Sea lice legislation next year says Ewing

Rural Economy minister Fergus Ewing - he announced aquaculture regulatory reforms at Holyrood this afternoon

THE Scottish government is to introduce new legislation next year requiring all marine fish farms to report weekly sea lice levels, one week in arrears, it was announced today.

Fergus Ewing, Rural Economy and Connectivity Secretary, outlined the first part of a programme of regulatory reform in the industry, following two parliamentary inquiries into the sector last year.

These concluded that the status quo in relation to regulatory arrangements was not an option.

‘Today’s statement demonstrates our determination to deliver the necessary changes to strengthen those arrangements,’ Ewing told MSPs.

‘Taken together, these new measures signal a major shift from self to statutory regulation.’

Although the sector announced its own sea lice publication plans in the last year, the government will strengthen the statutory basis of the sea lice regime, ‘to ensure there is consistency of approach and to deliver confidence in the system’.

‘The introduction of legislation will remove any ambiguity with regards to reporting requirements and deliver more detailed information – at both salmon and rainbow trout farms,’ said Ewing.

This will provide data to monitor specific farms and issues as they arise, as well as allow for further policy change, if needed.

In another move, the current ‘trigger’ thresholds from three adult female lice per fish for reporting and eight for enforcement will be reduced to two and six.

The lower reporting levels will allow for earlier intervention, said the minister, who added that a further reduction in reporting thresholds, to two and four average adult female lice per fish, will be introduced , if confirmed by a review of the evidence, 12 months following the implementation of the new statutory reporting regime.

All sea lice reports to the government’s Fish Health Inspectorate will be published, said Ewing, insisting that the sector must become more transparent.

He also said the government will explore how to introduce third party independent checks on fish farm sea lice counts to ensure the accuracy of the information provided.

Ewing pointed out that sea lice levels in Scotland’s salmon farming industry were at their lowest average levels in 2018 since records began in 2013.

And he paid tribute to salmon producers’ efforts in addressing sea lice challenges, and noted that companies had invested £53.5 million over the past three years on lice removing technologies.

Ewing said smaller companies would be given practical support where needed to comply with the new measures, but he acknowledged there was ‘tremendous desire’ by all salmon companies to ensure they were taking all the necessary steps to address health issues.

The minister’s announcement follows the publication yesterday of Sepa’s (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) new finfish regulatory framework which, he said, will enable ‘sustainable growth of aquaculture in the right places’.

‘Tougher regulation will ensure that farms are sited in the most appropriate areas,’ he added. ‘It also means that those sites which may have the potential to sustainably increase, without threatening seabed environmental standards, will be able to do so.’

Sepa’s controversial proposal to move to a feed limit rather than the current biomass limit to regulate the scale of impact from fish farms was under consideration still and subject to industry consultation, the minister confirmed.

On wild and farmed salmon interactions, he said the group he set up last year is collating recommendations for a future approach.

‘That group is aided by a Technical Working Group which is developing practical arrangements for improving regulation in this area – its work is informed by regulatory regimes elsewhere, including Norway’s.’

The group aims to issue proposals for public consultation this summer.

Julie Hesketh-Laird, CEO of the SSPO

Julie Hesketh-Laird, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO), said:’The Scottish salmon sector has for some time led on ensuring greater transparency and the speedier publication of data.

‘The SSPO has been voluntarily publishing lice data since 2013 and since 2018 reporting has been on a farm by farm basis.

‘We are pleased the Scottish government’s announcements build on this. We welcome the minister’s commitment to public consultation and look forward to engaging fully in it to help ensure that the data collected is used effectively and so the new system can work as well as possible.

‘We would expect everyone with an interest in wild as well as farmed salmon and sea lice to work to the same high levels of transparency and ensure data is accurately collected and quickly reported and published. Building trust in the regulatory system is important.’

On the reduction in sea lice thresholds, Hesketh-Laird said: ‘The Scottish salmon sector welcomes this move to tighter regulation. This follows the recent advances the sector has made in controlling lice with non-medicinal means, measures which have brought lice levels down to their lowest level for six years.’

Also responding to the new measures, Heather Jones, CEO of the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), said: ‘The management, control and prevention of sea lice is critical to the future of fish health and welfare in Scotland’s aquaculture industry and we welcome today’s progress on this important issue.

‘The use of innovative and integrated methods will be critical to our success in the future and SAIC is prepared to continue its support of the industry’s efforts.

‘We have seen a range of successes in tackling sea lice over the last few years, which have led to real progress and a noteworthy reduction in their numbers.

‘However, there’s always room for improvement and we’re keen to hear from as many voices as possible – we all know there is still much more to do.

‘Given the value of salmon to Scotland’s economy, it’s incumbent on all of us to work together and look for solutions.

‘We will continue to encourage organisations involved in Scottish salmon production to share valuable insights and collaborate for the continued improvement in fish wellbeing, while also supporting the Scottish environment and wider economy.’