Seaspiracy’s overblown rhetoric does not justify inaction at Holyrood

THE MICHAEL MOORE type docu-activist approach to making a point has never seemed entirely conducive to debate. Gathering together a set of visual ‘facts’ that support your point, broadly disparaging (often misrepresenting) an alternative view, and being mostly rhetorical, the only riposte seems to be someone else’s counter-movie. Which all adds up to a more expensive version of a monumental Twitter spat.

Some sympathy therefore for the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) accepting that the Seaspiracy Netflix presentation raised “important questions” but rejecting the Scottish element of it as “simply privileged activism masquerading as investigatory film-making”.

Huge doubts too when it is said environmental activists hope Seaspiracy will “radically transform” attitudes on ocean conservation as Cowspiracy was intended to reshape views on intensive animal farming. Whatever intended, it was only a Times report that brought either of these two onto the radar.

The difficulty for the SSPO is that it might have been better just ignoring what is undoubtedly a huge piece of environmental hyperbole. Because strip away the hyperbole and there are indeed ‘important questions’ for the industry – and Holyrood – on the scale and impact of the farmed salmon industry in Scottish marine waters.

Sea farming salmon has issues to address and questions that demand answers – not least on the impact on wild salmon survival. In response to some serious sea farm failures, some other places seem willing to take robust action. In Washington State, its legislature has made a decision that will in time end open sea farming, by 2025.

While the Seaspiracy raises ‘important questions’ about salmon farming around Scotland, these aren’t new questions. This is simply the most recent outing.

The nature of water contamination by an open sea farming cage is perhaps best exemplified in the disclosure that: ‘One fish farm produces waste equivalent to ‘all of Scotland’s west coast towns’. Dr Richard Luxmoore, senior nature conservation adviser at the National Trust for Scotland, said a moderately-sized farm dumped the same amount of sewage as a town twice the size of Oban. He told a Holyrood committee:

“A single fish farm, which currently has a maximum size at the moment of 2,500 tonnes, produces the sewage equivalent of a town twice the size of Oban. He pointedly stated (editorial emphasis):

“… you’re not allowed to discharge waste from a single septic tank into the sea without it being treated. And if you were to suggest building two Obans somewhere in the Sound of Mull, saying, ‘Is it alright if we just chuck the sewage straight in the sea?’, you would get very short shrift over it. But somehow putting a new fish farm in seems to be exempt from a lot of these issues.” 

He added that there was little regulation over the deadly chemicals used by fish farms – with some, including hydrogen peroxide, used in increasing quantities.

While open sea fish farms may not be the only, or greatest, threat to wild salmon there is clearly a growing and vocal concern on the general impact on the environment. The response to that concern is mixed, though seems headed towards much stricter and more readily enforceable regulation or exclusion (at least in other countries).

A 2018 report on the “Environmental impacts of salmon farming” in respect of the marine environment was forwarded from Holyrood’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee (ECCLR) to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee (REC) which conducted an inquiry into “Salmon Farming in Scotland”. It concluded:

“The Committee strongly agrees with the view of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee (ECCLR) that if the industry is to grow, the “status quo” in terms of regulation and enforcement is not acceptable. It is of the view that urgent and meaningful action needs to be taken to address regulatory deficiencies as well as fish health and environmental issues before the industry can expand.”

No moratorium, however, while the ‘unacceptable’ regulation and enforcement is updated to a more fit for purpose status. This matters.

On the subject of waste, new Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) proposals weren’t available to REC, being published after the Committee had reported. A glance at the SEPA website shows that those regulatory amendshave been passed on to the UK Technical Advisory Group (UKTAG) to consider all the available scientific evidence and make recommendations to Scottish Government on new standards. Back to the 2018 report of ECCLR Committee, and two of the final recommendations from Holyrood report:

  • The Committee is supportive of aquaculture, but further development and expansion must be on the basis of a precautionary approach and must be based on resolving the environmental problems. The status quo is not an option. 
  • The current consenting and regulatory framework, including the approach to sanctions and enforcement, is inadequate to address the environmental issues. The Committee is not convinced the sector is being regulated sufficiently or regulated sufficiently effectively. This needs to be addressed urgently because further expansion must be on an environmentally sustainable basis.

Hardly new. Here is a 2008 House of Commons research paper on Fish Farming produced ten years before it. Even the ECCLR noted in summary that:

  • It is clear to the Committee that the same set of concerns regarding the environmental impact of salmon farming exist now as in 2002.

The issues are known and have been for more than over a decade (almost two decades!) – and then open sea cage farming was at nothing like the scale it is today. It is well past the time to take some action on addressing those issues.

While many anglers already practiced catch and release, the announcement that from April 2018 this would be policy on 122 of Scotland’s 171 salmon rivers the Times reported it was greeted with little enthusiasm (£). That may be down to anglers feeling that while happy to do their bit for conservation, action in respect to sea farming hasn’t been to the fore of Scottish Government policy. Change in that respect seems glacially slow.

No more passing the environmental regulatory parcel. Holyrood does not need more power to make a difference. Holyrood needs to step up to the environmental devastation of seas and marine life around Scotland and demand better from an industry that knows the problems its activity generates but doesn’t seem too fussed on providing solutions.

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@thedissenter blogs regularly at and produces the PoliticalOD podcast along with @3000Versts.

Photo of Salmon farms in the Highlands of Scotland by Luis from Adobe Stock.


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