposure threshold.

‘Scotland is renowned worldwide for the quality of its rivers, lochs and seas,’ explained Terry A’Hearn, chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). ‘Despite this, in nearly 60 per cent of salmon rivers across Scotland, including on the West Coast and Western Isles, salmon populations are in poor conservation status.

‘Whilst the causes of the poor conservation status of wild salmon stocks are complex and believed to be due to a range of different factors rather than a single cause, we know that sea lice from marine finfish farms can be a significant hazard.

‘The protection of Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon is a national priority which is why, following the Scottish Government confirming SEPA as the lead body responsible for managing the risk to wild salmonids from sea lice from marine finfish farms, we’re today launching a consultation on ambitious proposals for proposed wild salmon protection zones and a sea lice exposure threshold that applies in these zones.

‘Over the coming months we look forward to meeting and hearing views from a broad range of stakeholders with an interest in wild salmon, from community and environmental groups to the aquaculture sector itself before taking a final view in 2022.’

SEPA said the Scottish Government has identified 12 high-level pressures on the status of salmon stocks: ‘These include different pressures on river habitats, such as loss of trees/shade, man-made barriers to fish migration and impacts on river levels resulting from climate change; exploitation (recreational fishing & commercial sea fisheries); predation; sea lice and disease; escapes; and invasive non-native species (including signal crayfish in Scotland).

‘Sea lice from marine finfish farms remains a potentially significant pressure with scientific evidence being clear that sea lice from open-net pen finfish farms in Scotland can pose a significant risk to wild salmon populations.’

The consultation, which is open until March 14, 2022, focuses on a proposed framework to protect wild salmon populations against harmful increases in sea lice concentrations. SEPA will do this by assessing the risk to wild salmon when determining applications for proposed new farms, and for proposed increases in the number of fish farmed at existing farms.

Permits for all existing farms that can contribute to infective-stage sea lice in wild salmon protection zones would be changed to include conditions that control the number of juvenile sea lice emanating from the farms, and require sufficient information to calculate the number of juvenile lice hatching on the farms.

SEPA says it has worked with Marine Scotland, NatureScot and local planning authorities to develop a means of assessing the risk to wild Atlantic salmon posed by marine finfish farm developments. The proposals also follow input from stakeholder groups on the Salmon Interactions Working Group (finfish producers, fishery management organisations and environmental NGOs).