Fish farming could breach European water quality requirements

The Scottish Green Party is claiming that fish farming activities in the lochs, rivers and around the coasts of Scotland could breach the water quality requirements of the forthcoming Water Framework Directive.

The party wrote to European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström, asking whether the Scottish government has a duty to restrict any activity that is likely to reduce water quality – that is, whether the authorisation of activities that reduced water quality would breach the directive.

Wallström replied to the enquiry, stating that “as a rule, Member States are obliged under Article 10 of the EC Treaty to abstain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of the Treaty and their relevant obligations”. “In this particular case, the key objective of the Water Framework Directive is ‘good status’,” she said.

The party has pointed out that a new WWF report, Bitter Harvest, suggests that current fish farming practices may be damaging the aquatic environment. The report on set out a series of main concerns about Scottish aquaculture including nutrient pollution, which is suspected of causing algal blooms; and chemical pollution due to remedies added to treat diseases and parasites in the farmed fish. There are also concerns about the impact on the wild fish population and the global impact of catching fish world-wide to feed to the farmed salmon.

“The Greens believe in light of this evidence that continued expansion of fish farming could therefore bring the Executive into breach of European law and have backed calls by WWF for a moratorium on fish farming, at least until a comprehensive assessment of ecological impacts is carried out,” says a Green Party statement.

Ms Wallström’s letter suggests efforts should be targeted on ensuring there is no further deterioration in the status of Europe’s waters, particularly pristine ones. “In operational terms this does not entail a ban on all authorisations for the use of waters,” she adds. “For example, groundwater abstraction in Scotland might be authorised within the remit of the Water Framework directive, as long as the ‘status’ (ie long-term sustainable balance between available resource and the abstraction) is maintained.”

She goes on to point out that careful planning in individual river basins will be used to ensure compliance with the directive’s objectives, and that the Framework Directive offers considerable flexibility in the choice of the most efficient set of measures to take.

Experts in the UK water industry have been warning that the cost of compliance with the Water Framework Directive’s ambitious targets is likely to run into billions of pounds. Although the Directive is not yet in force, if an activity jeopardises its objectives it is nevertheless in breach of European law.

“I have now received confirmation from the European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström that if the growth of intensive aquaculture causes a deterioration in water quality, the Executive may be flouting European law,” said Green MSP Robin Harper. “I will be further questioning the Environment Minister in Parliament next week as to what action is being undertaken to prevent any deterioration of our coastal waters as a result of fish farming.”

Scotland’s Transport and Environment Committee decided this September against holding a full-scale parliamentary enquiry into the environmental impacts of sea cage fish farming, although the Scottish Executive is consulting on the development of an aquaculture strategy, which should be completed by next spring.

“We welcome the ministerial commitment to develop a long awaited strategy for Scottish aquaculture,” said WWF Marine Policy Officer Alistair Davison. “The industry has developed in a haphazard, poorly regulated way for too long now. It is only sensible to place an immediate moratorium on further large-scale development until the strategy is implemented. This would prevent a ‘gold rush’ of new applications for fish farms trying to avoid any tighter regulations brought in by the new strategy.”

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