Exclusive, 10 February 2009
A Norwegian fish farming multinational has apologised for offering to reward officials at Scotland’s environment watchdog with smoked salmon for giving the go-ahead for a new toxic pesticide in record time.
Marine Harvest suggested sending “some sides of smoked salmon” to staff at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) after they processed applications to dose salmon cages with deltamethrin in a matter of days.
The suggestion was unethical and should never have been made, the Oslo-based company said. It promised it would be sparing Sepa any embarrassment by sending the agency “an unconditional apology”.
Last year salmon farmers were anxious to be allowed to use deltamethrin to treat sea lice, which eat fish alive. Previous pesticides were becoming ineffectual, as the lice were beginning to resist them.
But before the chemical compound, also known as AMX or Alpha Max, could be used, licences to discharge it into lochs had to be approved by Sepa. A series of emails between Sepa, fish farming companies and the Scottish government released under freedom of information legislation reveal how licence applications were handled.
Sepa redeployed staff to fast-track the applications, ensuring that the first seven from Shetland were given the go-ahead within 15 days. The average time taken to process subsequent applications was 19 days, with some being completed in as little as six days.
This prompted a warm email to Sepa from Marine Harvest’s Ben Hadfield on 29 July 2008. “Could you please pass on my sincere thanks to all the team involved in the AMX determinations?” he wrote.
“Marine Harvest (Scotland) received all its variations in record time,” he continued. “I wonder if it would be appropriate to send some sides of smoked salmon to those involved. In this day and age may be, or may be not, perhaps you could advise?”
When this was drawn to the attention of the company, the tune quickly changed. “We sent no salmon to any employees at Sepa,” said Steve Bracken, a manager with Marine Harvest in Fort William.
“The question about appropriateness should never have been posed - it was in itself inappropriate. It was also a violation of our ethical guidelines, which prohibit our employees from, even indirectly, offering anything of value to a government official.”
Bracken added: “The incident has been handled accordingly internally, and an unconditional apology will be sent to Sepa from Marine Harvest Scotland.”
The emails show that Sepa was also warmly commended by the Scottish government for processing the applications so quickly. "Congratulations on an excellent turnaround time,” said one senior aquaculture official on 1 July 2008.
This has prompted fierce criticism from fish farm opponents, who are demanding an inquiry. They fear that environmental standards may have been compromised in the rush to licence deltamethrin, which Sepa has described as a “potent biocide”.
“What about Sepa's responsibility for protecting the marine environment and for protecting Scottish shellfish farmers and fishermen?” said Don Staniford, the European representative of the Pure Salmon Campaign.
“In dutifully permitting potent biocides to be discharged directly into Scotland's pristine waters, Sepa has rolled over like a lapdog.”
This was denied, however, by Sepa, which said that all the environmental risks had been carefully considered. “The processing of applications was dealt with efficiently and, although rigorous environmental protection was applied, the bureaucratic mechanics of processing applications was streamlined,” said a Sepa spokeswoman.
“This ensured that the medicine was available to farmers as quickly as possible within the requirements of relevant legislation. This will allow the industry to treat farmed fish and better protect wild stocks with no significant risk to the environment.”
The Scottish government backed Sepa, arguing that it had carried out a rigourous assessment of the environmental impacts and a full public consultation. “There is absolutely no question that environmental interests were compromised or that there was any undue pressure to approve these applications,” said a government spokesman.
“It is right and proper that, where possible, such applications are processed without delay to enable the Scottish aquaculture sector to maximise its potential.”