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Daily News Blog

17
Apr

Farmed Salmon during Covid-19 Pandemic Subject to Increased Pesticide Use in Scotland

(Beyond Pesticides, April 17, 2020) As the novel coronavirus pandemic upends much of human activity, some governments are acting to loosen environmental regulations — purportedly, in the interests of public health in the face of Covid-19 threats, and/or in deference to economic concerns of certain industrial sectors. There has been little analysis, to date, of what the “on the ground” impacts of these relaxed rules may be, but news out of Scotland illustrates some kinds of concerns critics and advocates have about such loosening of regulations. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has issued new, temporary rules that allow some salmon farms both to ignore newly established limits on the amount of emamectin, an insecticide used to control sea lice that plague the salmon, and to boost use of azamethiphos, another insecticide used against the lice, beyond previous 24-hour limits.

SEPA says the relaxed rules will endure only as long as the Covid-19 “lockdown” remains in place (perhaps the end of June), and apply only to new or expanding enterprises, which to date total approximately 14 of the country’s 200+ salmon farms. The farmed salmon industry represents a huge domestic and export commodity worth approximately $2.5 billion annually. In addition to the loosening of these specific pesticide rules, collection, analysis, and reporting about environmental samples, which may be delayed for some of the same reasons, will “not be treated as a non-compliance” if SEPA is notified and offered a “suitable explanation.”

Farmed fish, and Atlantic salmon in this case, are raised in what are, essentially, pens suspended in open sea lochs (arms of the sea that are narrow or partially landlocked) on Scotland’s west coast and Northern Isles. Many of these are in relatively remote areas, so are somewhat “hidden” from public scrutiny. The fish in these pens live under very crowded conditions, with far greater density than do wild salmon. They are fed processed feed that is usually laced with various pharmaceuticals and/or insecticides used to ward off diseases and pest infestations, such as the sea lice, which tend to break out in such crowded conditions.

The fish also discharge thousands of tons of feces and food waste into the surrounding sea (as well as pesticide and pharmaceutical residues). The food and fecal matter ratchet up the nitrate levels in the nearby marine ecosystem, which has deleterious effects on ocean plants and organisms. The pesticides and other pharmaceuticals can harm local ecosystems and marine life.

Friends of the Earth has written, “It is no secret that a massive population of animals in a closed space will breed pests and disease. Farmed fish in net pens are hosts to a variety of pests and diseases, including sea lice, infectious salmon anemia, and Piscine Reovirus, just to name a few. Rather than solve the root of the problem — that is, by sustainably farming animals in more humane conditions — mega-farms simply add to the problem by using pesticides and a pharmacopeia of agricultural drugs in an attempt to control pests and disease. . . . A number of industrial ocean fish farms have embraced pesticides to ward off sea lice and other parasites. Not only do these dangerous chemicals kill off sea lice, but also everything living nearby the farm.”

Fish farming also decreases biodiversity. Wild and farmed Atlantic salmon are not genetically identical; farmed species are often hybrids from non-local stocks. Farmed fish often escape their pens through holes in the netting; in 2016, for example, more than 300,000 farmed salmon escaped their pens off Scotland’s coast. When this occurs, DNA can be transferred from the formerly captive salmon to wild populations in the area. The important genetic diversity of wild Atlantic salmon is compromised when they breed with farmed Atlantic salmon — an effect that increases over time and growing contacts. This threatens wild populations: stocks of wild salmon in rivers and waterways will be reduced because locally adapted gene pools make for better survival rates. In fact, in 2019, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) reported that Scotland’s wild salmon stocks were at their lowest level ever.

Less than a week prior to its announcement on these two pesticides, SEPA relaxed rules regulating the monitoring of salmon farms, the permitted weight of salmon in the farms’ cages, and the length of time the fish can remain in them. SEPA asserted that the move was to help aquatic fisheries deal with staff shortages and necessary social distancing related to Covid-19. SEPA took the steps on loosening these pesticide rules in response to fishing industry requests, which claimed that, for example, given those issues, emamectin (sold commercially as the product “Slice”) was “the only practical option for maintaining control over sea lice during the Covid-19 outbreak.”

SEPA is aware that emamectin and azamethiphos kill crustaceans (e.g., crabs, lobsters, and others), but have deemed this an acceptable short-term impact. Ironically, SEPA attempted to ban emamectin in 2016, following a study by the Scottish Association for Marine Science that “warned that emamectin was harming crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans around fish farms.” SEPA did manage to tighten regulations on use of the pesticide in October 2017. But, in 2019, The Ferret reported, based on 2017–2018 investigations, SEPA and the Scottish government “secretly bowed to pressure from the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO). To bolster their arguments about the pesticide, SSPO and Merck (emamectin’s U.S. manufacturer) funded an unpublished study that asserted that “wildlife in sea lochs could withstand high concentrations of the pesticide.” SEPA used this study in its reviews, and has claimed that it can’t release it publicly because it is “commercially confidential.”

Merck and the SSPO defended the study and justified use of emamectin, saying that, “Sea lice infestations represent the most significant disease problem currently affecting sea-farmed salmon around the world. Effective control of all parasitic stages of sea lice with emamectin, as part of an integrated pest management approach, including biological control and mechanical treatments, has helped to dramatically increase animal welfare and reduce the economic impact of sea lice on the global salmon industry.”

Environmental advocates have voiced their opposition to the current rule changes, and to the past several years of lobbying by the industry to allow not only use, but also, higher limits on use, of emamectin in marine fish farms. Objections are based on multiple concerns, including the harms to aquatic organisms and ecosystems that increased pollution and the toxicity of such pesticides cause. A spokesperson for the Scottish Greens said, “Emamectin is a toxic pesticide which has been shown to devastate marine life. SEPA previously believed there was a case for an outright ban on its use, so at the very least ministers must back the stringent controls now recommended by experts, and resist the inevitable pressure from industry lobbyists and their dubious, unpublished research.”

The National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Salmon Watch, and Trout Conservation Scotland have all criticized use of this pesticide in salmon farming. Scottish Salmon Watch called emamectin a “serial killer of shellfish” and said, “SEPA must ban emamectin as they proposed back in 2016 before the industry, Scottish Government and chemical giant Merck successfully lobbied to delay, deny and distract. No ifs and buts and no more delays. ‘Slicegate’ represents everything that is wrong with the dirty rotten Scottish salmon farming industry.” National Trust for Scotland issued this statement: “The aquaculture industry is recommending hugely elevated levels similar to those that we already know are killing marine wildlife. Accepting the industry’s assessment of safe levels for these chemicals would be like accepting the fox’s advice on chicken farm security.”

The Coast Communities Network (CCN), a coalition of 16 groups that has grave concerns about the impacts of emamectin on shellfish, has called fish farms the “biggest polluters of Scotland’s seas, and has called on Scottish ministers to reject the industry push for weakened regulations. On the current “Covid” loosening of rules, the CCN fish farming spokesperson, John Aitchison, has said, “We do not want them to discharge any more pollution. . . . The need to dump even more pollution in the sea during this crisis shows that it must give up its open nets and adopt closed-containment methods to capture its pollution instead, as any other responsible industry would do.” Scottish Salmon Watch representative Don Staniford commented, “It’s scandalous that SEPA is now opening the floodgates to lobster-killing chemicals such as emamectin — a toxic chemical SEPA planned on banning back in 2016. . . . Coronavirus is being deployed as a Trojan horse by salmon farmers waging a never-ending war on sea lice. Heaven knows what environmental damage this toxic industry will be guilty of by the end of June when the temporary rules are lifted.”

In 2019, commenting on the industry push to raise limits on emamectin’s use based on the “secret’ study, Mr. Aitchison denounced that development: “It seems beyond belief that a pesticide company can lobby a regulator to be lenient when setting the standards that will govern the use of its products, based on data and analysis which it refuses to make public. It is hard to understand how the SSPO can justify funding this study while claiming that its members are using the sea sustainably. Surely the industry must see how irresponsible it is to argue that it’s safe to discharge high levels of a persistent pesticide into the sea where many jobs depend on catching crabs, lobsters and prawns? Surely it must also see that this destroys the credibility of its PR and advertising, that so often trade on fish farmers rearing salmon in Scotland’s pristine seas?”

This relaxation of regulations in Scotland is not the only example of governmental short-sightedness that may result in increased environmental and public health damage. Here in the U.S., on March 26, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to relax a number of regulations, including those on air quality protections (even given evidence that poorer air quality increases the lethality of Covid-19), and on the explosion of toxic disinfectants allowed for public use.

Beyond Pesticides alerted readers about these regulatory issues in its March 27 Daily News Blog piece, “Safer Practices and Disinfectants for Coronavirus Identified by CDC, As EPA Advances Toxic Products, Suspends Public Health and Environmental Protections.” For guidance on nontoxic protection from the novel Coronavirus, see Beyond Pesticides’ Factsheet, and monitor the Daily News Blog for emerging developments. Please practice the important safety and health protocols found in the Factsheet, and from reliable, science-based outlets, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources: https://theferret.scot/toxic-pesticides-salmon-farmers-coronavirus/ and https://theferret.scot/fish-farming-industry-emamectin/.

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