Salmon farmers urge action over ‘draconian’ bill

LEGISLATION aimed at protecting the environment could destroy the lucrative salmon farming sector in Scotland and sever an economic lifeline to fragile rural communities, industry leaders have warned.

More than 1,000 workers employed in the £500 million industry have responded to the Scottish Government consultation to highlight their growing concerns about the Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill, which will impose new laws on salmon farmers in an attempt to protect wild species.

Today the concerned industry will also launch a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter as part of a “call to action” to encourage more people to oppose the legislation which they claim will cost £20m a year to implement and could drive the lucrative sector overseas to countries such as Norway, Chile and Canada.

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Among the proposals that have alarmed the industry is the prospect of on-the-spot fines of up to £10,000 for salmon farm workers who breach marine licences. Industry leaders believe such a move would result in an exodus of investors from Scotland.

Scott Landsburgh, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, leading the opposition to the bill, said in a 98-page response to the consultation that the “overall approach seems dangerously draconian and ill-founded”.

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“The proposed legislation sends the message to Scottish, UK and international investors that the Scottish Government wants a controlling interest in its future; a scenario which could see additional costs of up to £20m per year incurred by the industry,” he added.

“Scottish Government officials plan to duplicate the work farmers already do, gather information for no legitimate reason and dangle the threat of fixed penalty notices of up to £10,000 over employees as judged by government officials with no veterinary training.”

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He pointed out that the industry is already governed by legislation, and follows a Code of Good Practice, as well as the audits of supermarkets and other schemes such as the RSPCA Freedom Food and the French Label Rouge quality standard. He added out that salmon is Scotland’s largest food export and described the industry as “an economic lifeline to many of Scotland’s most fragile, rural communities”.

However, he said Scottish salmon farms were in danger of losing workers “as they move to other salmon farming countries which offer a more attractive and highly regarded career prospect”.

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Among proposals in the consultation are the introduction of strict liability offences, where there is no need to prove the offender intended the consequences of his actions, for fish farm employees. “We believe the strict liability proposal will have a major impact on recruitment and retention of highly trained and skilled personnel in the aquaculture industry,” said Landsburgh.

Other proposals in the wide-ranging consultation include a legal requirement to participate in Farm Management Agreements and powers for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to revoke consents for fish farms. It also explores options for forcing the industry to collect and make public data on sea lice levels in fish farms, which can infect wild species of salmon.

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However, the bill has won support from environmental organisations and those concerned with the promotion of wild salmon. Dr Alan Wells, policy and planning director at the Association of Salmon Fisheries Boards, said: “We believe that the Aquaculture Industry can, in certain locations and at certain times, present significant risks to wild fish,” he said. “The proposals have the potential to address some of our concerns.”

James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink, said he had “real reservations” about the proposed bill.

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“It is right that environmental and welfare regulation should be central to the salmon industry’s operations,” he said. “However, there is already a plethora of activity in this area.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “All of the consultation responses will now be given careful consideration, as we seek the right way ahead to support both sectors.”