Not long ago, I was shown footage of a Scottish farmed salmon covered in so many lice, it was almost impossible to count the dots – around in total, we guessed, 40 between its nose and gill.

The problem of sea lice on salmon farms is infamous. It’s been hard to miss the stories of their impact and attempts to defeat the problem using everything from cleaner fish (often themselves an incidental casualty of the system) to genetic selection of sea-lice-resistant salmon lines.

It’s almost equally well known that the parasites, as an increasing body of research shows, have an impact on the health of wild fish that pass by the farms.

How big a factor sea lice are in the decline of our wild salmon is much debated. Salmon numbers are in dramatic decline - 2021 saw the lowest rod catch of salmon since records began in 1952, and last year saw the fourth lowest - and whilst lice from salmon farms are just one of a range of factors affecting wild salmonids, there is enough evidence there to suggest that this is one factor on which we can make a difference.

The problem is that when salmon smolt migrate from their rivers during spring, passing farms on their way to the open sea, they can become infested with sea lice. When those lice reach a certain level, they can cause high-stress levels and reduce the smolt's swimming ability, heightening risk of mortality at sea.

In this context, Sepa's new sea lice framework, with its system of wild salmon protection zones, which is currently going through final consultation (submissions due by September 15) is undoubtedly good news.

However, yesterday the conservation charity Wildfish published a letter criticising the framework and describing it as “smoke and mirrors” and pointing out that the regulation would not “initially” apply to any of the 200-plus existing farms, or even the 21 farms that have been identified as offering considerable risk to wild salmon.

Wildfish Scotland Director, Rachel Mulrenan, said, “How can any regulation applying to none of the industry it is supposed to be regulating, when the industry has been identified as already causing damage, be considered fit for purpose?”

Is it smoke and mirrors? Mostly what I see it as is slow - and it depends on your sense of urgency, whether you think it’s soon enough. The new framework will, in the first half of 2024, begin adding sea lice control conditions to the permits of existing farms in the west of Scotland that pose the most risk to wild salmonids.

The consultation document states: “We will start with farms that pose the greatest risk to wild salmon post-smolts if sea lice numbers on the farms were to increase.”

READ MORE: 210,000 salmon dead at one salmon farm in one month.

READ MORE Scottish salmon farms failing to control lice, says report

This delay is partly because few areas already have full-risk screening models - these include the Loch Fyne and Loch Linnhe areas. Models are still to be developed for “the small number of other main WSPZs in which initial screening indicates infestation pressure may be high”. They will also be produced for Orkney and Shetland over the coming years.

Norway is ahead of Scotland on lice regulation, and currently operates a traffic light system in which areas are attributed red, yellow, and green lights depending on their respective risk levels to wild fish.

However, a recent Norwegian study found that the number of lice had increased, in step with the number of salmon. Strikingly, it also observed: “Despite the fact that a number of measures have been implemented by industry and authorities, we currently see no clear improvement."

Wildfish is right to point out that the regulation lacks bite. It feels like another system in which the regulated are too much in control. If SEPA's initial modeling flags a relative risk, the industry will be required to develop its own more detailed modeling.

Can we trust the sector to do this, especially when we look at its record on lice reporting, to date? The industry has a code of good practice, but, according to a Wildfish report last year, guidelines were breached, or there was a failure to supply a count, for 40% of its counts.

Even more crucially, can we trust Sepa, the regulator, to enforce? Among Wildfish’s complaints is the lack of significant threat in terms of rescinding of licenses.  So, what, according to the framework, will happen when a farm fails to comply?

Sepa gives the impression of a softly-softly approach, though the consultation points out that it has a “wide range of enforcement tools, including variation of permit conditions and monetary penalties and we will use the most appropriate of them in the circumstances, in line with our enforcement policy”.

The fact that we now stand to have any sea lice regulation at all, is to be celebrated. It’s progress. But, it’s important that it actually works.

We have seen, time and again, Scotland’s regulations fail to make their hoped-for impact: evidence of scallop dredging in Orkney’s marine-protected area, by-catch dumped in spite of regulations, salmon farmers breaching regulations on use of chemicals.

Give us a framework with teeth.