June 21, 2024

Naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham has called for a halt to the expansion of the Scottish salmon farming industry, as official figures suggest salmon mortality in the country’s farms hit record levels this year.

Packham, the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), described the growing industry as “catastrophic” for fish welfare and Scotland’s environment.

Animal rights campaigners welcomed his calls for better regulation, enforcement and a halt to the growth of the industry. But they said his comments highlight the “untenable position” of the RSPCA’s welfare stamp of approval scheme for salmon farms.

The RSPCA received £700,000 in membership and licence fees in 2022 from salmon farmers and producers as part of its RSPCA Assured scheme. Nearly 100% of Scottish farmed salmon is produced under the scheme.

Rachel Mulrenan, Scotland director of WildFish, said: “Any public figure making a commitment to raise awareness of the issues with salmon farming is positive. But this dual role that the RSPCA is playing is unhelpful. RSPCA Assured should not be certifying salmon farms, it interferes with the work of the organisation to raise awareness of action needed. The certificate is a proxy for good environmental performance and welfare, but this is not matched on the water. Look at the mortality numbers this month alone.”

The latest figures, published by the Fish Health Inspectorate , show that 13.5 million salmon mortalities were reported by Scottish farms from January to October this yearC, compared with 11.5 million during the same period in 2022. That year saw salmon deaths on farms almost double, due to growing levels of disease, parasites and jellyfish swarms.

Don Staniford, of the $camon $cotland campaign, said: “Packham is raising a legitimate issue. The latest data from October shows the highest level of mortality in salmon farms. If their own president is raising the issue then the RSPCA’s position is untenable.”

Viva, a vegan campaigning charity, has released pictures that it says shows farmed fish that have been infested by sea lice.
Viva, a vegan campaigning charity, has released pictures that it says shows farmed fish that have been infested by sea lice. Photograph: Viva

In a newsletter to supporters of Animal Equality (AE), Packham urged them to donate to the charity to halt the expansion of the Scottish salmon farming industry. “Millions of fish are dying prematurely, parasites and diseases are out of control, and Scotland’s natural environment is suffering as farm waste blights the seabed,” Packham wrote. He said he was “speaking as a leading campaigner” for animal protection and broader ecological conservation.

“Escapes and interbreeding with wild fish is leading to compromised fitness and increased sea-lice risks for wild populations,” he said.

An RSPCA spokesperson said that Packham’s letter to AE supporters was written in a personal capacity, adding that his role at the charity was “non governance”.

In a statement, the RSPCA said: “We are proud to have Chris Packham, a passionate campaigner for animals, as our president and we share his desire to create a better world for all animals.

“The charity created the world’s first welfare standards for salmon produced in the UK, in response to the absence of specific legislation. They have raised welfare conditions globally and are continuing to drive positive change.”

All standard breaches and cases of high mortality were looked into and members suspended to allow investigation and appropriate action taken to rectify failings, the spokesperson said. It had not been necessary to permanently exclude any members, but the RSPCA would not hesitate to do so, if a farm could not rectify problems.

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While there had been “significant progress” to improve the lives of farmed salmon there were still “significant challenges and we are working hard to tackle them”, the spokesperson added. The RSPCA would publish new welfare standards to include further improvements around health, welfare and slaughter next year.

Dr Iain Berrill, head of technical at Salmon Scotland, which represents the salmon farming industry, said: “Chris Packham has a significant platform, so it is disappointing that he has included several misconceptions used by anti-salmon activists in this letter.”

A salmon farm at Cairidh on the Isle of Skye with round circles of light floating on the loch
A salmon farm on the Isle of Skye. Lights in the pen are designed to simulate sunlight in winter to stimulate growth and delay sexual maturation. Photograph: Gerry Neely/Alamy

Berrill insisted that Scottish salmon farmers provide the “highest welfare standards” anywhere in the world, independently certified by RSPCA Assured. He said: “While no farmer wants to lose any animal, the care our farmers are able to provide means that survival rates for farm-raised salmon – which spend up two years in the sea – are significantly higher than their wild cousins, with average monthly survival rates of around 97%.”

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “Salmon farming in Scotland is a highly regulated industry subject to a number of fish health, environmental and local authority planning controls. The industry is subject to stringent animal health and welfare legislation. The vast majority of salmon farms in Scotland are members of the RSPCA assurance scheme and are regularly checked for compliance.

“We recognise an increase in mortality, which has largely been associated with earlier climate events and we expect producers to drive mortality to the lowest possible levels.”

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