Sea lice
Sea lice pose a threat to young migrating salmon stocks

THE Scottish Government was today urged to act rapidly to forestall severe increases in sea lice infestation expected to hit marine salmon farms in the West Highlands and islands.

Fears also emerged that Scotland could become a “dumping ground’’ for bad practice by multinational salmon producers if our parasite control regulations were not harmonised with other major north Atlantic countries, like Norway.

The Salmon and Trout Association (S&TA), the UK’s main game fishing conservation charity, urged politicians and scientists to follow the lead set recently by Norway and introduce much more rigorous controls on parasite levels for the Scottish salmon farming industry.

The S&TA, whose patron is Prince Charles, wants to see the numbers of permitted sea lice in marine farm pens cut by 80% and launched a withering attack on the salmon farming industry’s code of practice which it described as “a nebulous and toothless document which has no legal status.”

Huge increases in sea lice – widely accepted to be a major contributor to declines in wild salmon stocks in recent years – were identified in Norwegian fish farms last autumn, and prompted the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries to impose dramatic new controls on infestation levels this year.

These decree that lice in marine salmon pens must not exceed 0.1 per fish, or one louse for every ten salmon. According to the S&TA, the Scottish salmon farming industry target for sea lice this spring is five lice for every ten salmon.

Paul Knight: 'stark contrast'

Paul Knight, executive director of the S&TA, said the Norwegians’ action was an indication of how seriously they as a nation took the sea lice issue. “This is in stark contrast to the situation in Scotland where the salmon farming industry will be allowed to operate with five times as many lice per salmon cage compared with what is permissible in Norway.”

Jon Gibb, clerk to Lochaber District Salmon Fishery Board which is responsible for wild fish stocks in a region with one of the highest concentration of Scotland’s fish farms, issued a stern warning that levels of 0.5 per fish were “far too high” to prevent a devastating impact on young migrating wild fish.

He said: “Now that the Norwegian authorities are implementing a far tougher regime, surely it is time for the Scottish Government to follow suit. If it does not, the increasingly Scotland will be open to the charge that it is the dumping ground for bad practice by the Norwegian companies that operate multinationally.”

The Association of District Salmon Fishery Boards, which administers the majority of Scotland’s salmon fisheries was not available for comment yesterday.  But it is known that there is a widespread sense of frustration among game fish interests about the slow speed of action by Scottish authorities.

Sea lice have become resistant to the most commonly-used of the chemical treatments called SLICE and infestation levels erupted in Norway last autumn.  Gibb said: “What we have seen happen in Norway, you can predict with certainty, will happen here. We have still got a little time if we act now, to be ahead of the game rather than face having to take retrograde action.”

He said there was no wish to disrupt salmon production or put industry jobs at risk, but indigenous stocks had to be protected.

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation had virtually nothing to say about the issue today. Its technical director, John Webster merely noted that the Scottish and Norwegian marine environments and other circumstances were “very different.”

“Accordingly, appropriate rules are applied to fit the conditions,” he said.

The Government, meanwhile, displayed no sign it was prepared to rush into any action. A spokesman said:

“A main focus of the Scottish Government’s aquaculture strategy is to study sea-lice and develop a national system for the collection of sea-lice data along with a strategy for effective control. The group will make its recommendations to the Minister for Environment in March 2010.”

The officlal pointed out that Scotland and Norway last year signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at safe-guarding and developing the multimillion pound aquaculture industry throughy the sharing of research and information. A joint committee on bilateral aquaculture co-operation will hold its first meeting in Scotland later this year.

The Government says  that the Healthier Fish Working Group – made up of cross-industry interests – has already explored –

  • Introducing threshold levels which would be used to notify Marine Scotland of concerns regarding sea lice levels and mortality levels
  • Ensuring single year class stocking, fallowing and synchronous lice treatments, within management areas which are of appropriate scale from a disease and parasite control perspective,  underpinned by strong Area Management Agreements
  • Introducing statutory reporting requirements for the suspicion of sea lice resistance to therapeutants

The S&TA’s Knight, however, argued that it was “inequitable that the sea lice limits laid down in Norway are enforceable by law whilst in Scotland the salmon farmers set their own limits under the industry’s Code of Good Practice, a nebulous and toothless document which has no legal status.”

He continued: “It is surely time for the Scottish Government to introduce statutory limits for sea lice in salmon cages so that the Norwegian companies operating here are obliged to adhere to similar environmental standards and regulations as are in force across the North Sea.

“If we are to have any hope of restoring runs of wild salmon and sea trout in the west Highlands, then a prerequisite is proper regulation of the salmon farming industry including where necessary the sanction of slaughter of the stock in those farms that do not comply”.

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