Marine finfish aquaculture: a new environmental framework

Significant opportunities for the growth of the finfish aquaculture sector in Scotland.

7 May 2019

The Scottish Government, SEPA and industry have identified significant opportunities for the growth of the finfish aquaculture sector in Scotland. This expansion is an express policy objective of the Scottish Government, and was confirmed through the National Marine Plan published in 2015. Nevertheless, whilst there has been some growth in the sector since the plan’s publication, the sector has yet to realise its full potential.

In November last year, SEPA responded with its own draft sector plan for the industry, putting forwards a holistic approach that looks at the industry as a whole, from initial inputs to the products and services created. This looks at the potential environmental footprint in all its facets and mirrors the type of approach to regulation taken in other large-scale industry sectors with significant wider environmental implications. It is however of note that, in respect of many of these industries, the regulatory framework has been specifically designed to encompass such a whole of industry approach. In contrast, as it currently stands, the powers of SEPA are relatively limited and are directed primarily towards managing discharges.

Sector Plan

The Sector Plan sets out a bold ambition whereby SEPA will seek to work both with the industry and with other regulators to drive change and encourage the industry to improve its environmental performance. The strapline SEPA uses is support “beyond compliance”. Its stated aim is to ensure that all operators in the sector reach full compliance and that as many as possible move beyond compliance to even higher standards.  Within the sector as a whole, SEPA seeks to identify the touchpoints at the different stages of the process, including the inputs, operation and ultimate processing of products.  SEPA has also set out what it sees as its role in helping the industry to achieve those wider objectives.

These can be summarised as follows:

  • matching production to environmental capacity;
  • increase in the capture and beneficial use of waste;
  • minimisation of medicine and chemical releases into the environment;
  • strengthening the evidence base; and
  • seeking a wider influence on the environmental performance of the finfish aquaculture sector.

In defining its role, SEPA recognises that it is only a part of the solution. For instance, in respect of matching production to environmental capacity, it notes that its particular role is as a consultee within the wider planning system, seeking to ensure that new fish farms are located in environments that have the capacity to accommodate the operation. In terms of waste, SEPA believes that technology is a way to capture more waste and thus avoid its release. In relation to medicine, meanwhile, SEPA’s focus is on seeking to ensure that operation and practice strives to minimise the potential need to use medicines, whilst again looking to develop technologies that may be able to capture medicine residues.  Fundamental to all these activities is the strengthening of the evidence base, and SEPA is committed to using this to enhance its knowledge. Finally, SEPA recognises that, given their restricted role, much of what requires to be achieved can only be achieved by co-operating both with the industry and with other regulators.

2019 is likely to be a very important year for finfish aquaculture. The output of the SEPA consultation and the implementation of the Sector Plan will result in important changes in environmental regulation.  Furthermore, it appears that there are issues emerging from the consultation that will also have long-term consequences for the location of new fish farm development and, accordingly, planning policy. Much of this is currently formulated in protective terms looking at other environmental resources.  It is clear that, if SEPA’s concerns are to be addressed, the marine carrying capacity will be an important further consideration which, if positive, should be a very positive factor in fish farm planning decisions. Will the locations with sufficiently strong currents match the locations where the planning system is currently directly new development?  This is just one example of the knock-on consequence of the SEPA approach and how careful consideration will have to be given not only to the approach that SEPA is going to adopt, but also its implications for other regulatory regimes.