Salmon protection zones to include sea trout

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New measures to protect wild salmon in Scotland will be extended to include sea trout, according to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), which has today outlined a revised plan and published details of responses to the initial proposals.

The new plan will allow for the imposition of tighter restrictions on existing fish farms, if the evidence suggests that is necessary to reduce the threat of sea lice proliferating in and around farms.

The outline for a risk-based spatial framework to manage interactions between wild salmon and marine finfish farms was published in December last year. Its key element was a plan for designated zones where sea lice are deemed to present the greatest risk to juvenile salmonids.

In these “wild salmon protection zones” (WSPZs) any proposals for new fish farms, or expansion of existing farms, would need to show that they would not breach acceptable thresholds for sea lice numbers. While sea lice are endemic in the wild salmon population, the large numbers of fish at farm sites can lead to heavy lice concentrations at and around the farms. The proposed WSPZs were drawn up jointly by SEPA and Marine Scotland.

The revised proposals, announced today, include extending the protection framework to ensure that it also takes account of migratory routes for young trout heading out to sea. Previously the plan had been to incorporate sea trout routes only once more information had been gathered.

Other changes to the original consultation include extending the time period over which protection is provided, alterations to wild salmon protection zones and a commitment from SEPA to carry out an assessment of the social and economic implications of the framework.

Risk assessment

SEPA said today: “All proposals for new marine finfish farms or increases in fish numbers at existing finfish farms will be subject to an assessment of the risk posed to wild salmonids. Where we identify a risk, SEPA will protect wild salmonids by set permit conditions to limit sea lice losses from the farm.   We will also take action to reduce the loss of sea lice from existing farms where we identify that losses contribute to the harm caused to salmon and sea trout.”

SEPA has committed to working with the industry, interest groups, and others to ensure that the controls introduced are proportionate to the given risk. A further consultation, which will include an assessment of the social and economic implications of the framework, will run in early 2023.

The intention is to implement the controls in the second half of 2023, which will initially cover the release of lice from new and expanded farms to prevent additional impacts upon the 2024 smolt run.

During the consultation, some lobby groups had argued strongly for the imposition of controls on existing fish farms, as well as new or expanded operations. SEPA has now said it is considering “phasing in” the new regime, starting with imposing permit conditions on new or expanded farms, but also gathering additional data to review the accuracy of modelling the risks from sea lice at existing farms. Permit conditions for those farms could be adjusted to reduce potential sea lice numbers, if the evidence suggests there is an impact on wild salmonids, SEPA said.

SEPA has also committed to tackle other pressures on wild salmon, which have declined in numbers rapidly from 8-10 million worldwide in the 1970s to an estimated three million. Other measures include improving river habitats and removing barriers to salmon migration such as dams and weirs, where possible.

Protecting an iconic fish

Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary, Mairi Gougeon, said: “Populations of Atlantic salmon are at a crisis point and we have to act urgently to protect one of our most famous species. The pressures on stocks are truly international, with the impact of climate change being felt across the entire North Atlantic region. However, there is much that we can do in our rivers, lochs and coastal waters to help build resilience and protect biodiversity. The measures set out in this consultation will help ensure the protection and recovery of Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon.”

Mairi Gougeon, MInister for Rural Affairs, at Aquaculture UK 2022

Peter Pollard, SEPA’s Head of Ecology, commented: “The decline in wild salmon is a global issue, but is keenly felt in Scotland, famed for this iconic species. We have a responsibility to mitigate the problems that face our fish populations to improve their chances of survival and reproduction. The measures we put in place in our rivers, lochs and coastal waters to slow the decline, and enable wild salmon to become more resilient to threats like climate change, are vitally important.

“Our new framework is an important addition to our work, creating a world-leading approach that will allow Scotland to protect the full lifecycle of salmon from breeding grounds to their journey out to sea. SEPA is clear that our job is to make sure environmental standards protect the water environment for the people of Scotland – and we make sure that all industries meet those. That’s unequivocally our focus.

“Our ambition is to give operators and communities confidence that environmental considerations are addressed early in the development process of new farms and to drive improvements at existing farms to improve the condition of Scotland’s salmon stocks.”

SEPA: proposed wild salmon protection zones (December 2021)