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SEPA is proposing a network of wild salmon protection zones in Western Isles’ waters to reduce the risk of sea lice transmission from fish farms.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is keen to set up protection zones to halt the long-term decline of the Atlantic wild salmon population.

Under the proposals, there would be greater compulsion on fish farm operators to minimise sea lice outbreaks. They would also face additional site monitoring and an additional requirement to collect and share data about fish stock health.

SEPA say the 120 or so areas identified in the Western Isles and along the West Coast are where migrating wild salmon are at greatest risk from sea lice.

Sea lice are marine parasites that, if left untreated, can injure or kill salmon, spread rapidly on fish farms, and infect migrating wild salmon.

However, the fish farm industry is worried the plans amount to over-regulation amid claims that sea lice are not a problem on fish farms. Outbreaks are at a low level, and the industry says it is constantly innovating to address what is a naturally-occurring problem.

A consultation paper published yesterday (Wednesday, May 31) unveils SEPA’s new sea lice risk management framework. It follows an earlier consultation in 2021 and outlines an evidence-based regulatory approach to protect young salmon as they depart rivers for North Atlantic feeding grounds.

Under the proposed framework, SEPA would manage the interaction between sea lice from fish farms and wild salmon.

Peter Pollard, Head of Ecology at SEPA, said: “The science is clear that Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon populations have seriously declined over the last few decades and are now at crisis point. Safeguarding the future of Scotland’s ‘king of fish’ requires coordinated action and a broad range of interests working together to manage all the pressures they face in rivers and coastal waters, from climate change to migration barriers and sea lice.”

He continued that as Scotland’s environmental watchdog, SEPA’s plans were a “fresh, proportionate and evidence-based approach.”

The head of ecology emphasised that the modelling of wild salmon protection zones were built on international best practice and used cutting-edge science to assess risk and strengthen modelling, monitoring, engagement and adaptation.

He stated: “It does not lock in or out development in any area. What it might mean is farms in higher-risk areas are implementing tighter but achievable levels of sea lice control, with the sector having a good track record in innovating and adapting.

“We’ve worked hard to date to listen to a broad and often diverse range of views on the future regulatory landscape to support wild salmon. We understand views can be polarised, and we’ll continue to listen during this further consultation, which we’re extending to ensure we hear directly from all those who share an interest in the framework and the future of wild Atlantic salmon.”

A series of workshops will be hosted with stakeholders during June, July and August 2023.

SEPA plans to introduce the framework in phases from the end of 2023, prioritising assessment of new or expanding fish farms.

Earlier this year, conservation organisation WildFish released a report claiming the salmon farming industry was breaching its own guidelines on sea lice management, citing an example of one fish farm with five million lice.

Commenting on their findings, Rachel Mulrenan, Scotland Director of WildFish, said: “During the period of young salmon migration, when salmon are most vulnerable to sea lice due to their small size, the Scottish salmon and trout industry reported sea lice levels that exceeded the industry limits on 1 in 4 occasions. The Norwegian company Mowi recorded sea lice levels as high as 8.2 lice per fish on one of its farms, 16 times the industry limit, and 40-80 times higher than what would be permitted in the company’s home country of Norway.”

Wild Atlantic Salmon, one of Scotland’s most iconic fish, has seen stocks dwindle from eight to ten million in the 1970s to an estimated three million today.

The Scottish salmon farming industry produces 200,000 tonnes of fish annually, worth £360m to the Scottish economy.

Two Scottish Parliament inquiries have stated that action is required to protect wild salmon.

Image credit: WildFish