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Scottish waters have a “horrendous” sea lice parasite problem, according to campaigners.

Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland claim fish are being found in appalling conditions on salmon farms in Argyll & Bute, Skye and the Outer Hebrides - with footage of lice-infected wild salmon showing the scale of the problem.

Local salmon producers say they are "devastated" and take fish health and welfare very seriously.

But the charity is calling for the Scottish Government to introduce a rigorous regime of independent monitoring and verification of salmon farms to resolve the problem, after it says proper regulation and enforcement have failed to be introduced.

Sea lice have posed a major problem across Scotland’s farmed salmon industry, with parasites from open net farms earlier this year blamed for a slump in wild salmon numbers to their lowest level since records began.

The parasites, which thrive in cramped cages and feed on the mucus, skin and blood of fish, result in salmon being virtually eaten alive.

According to the charity, investigators have uncovered severe sea lice eruptions concurrently at salmon farms near Oban, Lochgilphead, Dunvegan, Broadford, Loch Maddy and Loch Boisdale.

No investigations were conducted on Orkney or Shetland.

And footage from October 22 this year provides evidence that this is still currently the case for many Scottish fish, despite mitigating efforts by salmon farmers.

The images from a salmon farm on Skye, captured on 26 October, show the horrific injuries sea lice parasites can cause when they are left for weeks to eat the skin of the farmed salmon and expose large areas of flesh.

The Herald: Skye, footage taken Oct 2020 | Image credit Corin SmithSkye, footage taken Oct 2020 | Image credit Corin Smith

The Herald: Skye, footage taken Oct 2020 | Image credit Corin SmithSkye, footage taken Oct 2020 | Image credit Corin Smith

Andrew Graham-Stewart, Director of Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland (S&TCS), said:

“The images and footage passed to us are truly shocking.

"It seems that little, if anything, has changed, since the 2018 Parliamentary Inquiry, in the way that salmon farms are managed to address escalating sea lice parasite issues.

"The Scottish Government has failed to introduce a proper regime of regulation and enforcement on salmon farms and consequently parasite and disease issues are being allowed to run riot.”

He added: "We have no doubt that the appalling lack of control over sea lice on salmon farms will continue until such time as Scottish Government introduces a rigorous regime of independent monitoring and verification.

"Without such a regime, farms will continue to be run ‘out of sight and out of mind’ of the regulators, with devastating consequences for Scotland’s wild salmon and sea trout.” 

Salmon and Trout Conservation has alleged that recent treatments, including thermolicing - which is the passing of farmed salmon through heated water to shock the sea lice off the salmon - and bathing the fish in Hydrogen Peroxide, have been ineffective, and claims claim a Loch Creran salmon farm, owned by Scottish Sea Farms Ltd., is one of the most severely affected by the lice.

The Herald: Loch Creran, footage taken Oct 2020 | Image credit Corin SmithLoch Creran, footage taken Oct 2020 | Image credit Corin Smith

The Herald: Loch Creran, footage taken Oct 2020 | Image credit Corin SmithLoch Creran, footage taken Oct 2020 | Image credit Corin Smith

Scottish Sea Farms told The Herald that crop survival and performance had been strong until early October, when the farm was hit by an algal bloom, compromising gill health and leading to rising levels of sea lice.

Scottish Sea Farms’ Managing Director Jim Gallagher said: “We are devastated to be experiencing a fish health challenge of the nature we are seeing at Loch Creran – a situation that simply isn’t acceptable to us – and we’re working closely with veterinary professionals to remove the affected fish.

“As with all farming sectors, the environment in which we farm is ever-changing and events like these provide further impetus to continue our investment and work to research the most effective solutions.”

Farmers removed the fish within the affected pens, but Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland say unhealthy farmed salmon is “bound to have knock-on effects on wild fish.”

Nick Measham, CEO of Salmon and Trout Conservation UK, said: 

“Badly managed fish farms have severe implications for wild fish, especially when salmon farmers allow sea lice numbers to run out of control.

"Anyone with a shred of decency should be sickened by the condition and suffering of these farmed fish.

"Will the UK really be able to claim it has higher animal welfare standards than other countries such as the US when the Scottish Government allows this to happen?  How does this type of image sit with claims being made over farmed animal welfare in advance of UK-US trade talks?"

However, the Scottish Government has responded acknowledging the challenge sea lice presents to the salmon farming industry, and has disclosed plans to introduce new legislation that will require farms to report their sea lice levels. 

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Mean sea lice levels have reduced substantially since 2016, and so far are broadly similar in 2020 to levels in 2013. 

“But we know that sea lice remain one of the biggest fish health and welfare challenges to the global salmon farming industry.

"That is why we have already acted to review compliance policy and reduce the levels at which farms should report and when we might intervene. We intend to lower intervention levels further in 2021. 

“We will also introduce sea lice reporting legislation, which will require every salmon farm to submit a weekly sea lice average, one week in arrears, to the Scottish Government.

“This will allow us to provide for an electronic reporting and publication system improving transparency and helping with sea lice management and improve transparency.

“We continue to keep sector performance under review with compliance arrangements for farm reporting to the Fish Health Inspectorate where there are particular challenges.”