A LOCAL complaint to the European Commission over the poor regulation of the disposal of dead fish from salmon farms has forced the Scottish Government to rewrite the rules.

For years the caged salmon industry has been allowed to dump diseased fish in landfill sites because of a loophole in public health law. But ministers have now had to close the loophole and oblige fish farm companies to dispose of dead fish in safer ways.

From the start of 2016 salmon farms must abide by the rules introduced in the wake of the outbreak of mad cow disease (BSE) in the 1980s. The farms have to incinerate, sterilise or compost their wastes, and not just tip them into landfill sites.

Scotland's £700 million fish farming industry has long had major problems with many millions of salmon mortalities annually, either caused by disease, excess medication or other causes. According to figures from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, over the last three years some 38,800 tonnes of dead fish have been recorded at fish farms across Scotland.

Between August 2011 and June 2012, 82,663 salmon deaths from disease were recorded at Ardmaddy fish farm in Seil Sound, Argyll. When the local environmental group, Save Seil Sound, asked what had happened to the resulting 257 tonnes of dead fish, no-one seemed to know.

In 2013 the group lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission, which eventually responded last month. The response revealed that UK and Scottish authorities had changed the rules in order to avoid breaching European law, and incurring a fine.

“The issue was always about public health rather than fish farming,” said the secretary of Save Seil Sound, former lawyer Ewan Kennedy. He discovered that virtually the whole for the west coast of Scotland had been exempted from the BSE rules.

“The consequences of a total lack of policing could range from untreated toxic waste ending up exposed in landfill sites to the risk that a farm operator might process the dead salmon into fishmeal and feed it back into the system,” he said. “Four years on, the European Commission has agreed with us.”

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) pointed out that the disposal of dead fish was regulated by other authorities. “Sepa does provide advice and guidance to these bodies and in some instances Sepa authorises facilities to accept fish waste for disposal,” said Sepa’s fish farm specialist, Douglas Sinclair.

“Sepa is aware of the change to the disposal routes for fish farm mortalities and welcomes the fact that such waste will not be routinely disposed of into landfill without prior treatment.”

The fish farming industry stressed that there had always been regulations covering the disposal of dead salmon. “These have been updated to allow recycling and other environmentally friendly methods such as anaerobic digestion, in-vessel composting in addition to rendering plants,” said Scott Landsburgh, chief executive of Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation.

“The industry has found these changes helpful. The animal health division at Scottish Government is the responsible authority for this matter. A report on disposal routes has been commissioned by Marine Scotland and Zero Waste Scotland and will be published on the Marine Scotland website.”

The Scottish Government pointed out that animal byproducts had to be disposed of in a safe and sustainable way. “To comply with European legislation, the Scottish Government introduced the Animal By-Products (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Scotland) Regulations 2015 to change how fish mortalities and other aquaculture waste can be disposed of in the areas categorised as remote,” said a government statement.

“From January 1, 2016, fish farms located in remote areas can no longer dispose of their waste in a landfill site and will now need to ensure that it is being disposed of in accordance with legislation, such as sending it for incineration, pressure sterilisation, or using it in composting or anaerobic digestion.”