THE government’s environmental watchdog in Scotland has been accused of "state-sponsored pollution" after licensing a massive increase in the use of toxic chemicals in salmon farming.
The number of licences to use chemicals in the £700m salmon industry agreed by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has increased sevenfold in the past four years.
The chemicals are increasingly used to kill sea lice which plague farmed salmon. But as well as being poisonous to marine life, some are also under investigation for links to diseases in humans, including cancer.
Environmental campaigners have accused Sepa and the salmon industry of creating a "toxic timebomb" in Scotland’s lochs and rivers.
Sepa accepts there has been an increase in the use of these chemicals but denies they are harmful to the environment or humans.
Salmon farming is one of Scotland’s biggest food exports and employs 6,500 people mainly in the Highlands and Islands.
But environmentalists say chemicals to combat sea lice are being used in greater amounts because salmon are being farmed more intensively.
The North region of Sepa - where most of Scotland’s fish farms are located - approved just 45 uses of sea lice chemicals in 1998. That rose to 104 the following year, 141 in 2000 and a staggering 296 last year.
The agency’s other division, Sepa West, approved a further 71 in the same period - but cannot give an individual yearly breakdown.
In the same four-year period farmed salmon production increased from 110,784 tonnes to around 158,000 tonnes last year.
Consumption of salmon has trebled in the past 10 years. Scottish Quality Salmon, which represents most fish farmers, predicted this week that the value of salmon exports will double by the year 2010.
The revelation about the extent of chemical usage in the salmon industry is contained in a new book by Don Staniford, a marine scientist and expert on the fish farming industry.
Cancer of the Coast accuses Sepa of licensing a disaster. Staniford, who has made an eight-year study of Scottish fish farming, said that Sepa is considering over 300 pending licence applications to use anti-sea lice chemicals.
He said: "It is fair to assume that if the usage has gone up so dramatically so has the tonnage of chemicals. But it is not just about the quantity, it is about the toxicity of what is being used.
"These sea lice chemicals are designed for use on land animals like sheep, cattle, chickens and pigs. But they are extremely toxic to marine life.
"The ever-increasing use of these chemicals is spreading like a malignant cancer around the coasts of Scotland.
"This marine pollution is state-sponsored by Sepa, who instead of protecting the environment, are promoting the fast-tracking of toxic chemicals."
The chemicals used by the industry include teflubenzuron, emamectin benzoate, azamethiphos and cypermethrin.
Cypermethrin is suspected of being a "gender-bending" chemical, disrupting the hormones of salmon.
Azamethiphos is under review by the Pesticides Safety Directorate for its effect on human health. It is an organophosphate and is being investigated for possible links to cancer.
One company, Marine Harvest, has applied to use all four chemicals in Loch Duich. It has been waiting for a decision from Sepa since February 2000.
Some Scottish farms are still licensed to use dichlorvos, confirmed last year by the Department of Health’s Committee on Mutagenicity as being carcinogenic. A group of Irish fish farm workers are currently taking legal action after contracting testicular cancer which they blame on the use of dichlorvos.
Last month a Shetland fish farm was fined £6,000 for using the illegal chemical ivermectin, a highly toxic marine pollutant.
Kevin Dunion, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said nobody knew the effects of all these chemicals being used together.
He said: "Worryingly, the speed with which the number and nature of the chemicals are being used is outstripping our ability to fully understand the impact of this cocktail."
Sepa said it kept no accumulated record of the total chemical quantities it has licensed, but accepted there had been a big increase over the last four years. At the same time the number of fish farms had remained relatively stable at around 430.
However, Andy Rosie, chairman of Sepa’s aquaculture management committee, disputed the claim that the environment - and people - were being damaged. He said the main reason for the increase in the licences had been the use of new compounds which farmers wanted to add to their existing consents.
All fish farms were also inspected by Sepa officials twice-yearly to make sure they complied with the regulations.
"There certainly has been a big increase in sea lice chemicals. But we are far more concerned about the use of illegal chemicals. If you get rid of fish farming in the Highlands and Islands you would lose a very important industry and communities would collapse.”
"There is an acceptable level of sustainable development here and we believe we have licensed the safe use of chemicals."