SCIENTISTS have been criticised because they refused to object to a new Ross-shire fish farm, despite fears from local residents that it could cause serious parasite problems for wild stocks.
Four full-time jobs will be created after the Scottish Salmon Company got the go-ahead from Highland Council to build 14 cages at Sgeir Dughall in Loch Torridon.
The farm had been opposed by the Torridon and Kinlochewe and Shieldaig community councils which claimed local wild trout and salmon could be infected by sea lice, spread from the influx of farmed fish into the waters.
Wester Ross councillors Audrey Sinclair and Biz Campbell tabled a motion for the plans to be rejected by the local authority north planning applications committee in Inverness.
They claimed siting the farm was a contravention of the Loch Torridon aquaculture framework because Sgeir Dughall was a sensitive area but the move was defeated by seven votes to five.
Councillors Sinclair and Campbell blasted the government organisation Marine Scotland Science (MSS) which did not object to the company’s plans – despite highlighting that sea lice levels had been found “above a critical threshold level” in nearby Loch Shieldaig, following fish farm production.
MSS carries out scientific research, policy and management work on the seas for the Scottish Government but the committee was told it could not quantify the risk to wild fish stocks because there was not enough research carried out on sea lice.
Councillor Sinclair criticised the scientists’ response to the fish farm which secured planning consent for 10 years.
“My big disappointment is in Marine Scotland Science,” said Councillor Sinclair, who noted the sea lice problems were highlighted after the second year of farmed fish production in Loch Shieldaig.
“The idea of letting it run for 10 years, it is a bit like letting the genie out of the bottle. The communities are not against fish farms per se, they have been in the area for a long time and the jobs are welcomed. But what they have been saying is enough is enough.”
Councillor Campbell could not fathom out MSS’s position when it recognised a sea lice problem on one hand but refused to intervene when another major development had emerged.
“I am not against fish farms in their proper places but not major ones on onshore lochs,” added Councillor Campbell.
Committee member Councillor Graeme Smith, a keen fisherman, said the jury was out and the scientists seemed to be carrying out their work “very, very slowly”.
The Wick councillor added granting a five-year planning consent instead of a decade long agreement was not economically viable for companies.
MSS scientist John Armstrong said last October it was “tricky” proving a link between the impact of sea lice in fish farms and wild fish.
The Wester Ross Area Salmon Fishery Board also opposed the new development and said it posed an “unacceptable” risk to wild fish.
The fish farm will take up almost 37 hectares on the north-east shore of the loch, with a 220-tonne feed barge sited near the circle shaped cages.
The committee were told by planning officer Colin Wishart the farm would be “virtually invisible” from the nearest settlement of houses at Diabaig.
Mr Wishart described the community councils’ views as a measured response and said they appreciated the economic benefit and jobs created by the aquaculture industry but did not want any more fish farms,
“They seem to be unanimous in their opposition,” he said. “This view is not echoed by the statutory consultees and there are no objections from individuals.”