Angling groups allege that Scottish ministers have been "gagged" by the "bullying tactics" of the industry, while opposition politicians attack them for making a "craven decision".
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Government inspectors are meant to check salmon cages across Scotland to make sure they are not breaking the rules for treating infestations of sea lice. There have been allegations that some farms make use of toxic pesticides.
But the Government’s Marine Scotland, responsible for the integrated management of Scotland’s seas, halted key audits in April after it received a threat of court action from the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO). It also shelved plans to release the results of the audits, despite a ruling from the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, that they should be published.
Marine Scotland told fish farmers in March that it was planning to publish the audits on its website in line with Dunion’s decision. But SSPO chairman Phil Thomas warned that companies would go to court if their businesses suffered as a result. "If you release audit information that contains any error, there is every prospect that a company will seek legal redress," he said.
In response, Marine Scotland said it would suspend publication while the matter was reviewed. It later said it had ceased conducting sea lice audits. The correspondence was obtained under Freedom of Information laws by the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA).
"The threat by the SSPO to bring claims for damages against Marine Scotland is, in my experience, unprecedented," said the S&TA’s lawyer, Guy Linley-Adams. "It is a clear indication of just how impotent the authorities are in the face of bullying tactics."
The S&TA’s chief executive, Paul Knight, added: "This gives the lie to the Scottish Government’s contention that the salmon farming industry is properly and effectively regulated. It now appears the industry is calling the tune."
Green MSP Robin Harper accused ministers of a "striking dereliction of duty" by "caving in" to the fish farming industry.
He added: "Successive governments have stood by while our wild salmon stocks have been decimated, but this is a new low. It is an underhand, outrageous, craven decision."
The Scottish Government confirmed some audits had been halted. "An inaccuracy was pointed out in initial sea lice audits," said a spokeswoman. "As a result, a review is now under way and they have been stopped to allow us to get the procedures right. We believe this is entirely appropriate."
However, she denied the industry was inadequately regulated. Fish farms were still inspected to check that salmon had not escaped, and the industry is on course for the lowest number of escapes since public reporting began in 2002.
The SSPO chief executive, Scott Landsburgh, said: "The purpose of the correspondence was to ensure accurate reporting from Marine Scotland."
One of the fish farms which objected to audits being published was Loch Duart in Sutherland, which demanded that it be shown the audits before they were published to check for errors.
"If that constitutes bullying, I’m surprised," said managing director, Nick Joy. He did admit, however, that there had been escapes from the farm.