Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Salmon fish farm net pens on the Isle of Skye, Scotland
Fish farms, such as this one in Loch Harport near the Isle of Skye, Scotland, are an integral part of the country’s rural economy. Photo by Reimar/Alamy Stock Photo

Rules Are Tightening on Scottish Salmon Aquaculture

After years of regulating with a light touch, Scottish parliamentarians move toward more government oversight of fish farms.

Authored by

by Eileen Guo

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John Aitchison never intended to be an environmental activist, but a few weeks before Christmas 2016, the documentary filmmaker was thrust into campaigning. At a local council meeting in Argyll, a western region of the Scottish Highlands, he and other community members were surprised to hear of plans for a fish farm in the ecologically fragile Sound of Jura.

With only 28 days to respond, Aitchison and other community members mobilized, starting a petition against the farm and calling for additional environmental impact studies to follow those that had demonstrated the salmon farm was detrimental to local marine life. A year later, the company, Kames Fish Farming, withdrew its application at the recommendation of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. But for Aitchison, the victory felt tenuous: “They’ll apply again,” he says, “there’s too much money in salmon farming.”

Last week, however, his efforts gained some more validation. On Tuesday, Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee (RECC) published a long-awaited report on salmon farming that laid out 65 recommendations aimed at improving the industry. The report acknowledges that the previous “light touch regulation and enforcement” had not kept up with the industry’s rapid growth, and many of its recommendations focused on increasing government oversight.

These new recommendations include mandatory reporting on disease outbreaks, fish mortalities, and sea lice numbers; relocating poorly sited farms; siting new farms far from wild salmon migratory routes; and preventing farms with high mortality rates from expanding. The report also recommends that the sector prioritize the exploration of offshore farm sites in deeper waters, which would not only decrease the farms’ impacts on seabeds, wild fish, and fish health, but could also make the industry more resilient to rising water temperatures due to climate change.

Many of these measures are in line with what environmental campaigners and community groups have been calling for—though some believe that the recommendations don’t go far enough. Aitchison, RECC members Colin Smyth and John Finnie, and others are calling for a full moratorium on the industry. Finnie told BBC Scotland, “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.” 

Farmed Atlantic salmon were introduced to Scotland in the 1960s, and the product is now the country’s largest food export. Salmon producers say the industry has been an economic boon, supporting 7,000 jobs and contributing US $2.3-billion to the Scottish economy. The industry has ambitious growth targets, aiming to more than double production by 2030 to as much as 400,000 tonnes.

Thus far, the sector has grown without being heavily regulated, which may change if the Scottish government adopts the RECC’s recommendations—a move that is sure to receive pushback. Julie Hesketh-Laird, the chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO), says via email that SSPO “welcome[s] involvement in regulatory discussions to … help ensure future regulation inspires confidence in all those with an interest in salmon farming.”

Meanwhile, Fergus Ewing, the cabinet secretary for the RECC and an advocate of salmon farming, said in a statement that the sustainability issues that the report brought up were already being addressed by various working groups. He also expressed his disappointment “that the committee has not fully explored nor analyzed [salmon farming’s] economic and social contribution and benefit more fully.”

Any regulatory actions will be most strongly felt domestically, but they also have global implications. The challenges that the Scottish farmed salmon industry faces, including sea lice infestations, disease outbreaks, fish escapes, and fish waste also affect the industry globally, says Alexandra Morton, a British Columbia-based researcher and vocal critic of salmon farms.

“A lot of my effort has been to point out what is happening in Norway, Scotland, and in other countries” to officials in British Columbia, she says.

Edward Mountain, the member of Scottish Parliament that convened the RECC, acknowledges that the regulations could have an effect outside of Scotland, though his focus is on the global reputation of Scottish salmon as a premium product. In a press release introducing the report, he said, “The status quo in terms of regulation and enforcement is not acceptable, and … we need to raise the bar in Scotland by setting enhanced and more effective standards.”

Meanwhile, back in the Highlands, Aitchison points out that the timeframe to adopt the enhanced regulations could be slow—which also means more time for the salmon farms to continue with business as usual.

In the Sound of Jura, Kames Fish Farming has applied to open a new site on the north of the sound. Concerned about the environmental impacts and that it won’t create local jobs, some residents of the Isle of Jura are organizing against it. And if Aitchison’s two-year fight is any indication, they have a long journey ahead.