“BULLYING TACTICS” by salmon farmers forced the Scottish Government into a policy u-turn on publishing the results of audits into fish farm escapes and disease infestation, one of the UK’s oldest conservation charities claims today.

Threatened with possible legal action by the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) if the results of the inspection reports were publicly disclosed, officials of Marine Scotland backed down and no official audits or inspections of fish farms have taken place since March 2010, the campaigners say.

In a vociferous attack, the respected Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA), whose patron is Prince Charles, claims that the saga which has come to light following a series of Freedom of Information requests into correspondence between Holyrood officials and the SSPO, “gives the lie to the Scottish Government’s contention that the salmon farming industry is properly and effectively regulated.”

The disclosures, which are bound to embarrass the Government, mark a significant increase in intensity in the war of words currently raging between game fish interests and salmon producers over the risks fish farming allegedly poses to wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout.

There must now be fundamental questions over the credibility of the Scottish Government’s aquaculture policy

Paul Knight, chief executive of the S&TA, founded in 1903, says there must now be fundamental questions over the credibility of the Scottish Government’s aquaculture policy and its commitment to protecting two of the nation’s iconic natural resources.

The S&TA states that Marine Scotland, the directorate responsible for fish farm regulation, warned the industry in March that it would be publishing online details of inspection reports into sea lice infestations and fish escapes under the terms of the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Act.

The move followed a ruling by the Scottish Information Commissioner that the audit information should be in the public domain.

There followed an exchange of letters [extracts in detail here] between officials of Marine Scotland and the SSPO in which the S&TA say the Government was threatened with legal action “if a company’s business is compromised or if it loses business as a result of a MSS [Marine Scotland Science] audit.”

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Guy Linley-Adams, S&TA lobbyist

Guy Linley-Adams, the lawyer appointed by the S&TA to spearhead its campaign for greater protection of wild fish stocks, said details of the correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, demonstrates “just how impotent the authorities are in the face of the salmon farmers’ bullying tactics.”

He said the threat of legal action was “in my experience, unprecedented.” It demonstrated the salmon growers’ confidence of their position relating to the Government but also the impotence of the authorities when faced with threats from industry.

The S&TA singles out Loch Duart Ltd, which it says admitted to an escape of 4,000 farmed salmon from its Loch Laxford in north-west Scotland site in early November.

Mr Linley-Adams added: “Loch Duart is a prime example of why Marine Scotland’s inspection reports should indeed be in the public domain. The company has an abysmal record on fish escapes and is reported to have lost almost 60,000 in eight separate incidents in the last ten years. Perhaps it is understandable why it so keen to suppress certain inspection reports on its farms.”

Conservationists fear that wild fish escapes interfere with the integrity of migrating wild salmon populations which are also at risk of disease from sea lice parasites which infect marine salmon cages. The campaigners want fish farms relocated from areas near established salmon rivers.

A Scottish Government spokesman ignored the claim of a policy u-turn and said sea lice audits had been halted because of an “inaccuracy” in initial inspections. A review of procedures was now underway.

“We believe this is entirely appropriate, given the problems highlighted. It is entirely wrong to suggest the industry is not adequately regulated as inspections of fish farms continue as normal, as do containment audits – which is why the aquaculture industry is on course for the lowest level of escapes since public reporting began in 2002.”

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