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Chamber and committees

Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Agenda: Green Recovery Inquiry, Subordinate Legislation


Subordinate Legislation

Marine Licensing (Exempted Activities) (Scottish Inshore Region) Amendment Order 2020 [Draft]

The Convener

The second item on our agenda is evidence on the draft Marine Licensing (Exempted Activities) (Scottish Inshore Region) Amendment Order 2020 from Mairi Gougeon, the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment. She is joined by officials from the Scottish Government: Joyce Carr, the head of water environment, and Jane Rougvie, the head of aquaculture. Good morning to you all.

Members have a couple of questions about the instrument.

Mark Ruskell

I have a number of questions. We have a fish health crisis at the moment, and the amendment order is part of the context of that. What proportion of treatments of farmed salmon are being undertaken by wellboats as opposed to tarpaulin-based methods being used? Is there an increase in the use of wellboats as a treatment method?

Jane Rougvie (Scottish Government)


We might have to check whether other people’s microphones are on. Try that again, Jane.

Jane Rougvie

Wellboats and tarpaulins are used equally by farmers on their fish farms. I cannot tell you what the proportions are. Farmers make a decision on what is suitable for the fish that they are treating at the time. If you want statistics, I can ask the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation for them, but it really depends on the farm at the time and the solutions that it is using.

Mark Ruskell

It would be useful if we could get some data. The amendment order is about regulating a potentially growing source of treatment for our fish farms, so transparency on that would be useful.

On the back of that, I have another question. A number of community stakeholders are concerned that, in the wellboat operations that they are seeing, a number of wellboats move away from the fish farms to discharge effluent into the sea and there is a lack of adequate monitoring of where the discharges are taking place—because they are not taking place right next to the fish farm—as well as what the wellboats are discharging. There has been a lot of speculation about what is actually coming out of the wellboats as well as about what its impact might be. That is perhaps compounded by an exemption in the regulations that is based on force majeure. If an operator decides that weather conditions are particularly bad or judges that there is a safety issue, they can, in effect, discharge wherever they want to.

Under the new regulations, how are you going to monitor and ensure that there is transparency about how, where and what the wellboats are discharging?

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

First, if Mark Ruskell is aware of communities that have particular concerns, he should contact me about them. Obviously, we want to be aware of them so that we can look into the matter.

In essence, the order simplifies the licensing process for the regulators and the wellboat operators. It will not change in any way the protections or the regulations that are currently in place. There will not be any diminution of those. As I said, the order simplifies the whole process for the regulators. SEPA was consulted in the drafting of the instrument, and its feedback was taken on board and influenced the final drafting of the order.

When somebody applies for a marine licence, Marine Scotland normally consults SEPA for its input. The order makes sense because, rather than operators having to go through the process of applying for a marine licence and then a controlled activities regulations licence, it will all fall under the CAR licence.

Again, if there are particular concerns, please let me know, so we can look into them. However, we do not anticipate that the order will be an added burden for SEPA in terms of the regulation or the monitoring that should be happening.

Are you finished, Mark?

I have another couple of questions, if we have time.

Carry on; then we will go to Claudia Beamish.

Mark Ruskell

Concerns have been raised by communities with Marine Scotland.

The order simplifies the current licensing process, and it transfers the responsibility fully to SEPA, but I am interested in whether there will be a change in how the licences are monitored. There appears to be a break point in the way that the licence operations have been taking place. If there were to be an opportunity for reform, greater disclosure of information for communities and better monitoring, this might be the opportunity for those things.

My final question is on the back of that. There has been concern about the disclosure of the chemicals that are used. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, is a chemical that can have a low impact on the environment if it is being dispersed, but if there is not a lot of flushing in a coastal area or a loch, it can have quite a high environmental impact. As part of this reform of the regulations and of how licences are being issued to operators, will there also be reforms of the disclosure of the chemicals that are being released and the quantities of those chemicals, including those that, like hydrogen peroxide, could have an impact on the environment if they are discharged in an irresponsible way?

Mairi Gougeon

Thank you for the question. SEPA’s strengthened regulatory framework, which was published in June 2019, encapsulates all of that. There would be more monitoring. The framework also captures the second point that Mark Ruskell raised. Further to that, in July, SEPA published the “Finfish aquaculture sector plan”, which takes that issue into consideration.


Claudia Beamish

My question builds on Mark Ruskell’s question, so I will be brief. To what degree is there an obligation on the company to disclose what is being discharged? Concerns have been raised about that and about the possible effect on the wider marine environment.

Mairi Gougeon

I reiterate the response that I gave to Mark Ruskell. Since the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee made recommendations on environmental regulations for the aquaculture sector, SEPA has published its strengthened regulatory framework, which captures a lot of the points that Claudia Beamish and Mark Ruskell have made.

Stewart Stevenson

Given that the order will simplify the regime of oversight and, I presume, improve enforcement of what is going on, and given that fish farming is a very important industry for many of our coastal communities, will the regulations make it easier for the regulator to make sure that the right things are happening and, more importantly, allow the industry to continue to be as successful as it has been in the past?

Mairi Gougeon

Yes, you are absolutely right. It is a—[Inaudible.]—sector for Scotland, but we must also ensure that it is environmentally sustainable. The simplified process will cut down on the burden of applying for two licences, when Marine Scotland would have to consult with SEPA anyway. For SEPA, as the regulator, as well as for the operators, the change makes the process simpler, easier and more understandable.

Finlay Carson

The purpose of the instrument is to transfer regulation or exempt an activity. Is there anything that the controlled activities regulations do not pick up when that activity is made exempt from the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010? Is there anything left behind or is absolutely everything transferred?

If the order simplifies things, are more instruments that transfer that sort of power or obligation from Marine Scotland to SEPA likely to be introduced in the future?

Mairi Gougeon

In answer to Finlay Carson’s first question, in relation to pollution, everything transfers across, so, compared to what there was before, nothing would be exempt as a result of the instrument. Can he repeat the second question?

Finlay Carson

Certainly. If the order is just about the process of simplifying things and transferring certain obligations of licensing from Marine Scotland, are we likely to see more of those instruments in other areas of marine licensing?

Jane Rougvie

There are no plans to transfer any other obligations across, because no others lean across in such a way. That was the only obligation that we identified as benefiting from better regulation by being monitored by SEPA.

Thank you.

Is there anything that the minister would like to add about the order before we move on?

No, I have nothing further to add.

The Convener

Under the next item, I invite the minister to speak to and move motion S5M-22577.

Motion moved,

That the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee recommends that the Marine Licensing (Exempted Activities) (Scottish Inshore Region) Amendment Order 2020 [draft] be approved.—[Mairi Gougeon]

I remind officials that they are not permitted to speak to this agenda item.

I invite members to comment.

I like the points that were made about the importance of disclosure and the concerns within the community. We must be sure that the wellboat issue is robustly monitored. I am happy to support the motion.

Mark Ruskell

I am happy to support the simplification of the licensing process. I listened carefully to what the minister said about the information that can be provided to the committee on the increasing use of wellboats and her comments about SEPA’s strengthened fish health framework. Perhaps that is an area for further scrutiny, because, if the framework does not adequately cover the issues about wellboats that have been raised today on behalf of communities, SEPA will need to do that work quickly before rolling out the new simplified regulatory process.

The question is, that motion S5M-22577, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to.

The Convener

I thank the minister and her officials for their time. That concludes the public part of our meeting. Our next meeting will be on 29 September, when the committee will discuss its future work programme in private.

12:38 Meeting continued in private until 12:59.