Scottish salmon farming revolution that has left the seas awash with toxic chemicals

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Scottish salmon, the fish which has gone from being a luxury to the ubiquitous filler of sandwiches and supermarket fish counters, is in trouble.

Scottish salmon, the fish which has gone from being a luxury to the ubiquitous filler of sandwiches and supermarket fish counters, is in trouble.

Environmentalists have accused the salmon farming industry of poisoning shellfish stocks, thus creating toxic algal blooms around the coast which threaten the survival of wild salmon stocks. Fish farms have also been accused of using illegal toxic chemicals, leading to criminal inquiries by environmental regulators. Mass escapes of farmed fish have also led to claims that these will irrevocably damage the country's wild stocks.

As a result, two committees of the Scottish Parliament have begun a joint inquiry into allegations that salmon farming - a booming industry which employs 6,500 people in the Highlands and Islands and earns £260m a year - is wrecking the environment.

Salmon farming has become a multi-national industry over the past two decades and is now dominated by companies such as Norsk Hydro in Norway, and Marine Harvest in the Netherlands.

In 1980, Scottish fish farms produced roughly 800 tons of fish. The latest annual figures put wild salmon catches at 198 tons, compared with 127,000 tons of farmed salmon produced by 340 farms dotted around the coast of Scotland, from Campbeltown in Argyll to Sutherland on the North Sea.

Faced with such a sudden growth, some regulators believe the industry is in danger of upsetting Scotland's delicate marine environment. Balancing the environmental issues against the industry's economic value will be a key task for the parliamentary inquiry. At the same time, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) is preparing to tighten its already strict rules on the location of salmon farms, their use of restricted chemicals, and their discharge of waste into the seas.

Under a stricter system of regulations aiming to combat an increase in pollution incidents, the agency has threatened to revoke licences and relocate fish farms. Eventually, its officials believe, the parliamentary inquiry could oppose the industry's further expansion unless it improves its waste technologies and its environmental record.

But the green movement's charges have been dismissed by the industry as unsubstantiated or even malicious. Lord Jamie Lindsay, a Scottish Office environment minister under the last Tory government, who now heads the main industry association, Scottish Quality Salmon (SQS), agreed that the industry is now under intense pressure to improve. But he insists its record is generally very good.

"Sensitivity towards the environment demands the highest possible practices," he said. "We recognise that simply complying with legal minimum requirements isn't good enough. Our sustainability strategy is leading to a level of discipline and quality which will guarantee a sustainable future."

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth Scotland believes recent events justify its criticisms. In July, one company was expelled from SQS and stripped of its "Tartan Quality Mark" after two former workers signed affidavits alleging that the company had illegally used two toxic chemicals - ivermectin and cypermethrin - to combat sea-lice. While legal in its correct formulation, the company allegedly used a cypermethrin product designed for horses.

Ten days ago, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) said it had found levels of ivermectin, a banned neuroinsecticide, four times above official "action levels" in three samples of farmed salmon out of the 30 fish tested.

Using for the first time the statutory powers introduced in 1998, Sepa and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries have launched a criminal inquiry into the new discovery, which could lead to prosecutions. One source said the regulators had a simple policy: "Using inappropriate chemicals and medicines has the potential to do real environmental damage ... We will prosecute if we find enough evidence."

Kevin Dunion, the director of FoE Scotland, believes there are even more worrying statistics. The Salmon and Trout Association has reported 30 mass escapes of farmed salmon over the past three years, with at least 500,000 fish escaping this year. These larger, quicker-growing fish are interbreeding with wild stocks at a time when "wild" catches in Scotland have fallen by nearly 40 per cent from 1998 to 1999. Last year's 198-ton catch was the lowest on record.

FoE Scotland also supports concerns over fish farming's alleged links to algal blooms, which were raised by Alan Berry, a former shellfish farmer from Beauly, near Inverness, in his petition to the Scottish Parliament which led to the latest committee inquiry.

Fish farms are also being blamed for increasing levels of nitrogen in the ocean. In the past two years, Sepa has detected 26 effluent pollution leaks, often involving nitrogen-rich fish droppings, compared with only nine in the previous two years. Naturally-occurring algae feed on this nitrogen and grow into large toxic blooms that help to close down other fisheries. Experiments by the government's Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen have found that, in laboratory studies, legal chemicals such as azamethiphos and cypermethrin can create an imbalance between plankton and algae populations, producing toxins such as diarrhetic shellfish poisoning or amnesic shellfish poisoning.

Neither of these theories has been proved and Sepa officials remain sceptical about their accuracy, but other studies suggest ammonia in droppings stimulates the growth of another toxin, paralytic shellfish poisoning. Last week, there were 65 separate bans on the harvesting and farming of queen scallops, scallops, mussels and oysters across the Western Isles and mainland coast. Most of the bans were close to fish farms.

While Mr Dunion stressed that these issues pose no real risk to consumers' health, Sepa and the Scottish executive now recognise that salmon farming does threaten the wider environment.

"The industry will soon be operating in a much less forgiving regulatory regime," he said. "Also, consumers want to buy a quality product from sea to plate which doesn't do much damage. I think salmon is becoming a degraded product for consumers and food writers."

Yet fish farmers such as Nick Joy, whose company - Loch Duart Ltd, in Sutherland, north-east Scotland - employs 26 people, insists such claims are false or exaggerated. Algal blooms and the decline in fish numbers have occurred naturally for decades, he said, for a wide range of unrelated and more complex factors.

He has a thriving mussel farm next to his fish cages and two neighbouring salmon rivers, which have reported the best catches since the 1950s. He employs one person full time to deal with nine separate regulatory agencies and their strict licensing conditions. Despite its regular testing regime, the VMD has uncovered contaminated samples of fish on only two occasions since 1995, which proves how false FoE Scotland's allegations are, he said.

He added: "I'm passionate about this industry, and I think we have a very good story to tell. It's far better that we end up with some sort of public inquiry to show what utter drivel these people are talking."

According to Lord Lindsay, the Scottish Parliament investigation will serve to focus minds on the most critical issue of all: finding a proper balance between protecting the environment and supporting a valuable rural industry.

"Our success to date should bode well for the future because the global demand for fisheries products by 2010 is going to be massive, and aqua-culture worldwide has to step in and take up that demand - because the oceans have no hope of doing so," he said. "Aqua-culture has an enormous contribution to make, and Scotland has proven in the past that it can compete on grounds of quality in that market."

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