STANDARDS in the salmon farming industry have come under renewed attack – this time by a report that puts three Shetland sites in the worst 12 in Scotland for animal welfare.
The report by national animal charity OneKind ranks two Cooke Aquaculture sites at Basta Ness in Yell and Cloudin, Vaila, as well as Grieg Seafood's farm at North Havra among the worst offenders.
OneKind has used five categories to build its table of worst offenders, including figures from SEPA for environmental pollution whose recent publication showed 11 Shetland farms were rated as "poor" in 2016.
But the Scottish salmon industry has insisted that fish welfare is taken seriously, and sea lice, which are one of the measures of that welfare, are at their lowest level for five years.
A statement from Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) said that fish health and welfare was "at the heart of successful Scottish salmon farming".
It adds: "Scottish salmon farmers rear their fish to the highest welfare standards, on the basis that fish in their care are capable of feeling pain. That's an underlying reason why the industry takes its welfare responsibility so seriously.
"Farm pens in Scotland are stocked at some of the lowest farming densities of all salmon farming countries and production standards ensure that fish have plenty of room to shoal in clean, oxygen rich water.
"Around 70 per cent of Scottish salmon are certified to the RSPCA Farm Assured scheme – a higher percentage than any other UK farming sector. The remaining salmon are reared to the same high welfare standards."
Overall, Cooke Aquaculture has one of the best records in OneKind's table of companies for animal welfare.
Cooke, with 33 sites located in Orkney and Shetland, rates second best in OneKind's standing, prompting the charity's director Harry Huyton to cite Cooke as an example for other farms.
Grieg Seafood Shetland meanwhile ranks as fifth best out of the nine firms considered by OneKind.
Managing director Grant Cumming said his firm was "a responsible farmer" and "committed to ensuring the highest standards of health and welfare are met across all our farms."
He added: "We have a demonstrable track record in innovation and investment and have adopted an integrated and sustainable approach to disease management. Our focus is to first prevent disease from occurring and then, if it does occur, to ensure the welfare of the fish through responsible and effective treatment."
Grieg Seafood, he said, worked to ensure fish had "a high quality of life" and would continue to work with all the regulators of Scottish fish farming to ensure a sustainable industry.
According to SSPO, industry wide, sea lice number only 0.34 female lice per fish, while three lice per fish are needed to trigger a demerit in OneKind's rankings.
The industry is also using increasing numbers of fish like wrasse and lumpsucker to de-louse salmon and other measures such as anti-lice skirts around pens and cleaning devices are being used.
It is also researching how to improve fish survival rates, from breeding fish less susceptible to health issues to looking at why there is increased resistance to sea lice medicines.
OneKind's full report can be found at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4635201/League-Table-Report-2017-3107.pdf