Protecting Scotland's wild Atlantic salmon ‘a national priority' as protection zones and sea lice thresholds proposed by SEPA

  03 December 2021
Protecting Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon is a ‘national priority’, said SEPA – Scotland’s environmental watchdog today (3rd December 2021), launching a consultation on proposed wild salmon protection zones and a sea lice exposure threshold that applies in these zones.
  • The protection of Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon is a ‘national priority’ says SEPA.
  • Scotland is renowned worldwide for the quality of its rivers, lochs and seas. Despite this, in nearly 60% of salmon rivers across Scotland, including on the West Coast and Western Isles, salmon populations are in poor conservation status.
  • Whilst the causes of the poor conservation status of wild salmon stocks are complex and believed to be due to a range of different factors rather than a single cause, sea lice from open-net pen finfish farms in Scotland can pose a significant risk to wild salmon populations.
  • SEPA launches consultation on proposed wild salmon protection zones and a sea lice exposure threshold that applies in these zones.
  • Proposals follow Scottish Government confirming SEPA as the lead body responsible for managing the risk to wild salmonids from sea lice from marine finfish farms and SEPA’s 2019 introduction of a stronger revised regulatory regime and ambitious aquaculture sector plan.
  • SEPA has worked closely with scientists from Marine Scotland as well as with NatureScot and local planning authorities to develop a means of assessing the risk to wild Atlantic salmon posed by marine finfish farm developments. The core principles of this work were to use best available scientific evidence; ensure the risk assessments are practical to apply within a regulatory decision-making framework; and make the risk assessment process readily adaptive to additional evidence.
  • The proposals also follow substantial input from stakeholder groups on the Salmon Interactions Working Group (finfish producers, fishery management organisations and environmental NGOs).

Protecting Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon is a ‘national priority’, said SEPA – Scotland’s environmental watchdog today (3rd December 2021), launching a consultation on proposed wild salmon protection zones and a sea lice exposure threshold that applies in these zones.

Scotland is renowned worldwide for the quality of its rivers, lochs and seas. Despite this, in nearly 60 % of salmon rivers across Scotland, including on the West Coast and Western Isles, salmon populations are in poor conservation status.

The causes of the poor conservation status of wild salmon stocks are complex and believed to be due to a range of different factors rather than a single cause. The Scottish Government has identified 12 high-level pressures on the status of salmon stocks. These include different pressures on river habitats, such as loss of trees/shade, man-made barriers to fish migration and impacts on river levels resulting from climate change; exploitation (recreational fishing & commercial sea fisheries); predation; sea lice and disease; escapes; and invasive non-native species (including signal crayfish in Scotland).

Sea lice from marine finfish farms remains a potentially significant pressure with scientific evidence being clear that sea lice from open-net pen finfish farms in Scotland can pose a significant risk to wild salmon populations.

The proposals, which are open to 14th March 2022, will focus initially on implementing the proposed framework to protect wild salmon populations against harmful increases in sea lice concentrations. SEPA will do this by assessing the risk to wild salmon when determining applications for proposed new farms and for proposed increases in the number of fish farmed at existing farms.

Permits for all existing farms that can contribute to infective-stage sea lice in wild salmon protection zones would be changed to enable inclusion of conditions that (a) appropriately control the factors determining the number of juvenile sea lice emanating from the farms so that those numbers cannot significantly increase without prior authorisation; and (b) require sufficient information to be provided about the operation of the farms to enable calculation of the number of  juvenile lice hatching from lice on the farms’ fish and the resulting infective-stage sea lice concentrations in wild salmon protection zones. This is needed to assess the additive effect of a development proposal on infective-stage lice densities in the protection zones.

SEPA vessel the Sir John Murray

SEPA Vessel The Sir John Murray

SEPA’s proposed initial focus reflects the Scottish Government’s stated priority, which is for a new framework for considering the risk to wild salmon from sea lice when consenting finfish farm developments[i]. It is also necessary because more information is needed to enable an assessment of whether the operation of existing farms is resulting in a hazard to wild salmon populations. Some of this information will be provided through the implementation of the proposed framework.

Once the framework is established, SEPA will work over the longer term to identify any wild salmon protection zones where the densities of infective-stage lice resulting from the operation of existing farms is posing a hazard to wild salmon populations. In those situations where this is the case, SEPA will work with the operators of the farms concerned to enable them to identify the best means of achieving an appropriate reduction in infective-stage sea lice densities in the relevant wild salmon protection zone.

The proposals follow the Scottish Government confirming SEPA as the lead body responsible for managing the risk to wild salmonids from sea lice from marine finfish farms and SEPA’s 2019 introduction of a stronger revised regulatory regime and ambitious aquaculture sector plan.

SEPA has worked closely with scientists from Marine Scotland as well as with NatureScot and local planning authorities to develop a means of assessing the risk to wild Atlantic salmon posed by marine finfish farm developments. The core principles of this work were to use best available scientific evidence; ensure the risk assessments are practical to apply within a regulatory decision-making framework; and make the risk assessment process readily adaptive to additional evidence.

The proposals also follow substantial input from stakeholder groups on the Salmon Interactions Working Group (finfish producers, fishery management organisations and environmental NGOs).

In due course, implementation of the proposed framework will mean that, for the first time, all significant pressures on the water environment from marine finfish farms will be regulated under a single, coherent regulatory framework. This will help facilitate a real step-change in regulation, enabling SEPA to start to provide much more comprehensive spatial advice about the capacity of different areas of the coast to accommodate finfish farm developments, including highlighting where innovation is likely to be needed for development to be approved; and provide the regulatory backing necessary to help simplify local authority decision-making on planning applications.

Terry A’Hearn, Chief Executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, said:

“Scotland is renowned worldwide for the quality of its rivers, lochs and seas. Despite this, in nearly 60% of salmon rivers across Scotland, including on the West Coast and Western Isles, salmon populations are in poor conservation status.  Whilst the causes of the poor conservation status of wild salmon stocks are complex and believed to be due to a range of different factors rather than a single cause, we know that sea lice from marine finfish farms can be a significant hazard.

“The protection of Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon is a national priority which is why, following the Scottish Government confirming SEPA as the lead body responsible for managing the risk to wild salmonids from sea lice from marine finfish farms, and in line with stated priorities, we’re today launching a consultation on ambitious proposals for proposed wild salmon protection zones and a sea lice exposure threshold that applies in these zones.  We believe the proposals are practical and outcome focused, with phased implementation.  Over the coming months we look forward to meeting and hearing views from a broad range of stakeholders with an interest in wild salmon, from community and environmental groups to the aquaculture sector itself before taking a final view in 2022.”

SEPA Chief Executive Terry A'Hearn

SEPA Chief Executive Terry A'Hearn

For more information on the consultation, visit  www.sepa.org.uk/wildsalmon

To express an interesting in meeting the SEPA team (virtually or in person*) in January or February,  email  aquaculture.regulation@sepa.org.uk.

(*) Subject to public health restrictions at the time.

ENDS

NOTES TO EDITORS:

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[i] https://www.gov.scot/publications/salmon-interactions-working-group-report-scottish-government-response/pages/4/