Scotland’s environment watchdog has bowed to pressure from the salmon farming industry to keep the number of fish killed by diseases secret, according to internal correspondence seen by the Sunday Herald.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) agreed to delete information on millions of fish deaths from a public database on fish farming launched this month because the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Association (SSPO) argued it would be commercially damaging.
An anti-fish-farm campaigner has accused Sepa of acting like the industry’s “lapdog”. Because the database also omits crucial information on sea lice, it is no more than “spin”, he claimed.
In February the Sunday Herald revealed that the number of farmed salmon killed by diseases had leapt to over 8.5 million in 2012. This compared to 6.8 million deaths in 2011 and 5.5 million in 2010, and was blamed mostly on the spread of amoebic gill disease.
A few days after the report appeared, SSPO’s chairman, Phil Thomas, wrote to Sepa’s chief executive, James Curran. He accused Sepa of “fundamentally poor regulatory practice”, arguing that it had “no justifiable need” to collect and make available information on the numbers of fish mortalities.
“You were potentially placing information in the public domain which could be used to the commercial detriment or competitive market disadvantage of the companies submitting the data,” Thomas wrote. “You were in fact providing competitor companies both within and outwith the UK with significant market and business information.
In reply, Curran said he understood SSPO’s concerns. He promised that in future it would be made clear that for most fish farms supplying information on the number of deaths was voluntary.
He added: “Although numbers of mortalities do appear in the current version of Scotland’s aquaculture database which is being launched to partner organisations soon, it is our intention to make a small change to ensure that these data on the numbers of mortalities are not included in the version released to the public.”
The long-delayed database was published on 1 October by the Scottish government. Although it includes the weight of fish that have died, it omits the numbers – which critics say masks the scale of the problem when the fish are small.
“Shame on Sepa for morphing into the salmon farming industry's lapdog,” said Don Staniford, a veteran campaigner who is now director of a new environmental group, Protect Wild Scotland. “Surely Sepa’s statutory duty is to protect the Scottish environment not cravenly kowtow to the Norwegian-owned salmon farming industry?”
The correspondence between Sepa and the SSPO was released to Staniford under freedom of information law. He pointed out that the new database also ignored vital data on the sea lice that often infest caged salmon and threaten wild fish.
“The Scottish government is promoting a false salmon farming economy based on spin and deception instead of a healthy local economy based upon Scotland’s wild salmon,” he contended.
Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor to the Salmon and Trout Association (Scotland), argued that the lack of weekly site-specific sea lice data was an “obvious gap” in the database. “It is looking increasingly silly of the Scottish government to refuse to require that data to be published,” he said.
Sepa’s fish farming specialist, Douglas Sinclair, pointed out that there was “no legal requirement” for fish farms to report numbers of deaths. There was, however, an “extraordinary wealth of current and historic data” available on fish farming, he said.
According to SSPO’s chief executive, Scott Landsburgh, Sepa had agreed to only collect the information the law required. The industry had volunteered to publish other statistics, which had been agreed by the Scottish government and MSPs and implemented.
The Scottish government argued that Scotland’s farmed fish were internationally recognised as having a high health status. “They are maintained by a regular inspection programme that includes the evaluation of mortality and sea lice numbers,” said a government spokesman.
The government’s latest survey of Scotland’s fish farms showed that 22 companies produced 162,223 tonnes of Atlantic salmon at 257 sites in 2012. The industry forecasts, however, that after rising for the last four years production will fall six per cent to 152,507 tonnes in 2013.
This story was followd up by The Times.