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Overview of regulatory framework

SEPA, as one of a number of organisations regulating finfish aquaculture, is implementing a revised regulatory framework based on  that will strengthen the protection of the marine environment for the people of Scotland. The framework follows months of work by colleagues across the agency, a 2017 consultation and two Scottish Parliamentary committees.

The evidenced-based features of the regulatory framework for aquaculture that strengthen the regulation of the sector include:

A new tighter standard for the organic waste deposited by fish farms

Marine pen fish farming across Scotland operates using open-net pens. Fish faeces, any uneaten food, used fish medicines and other chemical treatments escape from these pens into the marine environment. The heavier, organic particles (the fish faeces and uneaten food) together with any medicines sticking to them are deposited on the sea floor. Natural biological processes then breakdown and assimilate the material over time. The tighter standard limits the spatial extent of the mixing zone around farms. The controls we will apply to these mixing zones will bring them into equivalence with modern practice on mixing zones for other waste effluent discharges into the sea, including those from urban wastewater.

More powerful modelling using the best available science

The new regulatory framework will use new, more accurate computer modelling approaches that will improve our understanding of the risk to the local environment and allow assessment of the larger-scale impacts including interactions with other farms. The science about fish farming is very complex and these new approaches will bring the aquaculture sector up-to-date with the modelling practices that are being used for other industrial sectors where there is a longer history of operation and analysis.

Enhanced environmental monitoring and new Enforcement Unit

Operators will be required to invest in more accurate monitoring, including of waste coming from fish farms. The creation of a new enforcement unit will strengthen the checking and verifying of monitoring that fish farm operators are required to undertake. SEPA will also increase and strengthen monitoring of the impact of fish farms in surrounding areas.

New interim approach for controlling the use of Emamectin Benzoate

SEPA has asked the UK Technical Advisory Group (UKTAG), a partnership of the UK environment and conservation agencies, to make recommendations on new environmental standards for Emamectin Benzoate to the Scottish Government. UKTAG was established by the governments of the different parts of the UK to oversee the scientific process of developing the environmental standards used across the UK for protecting the water environment. UKTAG is in the process of developing its recommendations. This includes obtaining and considering independent scientific peer reviews of the evidence. After UKTAG makes its recommendations to the Scottish Government, Scottish Government will consult on draft directions on the establishment of new environmental standards. While this UKTAG work continues, SEPA has adopted a precautionary principle position that imposes a much tighter interim standard for the use of Emamectin Benzoate at any new site. This is based on the now substantial weight of scientific evidence that the existing standards do not adequately protect marine life. This interim standard set a limit so low that it will, effectively, mean Emamectin Benzoate can only be discharged in very limited quantities at any new site.

New approach to sustainable siting of farms

The combination of the new standard, the more accurate model and enhanced monitoring will allow the siting of farms in the most appropriate areas where the environment can assimilate wastes. It will also allow SEPA to better match biomass to the capacity available in the environment and continue to assess that through the operation of the site. This may allow for the approval of larger farms than would have been traditionally approved previously, provided they are appropriately sited in sustainable locations. Overall, the proposals will combine to encourage operators to site and operate their fish farms in environmentally less sensitive waters and use improved practices and technologies to reduce environmental impact.

In practice, we anticipate this will lead to fewer fish farms in shallower, slow-flowing waters and more fish farms in deeper and faster-flowing waters. We also anticipate it will encourage the adoption of new technologies such as partial and full containment to capture organic waste and any remaining medical residues. SEPA has seen some industry operators successfully developing new approaches such as non-chemical ways of managing fish health. Our new framework will support these encouraging developments.

Improved management of waste inputs

To protect the marine environment, we include limits in permits that control the quantities of organic waste released into the environment.  To do this, we need to use a parameter as an indicator of the quantities of organic waste released.

We have always used biomass as this parameter.  In our draft sector plan, we proposed the alternative approach of using feed as the parameter. Our thinking was that the quantities of waste released into the sea are directly proportional to the quantities of feed used.

Based on further information we have received, we are still considering whether moving to using a feed limit or retaining a biomass limit in the permit is the most effective parameter to use. For SEPA to effectively regulate marine fish farms, this is a crucial decision to get right.  Over the next three months, we will consult with all interested stakeholders on these options before we make a final decision.  In the interim, we will continue to limit organic waste releases using fish biomass.

Listening to communities and stakeholders

As one of a number of organisations regulating finfish aquaculture, our framework has the potential to significantly improve the environmental performance of the industry.

Recognising the diverse range of views of finfish aquaculture, we were keen to hear directly from individuals, interest groups, NGOs, communities, companies and others with a view on the regulatory proposals. Consultation events held across Scotland between November and December 2018 were attended by 275 people. The nine community drop-in events and 28 one-to-one meetings were facilitated between SEPA specialists and stakeholder groups including community groups, local fisheries, NGOs and industry representatives. In May 2019, SEPA announced a new SEPA National Aquaculture Stakeholder Advisory Panel, recognising the breadth of opinions on the sector to better inform our regulatory approach.