MSPs are warning that salmon farming could cause “irrecoverable damage” to marine life in Scotland if urgent steps are not taken to address its impact on the environment.
In a damning new report commissioned as part of an inquiry into the issue, Holyrood’s environment, climate change and land reform committee concluded “the status quo is not an option”.
The report considers a range of problems facing the aquaculture sector, including pests and diseases, use of chemicals and medicines, waste, fish deaths, escapes and predator control.
Committee members are now calling for new independent research to be carried out, plus a “precautionary approach” when it comes to further expansion.
“Scotland is at a critical point in considering how salmon farming develops in a sustainable way in relation to the environment,” the report states.
It warns that aims to double production of farmed salmon in the next decade do not take into account the capacity of the environment to support that quantity of fish.
Committee convener Graeme Dey said: “The sector has ambitious expansion targets but the committee is concerned as to how these can be achieved in an environmentally sustainable way.
“The sector continues to grow and expand with little meaningful thought given to the impact this will have on the environment.
“In the committee’s view, if the current environmental impact issues are not addressed, the expansion will be unsustainable and may cause irrecoverable damage.”
Aquaculture began in Scotland in the 1970s and has been growing in recent years. The latest figures show the industry is worth £1.8 billion.
Salmon is Scotland’s biggest food export, with 163,000 tonnes – worth £765 million – produced in 2016. There are plans to up this to as much as 400,000 tonnes by 2030.
But the committee says growth has been taking place without a full understanding of the ecological impacts and with inadequate regulation, and has called for an urgent independent assessment of its sustainability in the future.
The report was published in advance of a wider inquiry into salmon farming in Scotland being undertaken by the rural economy committee.
Fish farmers have acknowledged there are challenges to overcome, particularly with regard to fish health and environmental management.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation said: “While the industry is ambitious to grow, we recognise that such growth must be sustainable for the long-term. Growth of farming systems must go hand in hand with environmental sustainability, and the Scottish salmon farming industry remains committed to finding solutions to ensure that it continues to provide employment and economic success for rural Scotland.”