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HERALD SCOTLAND: EXCLUSIVE BY ROB EDWARDS ENVIRONMENTAL EDITOR

30 Oct 2011

A HIGHLAND salmon farm that was granted £630,000 of taxpayers’ money, given an environmental prize and labelled as a “Freedom Food” producer has been accused of lice infestation and pollution that breach official guidelines.

Wester Ross Fisheries near Ullapool is under investigation by Government and voluntary agencies following complaints from a local landowner, Jenny Scobie. She says sea lice from caged salmon are contaminating wild fish on the River Ullapool, which flows through her land on the Rhidorroch Estate.

Reports from Government inspectors, released under freedom of information laws, show sea lice concentrations at three of the firm’s sites on Loch Broom and Little Loch Broom have exceeded levels recommended in the industry’s good practice code six times this year.

Evidence released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) also shows that pollution of the sea bed beneath the three sites – Corry, Ardmair and Ardessie – has been rated “unsatisfactory” 20 times in last 10 years, and “borderline” eight times. The weight of caged fish licensed under environmental rules was also breached five times at Ardessie in 2006 and 2007.

Wester Ross Fisheries produces 1500 tonnes of salmon a year. It was given a grant of £631,720 by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) in March this year to help it expand.

In June the company won a “stewardship award” at The Crown Estate’s marine aquaculture awards for “sustainability of the business in its environment”. And it is approved by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) as a “Freedom Food” for having good standards of animal welfare.

Scobie’s solicitor Guy Linley-Adams has now written to HIE asking for the company’s grant to be “urgently reviewed”, to The Crown Estate criticising the award and to Sepa demanding a crackdown.

“It’s quite simple. Polluting farms with bad sea lice problems should not win environmental awards and obtain grants to expand,” he told the Sunday Herald. He also said it was unclear why Sepa had failed to act to stop “unacceptable” pollution.

Scobie, who said levels of sea lice found on young wild sea trout this summer would almost certainly prove fatal, added: “Wester Ross Fisheries’ serial failure to prevent sea bed pollution and to control sea lice makes a mockery of the industry’s oft-quoted contention that it is tightly regulated.”

But Wester Ross Fisheries strongly defended its business. “Some of these outrageous allegations are inaccurate, and will jeopardise the crucial employment at the largest private-sector operation in the Ullapool area,” said the company’s managing director, Gilpin Bradley.

“Wester Ross Fisheries is fully compliant with the legislation affecting salmon farming and in addition we meet the standards of the code of good practice for fish farming and the RSPCA welfare standards.”

HIE said it was investigating the allegations as a formal complaint, and would reply as soon as possible. Its grant secured 36 jobs in a fragile area and is expected to help create a another 21 jobs by 2015.

The Crown Estate pointed out that its award “recognises specific initiatives that have contributed to the sustainability of the business in its natural, stakeholder or community environment.”

Sepa said Wester Ross Fisheries was not in its action plan to cut pollution this year but was “likely” to be included next year.

The RSPCA said it would visit the fishery “to ensure RSCPA welfare standards are being maintained”.

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