What is going on with Environmental Management Plans?

Last week our Scottish Director distributed an open letter to west Highlands and Islands Fishery Boards and Fishery Trusts (and other interested parties) detailing how Environmental Management Plans (EMPs), “negotiated” with salmon farm companies in connection with planning applications for new or expanded salmon farms, cannot be relied upon to protect wild fish and how they may even be implying wild fish support for these applications. 

You can read a copy of the letter in full below.

What is going on with Environmental Management Plans (EMPs)?

It is now almost a year since the Salmon Interactions Working Group (SIWG) published its report and recommendations. We have explained in detail why they will do little to protect wild fish from the damaging impacts of salmon farming - see https://salmon-trout.org/2020/05/11/review-of-the-report-of-the-salmon-interactions-working-group/

Whilst there is still no indication when the flawed proposals will be adopted by the relevant authorities, it does now appear that the constituent parts on which they depend, including basic goodwill, are already unravelling.

Recommendation 1.2 of the SIWG report reads: “The reformed regulatory system should protect wild migratory salmonids, proactively seek to understand and address any negative impacts detected through monitoring of wild salmonids, be fully resourced and meet the tests of being robust, transparent, enforceable and enforced”.

Essentially SIWG advocates a system of adaptive management. For a new salmon farm, or a farm expansion, this is currently encapsulated in an EMP negotiated between the applicant company and the local District Salmon Fishery Board.

However, in February 2021 Comhairle nan Eilean Siar granted planning permission for a major expansion of The Scottish Salmon Company’s (TSSC) farm at Plocrapol on the east side of Harris. TSSC has long had an uneasy relationship with the local community; notoriously, when TSSC previously considered applying to increase permitted biomass in 2012, the company’s Environmental Manager, in a leaked email, referred to the community as “a guaranteed vipers’ nest”.

Plocrapol has an appalling sea lice record; during weeks 34 to 49 in 2020 the figure for average adult female lice per fish was invariably over 2, exceeding 3 in nine weeks, peaking at over 6 in week 49 (the site was then harvested out). Plocrapol is certainly a prime example of a salmon farm where any expansion required, at the very least, a rigorously tight and strictly enforced EMP.

Yet the EMP that forms part of the planning permission for expansion was submitted to and accepted by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar without consultation with the Western Isles District Salmon Fishery Board (WIDSFB). In fact, WIDSFB has now confirmed that it “had no input in to the EMP referenced in the planning consent”. WIDSFB is not a party to the Plocrapol EMP.

From a wild fish perspective, the Plocrapol EMP is fundamentally flawed:

  • WIDSFB has no control whatsoever over what the TSSC now does at Plocrapol.
  • There is no indication within the EMP regarding who will carry out the wild fish monitoring (so TSSC can hire in “consultants” as required).
  • The threat that the planning authority, at the suggestion of the WIDSFB, might not permit restocking of the farm for the second or subsequent production cycles relies on there being “evidence of impacts on wild salmon populations caused by farming activity, if evidenced by the [wild fish monitoring] in the previous production cycle”. But, under what circumstances can anyone envisage such population-level impacts occurring in a single production cycle of 22.5 months and being evidenced in that cycle by wild fish monitoring? Fisheries science is simply not able to detect population level changes over such a short period of time. Any departing smolts that get infested with farm-derived sea lice would not return for at least a year and maybe longer. There is no planning authority in Scotland that would risk a judicial review challenge from a fish farm company if they were to stop a farm being restocked on the basis of what inevitably will be uncertain evidence.
  • If there is only a risk of an impact on wild salmonids raised by wild fish monitoring, then the EMP has no enforcement mechanism that can compel TSSC to act. The worst case scenario for the fish farmers is that the local authority could require them to attend mediation.
  • The truth, as the EMP as agreed with the planning authorities makes clear, is that: “the ultimate decision to undertake biomass reduction will be undertaken by TSSC veterinarians and senior TSSC management". In other words, the WIDSFB has no control. Nor, it seems, do the planners.

There are further problems within the EMP process generally, not least the fact that simply by engaging in the EMP process, Boards are giving the impression that they are accepting industry expansion. The minutes for the Argyll District Salmon Fishery Board meeting in November 2020 record that the Chairman (who represented FMS on the SIWG) noted that “the Board almost always object to those farms but on the basis that these farms may go ahead the Board are then in negotiation regarding the EMP which leaves the Board in a compromised position”. Quite so.

The operation of the few existing EMPs gives little confidence that they are any more than a box-ticking exercise. An EMP signed between Marine Harvest and the Lochaber Board in 2015 for a farm in Loch Sunart has, ever since, just been allowed to gather dust. The Board’s Clerk has recently admitted that “we have not held meetings to discuss it post operation as the original document proposed that the DSFB meet with the operator four times a year to discuss……no meetings or discussions have been held”.

In light of all the above, no-one should have any confidence that EMP-style adaptive management, as envisaged by SIWG and supported by FMS, will work in practice.

We believe that it is imperative that any new regulatory regime includes a strict adult female sea lice ceiling, to be applied to all fish farms. Sea lice must be independently monitored and where levels rise there must be rigorous and very prompt enforcement to drive lice levels back down. This ceiling should be set at 0.5 adult female lice per farmed fish, dropping to 0.1 during the period of wild smolt emigration, below which ceiling any adaptive management, based on wild fish monitoring, is then applied.

Only by having such a precautionary ceiling, applied to all farms, will the fish farmers be shown that they cannot decide both if and how they should be controlled with respect to their negative impact on wild salmonids.