FISH farmers should face penalties and even criminal charges for mass escapes, a group representing river workers has said.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) fishing group said escapes have a negative impact on declining wild salmon populations.

More than a quarter of a million farmed fish have reportedly escaped over the last five years in Scotland, it said.

The group said interbreeding between farmed and wild fish is damaging to the latter's survival, and so "appropriate penalties" now need to be applied.

The Scottish Government said it had recently committed to strengthening controls on fish farms, including plans to introduce penalties for escapes.

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Members of the SGA fishing group include river ghillies, fishing guides, boatmen, bailiffs and associated river workers.

Their proposals are contained in a submission to the Scottish Government's independent review of how fish farms are regulated, which is being carried out by Professor Russel Griggs.

They argued: "We believe that the problems associated with aquaculture in Scotland are so severe that it is necessary for the Scottish Parliament to consider creating not just regulatory penalties but also criminal offences."

The group suggested an offence of "deliberately or recklessly allowing the escape of farmed fish in a manner which causes harm to wild fish" or "deliberately or recklessly causing harm to wild fish as a result of an aquaculture operation".

It added: "Regardless of the need to create offences we believe that an approach to regulation based on legislation would be desirable. 

"The harms arising from aquaculture are very serious and merit proper consideration."

The group said it is an "extraordinary state of affairs that the operations of fish farms can lead to shocking losses of wild fish and to potentially irreversible genetic pollution and no penalty is available to disincentive repetition".

It argued for a body to be given regulatory powers and the ability to "levy fines and other penalties where escapes occur or where disease from farmed fish affects wild fish."

If the Scottish Government is not willing to introduce such measures, it said, triploid fish – which have an extra set of chromosomes and are infertile – should be bred on fish farms.

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A spokesman for the SGA fishing group said: “There have been incidents where things like stormy weather has led to mass escapes. 

"Storms happen in the sea, so this is not something which is entirely unforeseen. 

"In those circumstances, there should be penalties or fines for farms, so that every care is taken in future to secure their site.

“The impacts on wild fish from escapes are serious.

“Obviously, in incidents where seals have breached nets, for example, and Scottish Government regulation prevents the management of seals, then a sliding scale of penalties would account for that type of occurrence appropriately."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Aquaculture is a significant contributor to our rural economy, providing well paid jobs in some of Scotland’s most fragile communities and will be an essential part of our green recovery and transition to net zero.

"Escaped fish are in no one’s interest and their prevention is important for farmed fish welfare and to protect our iconic wild salmon.

"We recently published an Aquaculture Code of Practice for containment and responded to the Salmon Interactions Working Group Report by committing to strengthen controls on sea lice and escapes, including plans to introduce penalties for fish farm escapes.

"This follows the launch of an independent review of how fish farms are regulated in a move to make Scottish aquaculture legislation one of the most effective and transparent in the world.

"The review will report back in due course.”