THE Scottish Government has been accused of being "in cahoots" with the fish-farming industry after public agencies disclosed more than 750 fish farms have been approved in recent years - and only six have been refused.
Critics say plans for the farms are being rubber-stamped to help meet the Government's target of a 50% increase in production by 2020, and that ministers are failing to protect the environment.
They also point out that ministers have had more than 30 meetings with leaders of the fish-farming industry in the last three years.
Loading article content
After a request under freedom of information law, the Scottish Government has released a list of such meetings. It shows that since January 2011, successive environment ministers have met with fish-farm companies 26 times, including eight site visits, four dinners, two award ceremonies and an industry exhibition at Trondheim in Norway.
Three meetings with Enterprise Minister Fergus Ewing in 2012 and 2013 are on the list, which also shows that in June this year First Minister Alex Salmond opened a fish hatchery run by the Norwegian-owned company Marine Harvest at Lochailort in Lochaber.
An official press release shows Salmond met with Marine Harvest bosses in Oslo in May 2012 - but this was not included in the list released by the Scottish Government. Officials said this was due to an "administrative oversight".
Another freedom of information response from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) reveals it has given the green light to 585 fish farms around the country since 2006, and rejected just one. Since 2003, Highland Council has consented to 66 farms and refused two, while Argyll and Bute Council has approved 32 and turned down two. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) has approved 73 and rejected one since 2008 (see table, right).
The freedom of information requests were made by Don Staniford, an anti-fish-farming campaigner who runs a new group called Protect Wild Scotland. "The Scottish Government and the Norwegian salmon farming industry are clearly in cahoots," he said.
"The floodgates are being opened across Scotland to salmon-farming pollution, toxic chemicals, infectious disease and sea-lice infestation. Salmon-farm applications are shamelessly being rubber-stamped as Scottish ministers drive forward their expansion plan."
Staniford was particularly critical of the First Minister for "flying the flag for farmed salmon". On Thursday he is planning to deliver a letter to Salmond in Edinburgh demanding a moratorium on salmon farming.
JOHN Robins from the charity Save Our Seals Fund accused ministers of "getting into bed" with the fish-farming industry. "Our Government is so close to the salmon farming industry, it smells fishy," he said.
"Environment ministers should be protecting our marine environment from the pollution caused by these filthy floating factory fish farms." He also criticised fish farmers for shooting seals.
Peter Urpeth, spokesman for Outer Hebrides Against Fish Farms, said the fish-farming industry was quietly becoming "an arm of government with a privileged and unchallenged right of access." He warned this was "extremely dangerous for Scotland's marine environments".
According to the Scottish Salmon Producers' Organisation (SSPO), fish farms were welcomed in many rural areas because of the important economic contribution they make. "The industry is pleased that its development plans are making progress," said its chief executive, Scott Landsburgh.
"Both SSPO and individual companies meet ministers regularly through the various government-run working groups, export missions and update meetings. This is no more than you would expect from Scotland's number one food export."
The Scottish Government argued it was "wrong and misleading" to suggest it granted permission for fish farms. It said a regulatory framework ensured the industry, worth £537 million to the Scottish economy in 2012, remained sustainable.
"Ministers meet with representatives of the industry to further its development, just as they do with other important sectors and stakeholders representing wild fish and shellfish interests," added a Government spokesman.
Sepa said applications for fish farms were rarely refused because its authorisation process was "clear and understandable" and those that would be rejected were withdrawn or amended after consultation with officials.