SEPA to take on bigger aquaculture role

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The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is set to take on more powers as the lead authority for protecting wild salmon, including a key role in assessing whether new fish farms present a threat to wild fish.

The announcement comes as part of the Scottish Government’s response to the final report of the Salmon Interactions Working Group (SIWG) which was established to provide advice on a future approach to the interactions between wild and farmed salmon.

The SIWG’s main focus has been the potential harm to wild salmon from sea lice, which some argue is exacerbated by the presence of fish farms.

The SIWG report calls for the reform of Scotland’s finfish aquaculture regulatory regime “to ensure that it is fit for purpose, comparable with the highest international and domestic regulatory standards and in line with the Scottish Regulators Strategic Code of Practice.”

The report recommends that District Salmon Fishery Boards (DSFBs) should continue to be statutory consultees in the future regulatory regime. It also calls on the government to undertake a holistic, evidence-based review of the approach to sea lice treatment.

The SIWG also recommends that Marine Scotland should take an overarching role to ensure consistency with respect to managing interactions at the local level through the use of agreed standards for current, interim delivery of Environmental Management Plans; and that one single lead body (with appropriate competence and capacity) should be assigned responsibility for regulating wild and farmed fish interactions.

Regarding the latter, the Scottish Government has said that SEPA will take on the lead role as regulator and that development proposals involving increases in the numbers of fish farmed, including applications for new farms or expansion of existing farms, will be assessed using Scotland’s new spatially-based risk assessment framework, which is currently being developed.

The Scottish Government also supports the SIWG’s recommendation that “local engagement mechanisms between finfish farmers and wild fishery managers should be established as a minimum, to facilitate pre-application consultation, agree joint local management priorities and projects, act as a forum for information and data exchange, and identify research priorities and request management action as appropriate.”

The new consent regime will also give the regulator powers to demand the relocation of farmed salmon biomass if its current location is seen as hazardous for wild fish.

The government also announced funding of more than £650,000 to extend the salmon counter network, as part of a package of measures to support salmon conservation, providing information to help monitor salmon populations and report on their population status.

Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon said: “The important work by SIWG and others, has brought aquaculture and fisheries interests together to advise on a new interactions approach.

“The funding and broad programme of work announced today demonstrates that we have moved beyond the status quo and shows our commitment to improving the scientific evidence base.

“It underlines the importance of supporting a sector which provides a low-carbon source of protein enjoyed nationally and internationally, while sustaining well-paid jobs in some of our most fragile rural communities.”

The latest announcements do not, however, provide total clarity on how the future of fish farming regulation will look. The government’s Wild Salmon Strategy will not be published until December, and the independent report into streamlining fish farming regulation, headed by Professor Russel Griggs OBE, will also not report until the end of the year.

Crown Estate Scotland, which grants leases for marine aquaculture, is reviewing its current arrangements and the government has asked it to take the latest recommendations into consideration.

Mairi Gougeon, Rural Affairs Secretary