The Scottish government appears ready to approve a banned insecticide blamed for destroying bee populations for use in Scottish salmon farms, according to internal documents seen by the Guardian, as MEPs warn of its potentially “devastating” impact on aquatic life.
The insecticide is one of three nicotine-based, or neonicotinoid, chemicals banned by the European Union in 2018 for agricultural use on crops, a decision upheld this month by the EU’s top court, the European court of justice, which rejected an appeal by the Bayer chemical multinational. The ban does not apply to rivers or the sea.
US government scientists have described the insecticide imidacloprid as an “environmental hazard” that can be “very toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects”.
An investigative news site, The Ferret, first revealed in March 2020 that the Scottish fish farming industry was planning to use imidacloprid to kill the sea lice that can infest caged salmon.
A series of emails, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the Scottish government appears to be smoothing the path for CleanTreat – a system that uses the insecticide to rid farmed salmon of sea lice, to be accepted for regulatory approval in Scottish fish farms.
Annabel Turpie, director of Marine Scotland, the agency of the Scottish government that manages fisheries, has said she would help with the environmental regulators on the new system, which uses imidacloprid. In correspondence with officials on 1 March 2021, Turpie wrote: “I’ve said we’ll help with engagement with Sepa [Scottish Environment Protection Agency] and MSS [Marine Scotland Science] on the CleanTreat technology.”
On 10 March she referred to actions of the Scottish government’s Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) “around support to navigate CleanTreat through the system“. She was “aware the intention is for CleanTreat to come forward the second half of the year, assuming regulatory approval”, she said, but that an application had not yet been submitted. There was an “expectation” that Benchmark, the fish farm biotechnology company that makes CleanTreat, would “bring it onto an existing site for approval”, she said.
Later in March, Turpie was briefed by officials ahead of a meeting with a fish farming company, suggesting lines she could take, including that the CleanTreat technology would be given “welcomed consideration”.
“We can’t circumnavigate Sepa’s consideration as they have to follow legal process,” the briefing said. “But there is a newly invigorated dedication within SG [Scottish government] and across regulators to support innovation in the aquaculture sector – am confident this will be given welcomed consideration when an application is received.”
This week, the European Commission were urged to withdraw a draft regulation authorising safe limits of imidacloprid for farmed fish, amid warnings of its “toxic” impact in rivers and waterways. A resolution by a Green MEP, to be put before the commission’s environment committee for a vote on Thursday, calls for imidacloprid to be instead listed as an emerging environmental contaminant for which no maximum levels can be set for aquatic use.
Grace O’ Sullivan, Green MEP for Ireland South, who tabled the resolution, said she was “very concerned” about the potential use of the insecticide in salmon farming as a treatment against the sea louse, a small crustacean that feeds on the mucus, epidermal tissue, and blood of host marine fish.
“This is particularly worrying in Scotland, which has a large salmon aquaculture industry and tradition, but also for the EU, where the commission is proposing to establish a maximum residue level (MRL) for imidacloprid.”
“This MRL will allow companies to apply for marketing authorisation for the product, and apply it in the salmon farming industry in particular, where it will in all likelihood spill into the marine environment to the detriment of ocean health and biodiversity.”
O’Sullivan, a member of the European parliament’s environment committee, said her objection called on the commission to withdraw its draft implementing legislation and include imidacloprid in a list of “pharmacologically active” substances, for which no maximum levels can be fixed for the aquatic environment.