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Working together to safeguard Scottish wild salmon

Date published: 31 May 2023


SEPA proposes new protections for wild Atlantic salmon in the seas around Scotland’s West Coast and Western Isles

Areas on the West coast of Scotland where wild Atlantic salmon may face the greatest risk from sea lice have been identified for the first time as part of proposals by SEPA to help manage pressure on the species from fish farm developments.

The locations are highlighted in the second consultation published today for SEPA’s new sea lice risk management framework. The development of the framework follows cross-party consensus from the Scottish Parliament’s 2018 Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) and Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee inquiries and recommendations from the independent salmon interactions working group, set up by Scottish Ministers in response.

The second consultation, which follows an initial 2021 consultation and engagement with a range of stakeholders, outlines a proportionate, evidence-based regulatory approach to protect young salmon as they leave rivers and begin their journey to feeding grounds in the north Atlantic.

Wild Atlantic salmon is Scotland’s most iconic fish, but stocks are dwindling. Populations have declined across the north Atlantic from 8-10 million in the 1970s, to an estimated 3 million today, with the 2022 Scottish Wild Salmon Strategy acknowledging there is ‘now unequivocal evidence that populations of Atlantic salmon are at crisis point’. The Strategy aims to build resilience and transform the fortunes of wild Atlantic salmon through coordinated action to manage pressures in rivers and coastal waters, including the effects of climate change, barriers in rivers to migration, diffuse pollution, fish diseases and sea lice from fish farms.

SEPA is taking on responsibility for managing the interaction between sea lice from fish farms and wild salmon. The proposed new framework establishes a network of wild salmon protection zones in migration bottlenecks in coastal waters on the West Coast and Western Isles, such as sea lochs and sounds.

The proposals, which would see phased implementation, take a risk and evidence-based approach, affording opportunities for additional modelling, monitoring, engagement and adaption. When implemented, all proposals for new finfish farms or increases in fish numbers at existing farms that could affect protection zones will be subject to risk assessment and appropriate permit conditions.

Peter Pollard, Head of Ecology at SEPA, said:

“The science is clear that Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon populations have seriously declined over the last few decades and are now at crisis point. Safeguarding the future of Scotland’s ‘king of fish’ requires co-ordinated action and a broad range of interests working together to manage all the pressures they face in rivers and coastal waters, from climate change to migration barriers and sea lice.

“As Scotland’s environmental watchdog, SEPA’s new responsibilities on managing the risk to wild salmon and sea trout from sea lice offer an opportunity for a fresh, proportionate and evidence-based approach to working together on the shared challenge.

“Our modelling of wild salmon protection zones, built on international best practice, uses cutting edge science to triage risk and specifically builds in opportunities for additional modelling, monitoring, engagement and adaption. It does not lock in or out development in any area. What it might mean is farms in higher risk areas implementing tighter but achievable levels of sea lice control, with the sector having a good track record in innovating and adapting.

“We’ve worked hard to date to listen to a broad and often diverse range of views on the future regulatory landscape to support wild salmon. We understand views can be polarised and we’ll continue to listen during this further consultation, which we’re extending to ensure we hear directly from all those who share an interest in the framework and the future of wild Atlantic salmon.”

A series of workshops will be hosted with stakeholders during June, July and August 2023.

SEPA plans to introduce the framework in phases from the end of 2023, prioritising assessment of new or expanding fish farms.

Notes to editors

  • SEPA’s second consultation on the sea lice framework and can be viewed on our consultation hub.