A group of Scottish lawmakers has called for a halt to any expansion of salmon farms due to environmental and animal welfare concerns after official figures showed that fish mortality had doubled in 2022.
Eight members of the Scottish parliament, including from the Greens, who govern with the Scottish National party in Holyrood, have written to Mairi Gougeon, rural affairs secretary, saying they were “alarmed” to learn that nearly 16mn fish had died prematurely. They called for any expansion of the industry to be paused.
“I think calling for a moratorium is an important act in terms of saying this industry is not working and we really need to be thinking quickly and much better about how we get it working,” said Ariane Burgess, a Green party MSP.
Aquaculture is expanding around the world as demand for protein rises with the growing global population. The industry is the UK’s biggest food exporter, with reported overseas sales worth almost £600mn in 2022. It is a pillar of the Scottish economy, supporting about 10,000 jobs in rural and island communities, where it is often the largest employer.
The sector has said that by growing production responsibly it hoped to double its annual contribution to the Scottish economy to £3.6bn in 2030, from £1.8bn in 2016.
However, campaigners warn that the chemicals, food and fish waste generated by farms damage the environment. The industry has also been criticised for spreading disease and parasites between farmed and wild fish, with animal cruelty groups highlighting how salmon are crammed in crowded pens.
The WWF, the environmental NGO, said salmon farming had a “significant potential for negative impact on the places and species” it sought to protect.
In response to the concerns, Norway, the world’s largest producer of farmed fish, this year introduced a 40 per cent tax on the salmon industry.
Burgess warned that Scotland’s inshore waters could not manage the expansion the industry is pushing for. “You have these issues like the stock density is so high, [and] the infestation from sea lice, that the salmon are dying in these extreme high mortality rates,” she said.Scottish regulators have sought to boost confidence in fish farming in recent years by strengthening oversight and shifting production offshore from the sea lochs where most farms are located.
Tavish Scott, chief executive of industry group Salmon Scotland, said the industry had “world leading” animal welfare standards and had gained the trust of the Scottish and UK governments due to its low carbon footprint and commitment to sustainability. He added he was “disappointed” that a small number of MSPs were not supportive of the sector.
Consumer groups promoting responsibly farmed fish have been urging farms to get certification from the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, the global standards group. But while there are more than 200 fish farms in Scotland, only 27 fish sites have been certified across the entire UK, according to the ASC.
“It’s not a great industry to build your economic case on long term,” Burgess said. “Basically what we need to be doing is a managed transition of the industry. We can’t be building a future for people on something that’s going to end up going out of business.”
The Scottish government said the rise in fish deaths may have been caused by an “unusual bloom” of a jellyfish species and it was “premature” to say the trend would continue. It said it remained committed to maintaining high standards of fish health and welfare, adding it would continue to work with the industry and regulators.