Scope for farm growth on other coasts, suggests Highland Council planner
THE lead planning o cer at Highland Council has called for the long standing moratorium on fish farms on Scotland’s east and north coasts to be reviewed by the Sco sh government. Mark Harvey, giving evidence to the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee at Holyrood on April 18, said it was a strange situation’ that Scotland had three coasts and yet all the focus in aquaculture was in the west.
There were very few moratoriums for planners and a basic review should be carried out to revisit the ban, which was introduced in the late nineties.
The REC committee turned the spotlight on regulatory bodies in the third of its evidence sessions.
Also appearing were Anne Anderson of Sepa (Sco sh Environment Protection Agency), Alex Adrian of Crown Estate Scotland, and Cathy Tilbrook of SNH (Sco sh Natural Heritage).
Tilbrook, replying to a question from John Mason, the MSP for Glasgow Shettleston (SNP), about plans to double production, agreed with Harvey that there was no reason’ not to look at the moratorium on Scotland’s north and east coasts again, so long as there were safeguards in place.
But she said SNH was concerned about the sector’s expansion plans. With innovation to overcome some issues such as sea lice and containment -there might be much more scope for growth, she said, acknowledging that the industry was doing a lot on innovation.
But at the moment it’s di cult to look at growth targets without knowing the environmental impacts.’
Alex Adrian wondered if growth would be doubling with more of the same or by different means’, and suggested that managing the sector required an agility to move with changing circumstances’.
A fundamental part of a management plan is review, he said, giving farmers exibility to adapt and undertake changes to remain sustainable.
Harvey, who revealed that his council had just approved proposals for two salmon farms off Skye, said farms brought unique employment opportunities to areas not otherwise supporting employment growth. However, he was concerned about a lack of strategic planning.
The industry has set a challenge to themselves but nobody knows the capacity of Sco sh waters to absorb that level of activity.’
He was struck by Norway’s tra c light’ system where red is not just stop but draw back that’s very relevant to Sco sh experience’. There were parts of the west coast where there is too great a loading these should perhaps be red areas and we need to move them to areas we might categorise as green’.
Asked to identify where such over concentrations were, he said there were a large number of farms south of Skye, which was perhaps worth looking at further to see what capacity it has in environmental terms’. But there were also areas that haven’t had lots of applications and it was more important to identify the green areas where development could take place.
Harvey said the sector is about 30 years too late’ in such strategic planning and should have these answers by now we have an awful lot of catching up’.
However, he didn’t agree with Lib Dem MSP for North East Scotland Mike Rumbles’ idea of an overarching regulatory body to improve the planning process.
I’d say we do have the overarching framework the planning system but we don’t use it very well. If you create one huge regulator it might not work.’
He said fish farm applications are accompanied by environmental statements and went through much higher levels of control than most planning applications it’s not that it’s not regulated’. Where the planning system is weak, though, is in the lack of information about environmental interactions.
He did agree with Rumbles that there should be an overarching approach to fish farm developments across the Highlands rather than looking at applications on an individual basis. But he insisted the existing planning system was appropriate, although local authorities maybe needed to provide greater regulatory clarity. He said it was late in the day’ and the industry shouldn’t get into a five-year discussion period where nothing is done.
Alex Adrian said the regulatory framework didn’t recognise the circumstances fish farms operate in, and while regulators recognised the issues, they didn’t have the right tools to address them We have the right pieces but they haven’t been put together in the right way.’
The marine environment is dynamic and management should be more adaptive, with better collaboration between the industry, regulators and government.
The SNH, however, believed there had been progress in recent years, with the move to focus on pre-application discussion leading to a decrease in applications meeting problems. Identifying at a very early stage what the constraints might be so we can steer developers away from sites where there may be the most problems’ was something the SNH embraced, said Tilbrook.
Asked by Edward Mountain, the REC convenor, whether the current regulatory framework protected or enhanced the environment, Tilbrook said I couldn’t say it has enhanced. I think to most extents it hasn’t degraded it because we have safeguards in place.’
Anne Anderson said there were elements of the regulatory framework that worked well, but there was always room for improvement, and Sepa was conducting a review, due to be published shortly.
Left: Highland Council planner Mark Harvey