CAMPAIGNERS have criticised the use of £200,000 of public money to help introduce a new method of disposing of dead fish.

Highland and Islands Enterprise - a Scottish Government quango - has contributed half the money to a a new system of removing fish being developed by Ferguson Transport.

The firm became one of the first recipients of a new £1 million HIE innovation fund aimed at small and medium enterprises that deal in the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of fish, shellfish and plants.

However critics say the money would be better used to finding ways of reducing the number of fish that die during the farming process.

The latest figures show the amount of destroyed fish has risen to record levels in Scotland due to diseases and parasites while a parliamentary committee has criticised the industry and regulators for failing to deal with the root cause and cut the carnage.

Last year 25,737 tonnes - more than 11 million fish - were thrown away. Some 15 years ago the mortality rate was just 4,613 tonnes.

Campaigner Don Staniford of the newly launched Scottish Salmon Watch said of the public money handout: "Wasting taxpayers' money on the beleaugered salmon farming industry is a flagrant abuse of precious public resources. Far better to invest in technology to reduce mass mortalities - and that means moving disease-ridden salmon farms into closed containers on land where infectious wastes can be properly treated and mortalities enclosed safely."

Lynn Schweisfurth of the Scottish Salmon Think-Tank, a group of fish farm critics, added: "Paying for the failures of the industry is quite something.

"Taxpayers' money is being handed out to an industry that does not need it because it is making millions in profits. It is propping up an industry which is losing a quarter of its stock from disease and does not address the root causes of the mortalities."

Ms Schweisfurth, who is also a member of the Salmon Aquaculture Reform Network Scotland group added: "If this money is designed for 'innovation' it should be to prevent such massive mortalities through better animal husbandry and disease control and not to actively help them make even more money through more efficient moralities disposal.

"Innovation in this case is not about improving fish welfare or protecting the environment but ensuring sites stay profitable while trashing thousands of tonnes of dead fish caused by the industry’s broken business model."

HIE say the money will be used to develop and test a "specially designed device and tank system" that can be mobilised quickly onto one of the company’s adapted vessels to deal with high volumes of fish deaths.

They say it avoids double handling of dead fish, thereby "reducing risks of cross-contamination, and cuts the need to deploy fish farm staff to deal with the fish.

A spokesman said: “We fully understand the concerns around fish mortality in the aquaculture industry, and the need to tackle the causes as well as the effects. We are aware of a number of projects looking into this. If and when a project of this nature applies to the Accelerating Aquaculture Innovation fund, we would be happy to consider supporting it.

“This particular project will provide a more efficient means of removing mortalities from fish farms, reducing the risks to fish health and the environment.

“As the region’s economic and community development agency our role is to support the sector and the business side of the operations. Aquaculture provides valuable employment opportunities, especially in coastal and island areas, helping to sustain rural communities throughout the Highlands and Islands.

"These fish need to be removed as quickly as possible for environmental and fish health reasons. At the moment, the process causes disruption to normal operations."

Jack Ferguson, operational director with Ferguson Transport & Shipping, said: “Our new method will allow us to collect directly from the pens and thereafter deliver direct for the reprocessing for energy, from waste or processing into liquid fertiliser.”

Salmon is Scotland’s single biggest food export – worth £600 million – and is estimated to provide nearly 2,500 jobs directly with thousands more supported by the aquaculture sector in rural and coastal communities.