Scottish ministers have had more than 30 meetings with leaders of the fish farming industry in the last three years, prompting accusations that they are “in cahoots” with the industry and failing to protect the environment.
Public agencies have also disclosed that they gave the go-ahead to more than 750 fish farms in recent years, but only refused consent in six cases. The farms are being “rubber-stamped”, allege critics, to help boost production 50 per cent by 2020 in line with the government’s target.
In response to a request under freedom of information law, the Scottish government has released a list of meetings between ministers and the fish farming industry. It shows that since January 2011 successive environment ministers have met with fish farm companies 26 times, including eight site visits, four dinners, two awards ceremonies and an industry exhibition at Trondheim in Norway.
Three meetings with the enterprise minister, Fergus Ewing, in 2012 and 2013 are also on the list. And it says that in June this year, the First Minister, Alex Salmond, opened a fish hatchery run by the Norwegian-owned company, Marine Harvest, at Lochailort in Lochaber.
According to an official press release, Salmond also met with Marine Harvest bosses in Oslo in May 2012 - but this was not included in the list released by the Scottish government. Officials admitted that this was due to an “administrative oversight”.
Another freedom of information response from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency reveals that it has given the green light to 585 fish farms around the country since 2006, and rejected just one. Since 2003 Highland Council has consented 66 farms and refused two while Argyll and Bute Council has approved 32 and turned down two. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles) has approved 73 and rejected one since 2008 (see table below).
The freedom of information responses were obtained by Don Staniford, an anti-fish farming campaigner who runs a new group called Protect Wild Scotland. “The Scottish government and the Norwegian salmon farming industry are clearly in cahoots," he said.
“The floodgates are being opened across Scotland to salmon farming pollution, toxic chemicals, infectious diseases and sea lice infestation. Salmon farm applications are shamelessly being rubber-stamped as Scottish ministers drive forward their expansion plan.”
Staniford was particularly critical of the First Minister for “flying the flag for farmed salmon”, suggesting that he should change his name to Alex Salmon. On Thursday he is planning to deliver a letter to Salmond in Edinburgh demanding a moratorium on salmon farming.
John Robins from the charity, Save Our Seals Fund, accused ministers of “getting into bed” with the fish farming industry. “Our government is so close to the salmon farming industry that it smells fishy,” he said.
“Environment ministers should be protecting our marine environment from the pollution caused by these filthy floating factory fish farms.” He also criticised fish farmers for shooting seals.
Peter Urpeth, the spokesman for Outer Hebrides Against Fish Farms, accused the fish farming industry of quietly becoming “an arm of government with a privileged and unchallenged right of access.” This was “extremely dangerous for Scotland's marine environments,” he warned.
According to the Scottish Salmon Producers' Organisation (SSPO), fish farms were welcomed in many rural areas because of the important economic contribution they make. “The industry is pleased that its development plans are making progress,” said SSPO’s chief executive, Scott Landsburgh.
“Both SSPO and individual companies meet ministers regularly through the various government-run working groups, export missions and update meetings. This is no more than you would expect from Scotland's number one food export.”
The Scottish government argued that it was “wrong and misleading” to suggest that it granted permission for fish farms. There was a robust regulatory framework that ensured the industry, worth £537 million to the Scottish economy in 2012, remained sustainable, it said.
“Ministers meet with representatives of the industry to further its development, just as they do with other important sectors and stakeholders representing wild fish and shellfish interests,” added a government spokesman.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency said that applications were rarely refused because its authorisation process was “clear and understandable”. Fish farms that would be rejected were withdrawn or amended after consultation with officials.
Giving fish farms the go-ahead
Public body / fish farms approved / fish farms rejected
Spreadsheets are available to download giving the detailed information on approvals released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency here and here, Highland Council here, Argyll and Bute Council here and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar here. The list of ministerial meetings released by the Scottish government can also be downloaded here.