Independent review of Scottish aquaculture consenting

Report of the independent review of the planning and consenting process for Scottish aquaculture, jointly commissioned by Marine Scotland and The Crown Estate.

3 Policy and Existing Initiatives

The following section provides a brief overview of policy, strategy and existing initiatives relevant to Scottish aquaculture to provide context and identify developments and on-going actions relevant to the aquaculture consenting process.


The planning system in Scotland comprises a highly complex set of legislation, guidance and advice that cascades from the Scottish Government down to the statutory planning authorities. At the Scottish Government level, the National Planning Framework 3 ( NPF 3, June 2014) sets out the statutory strategy for Scotland's long-term spatial development. It recognises the importance of aquaculture to coastal economies and as one of 30 actions within its Action Programme pledges to "support the sustainable growth of the aquaculture sector". The NPF 3 also recognises the industry targets set out for 2020 (as detailed in Section 1.2 of this report).

The NPF 3 is supported by Scottish Planning Policy ( SPP, June 2014) that sets out the Government's policy on nationally important land use planning matters and Circulars, which set out the Government's policy on implementing legislation. In terms of supporting aquaculture the SPP sets out the following policy principles: the planning system should:

  • Play a supporting role in the sustainable growth of the finfish and shellfish sectors to ensure that the aquaculture industry is diverse, competitive and economically viable;
  • Guide development to coastal locations that best suit industry needs with due regard to the marine environment;
  • Maintain a presumption against further marine finfish farm developments on the north and east coasts to safeguard migratory fish species.

Circulars relevant to aquaculture include:

Scotland's National Marine Plan ( NMP) was adopted in March 2015, meeting obligations required under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 (for inshore waters, out to 12 nautical miles) and the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (for offshore waters, 12 to 200 nautical miles). The NMP sets out objectives [3] and marine planning policies for aquaculture, which can be read in full here; those of particular relevance to this project are:


  • With due regard to the marine environment and carrying capacity, support for the industry's target to grow.
  • A proportionate and transparent regulatory framework within which the industry can achieve these targets.


  • Development plans should identify areas which are potentially suitable and sensitive areas which are unlikely to be suitable for aquaculture development.
  • Operators and regulators should continue to utilise a risk based approach to the location of fish farms and potential impacts on wild fish.
  • Consenting and licensing authorities should be satisfied that there are appropriate emergency response plans in place.
  • Operators should carry out pre-application discussion and consultation, and engage with local communities and others who may be affected, to identify and, where possible, address any concerns in advance of submitting an application.
  • Regional marine plans should consider the potential for sustainable growth of aquaculture in their region.

The NMP also addresses Wild Salmon and Diadromous Fish and in terms of marine planning policies: WILD FISH 1 states: ' The impact of development and use of the marine environment on diadromous fish species should be considered in marine planning and decision making processes. Where evidence of impacts on salmon and other diadromous species is inconclusive, mitigation should be adopted where possible and information on impacts on diadromous species from monitoring of developments should be used to inform subsequent marine decision making.'

This extract from Scotland's NMP introduces the issue of wild salmon and diadromous fish into the issues to be considered in decision-making.

The Scottish Marine Regions Order 2015 came into force in May 2015 and sets out the boundaries for 11 marine regions [4] , out to 12 nautical miles. Marine Planning Partnerships will develop Regional Marine Plans for each of these regions. Work is progressing to establish Marine Planning Partnerships in the Clyde and Shetland Islands marine regions, with others to follow in phases in due course. Regional marine planning functions will be delegated to the Partnerships by Scottish Ministers; however, this will not include licensing or consenting powers.

The UK's Operational Programme (approved by the Commission in December 2015) for the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund ( EMFF) require DEFRA to produce a multi-annual plan for the sustainable development of aquaculture. This includes the same Scottish targets for production growth and recognises the problem of consenting within the wider regulatory burden faced by the sector. It proposes to address this through improved spatial planning and improved competitiveness, innovation and public perception of the industry. However the very practical issue of the consenting regime is not directly addressed under the multi-annual plan. It is for Scotland to address its specific institutional and legislative barriers to aquaculture development.

' A Fresh Start - The renewed Strategic Framework for Scottish Aquaculture' was launched in May 2009 and replaces A Strategic Framework for Scottish Aquaculture (2003). A Fresh Start is formed around six themes, one of which is focused on an improved system for licensing aquaculture developments in Scotland; the findings of this theme are presented in Table 3.1.

A Ministerial Group on Aquaculture ( MGA) was established in 2009 to oversee implementation of A Fresh Start, through six working groups. The MGA has since been replaced by the Ministerial Group for Sustainable Aquaculture ( MGSA), which was established in 2013 to continue the work of the MGA and to support Scotland's aquaculture industry to achieve the 2020 growth targets. This includes the following working groups:

  • Capacity Working Group: considers capacity, barriers to sustainable growth, streamlining regulation & consenting and the development of an interactive map of infrastructure. The Capacity Working Group is considered an advisory group to this project.
  • Containment Working Group: published A Technical Standard for Scottish Finfish Aquaculture ( STS) in June 2015 for fish farm equipment and staff training recommendations.
  • Wellboats Working Group: considers standards for wellboats - tracking position, valve status & sea lice filtration.
  • Interactions Working Group: considers interactions between wild and farmed fish, with initial focus on improving dialogue at local level, between farmed & wild fish interests.
  • Farmed Fish Health & Welfare Working Group: considered standards for the use of cleaner fish and for mortality reporting and disposal.
  • Shellfish Working Group: provides a forum to discuss and resolve issues raised by the shellfish industry, including regulatory bottlenecks; their programme of work is available here.

Two historical working groups are also of note:

  • Aquaculture Planning Taskforce ( APT), which was responsible for monitoring overall delivery of Delivering Planning Reform for Aquaculture and completed its work in 2011.
  • Improved System for Licensing Aquaculture Development ( ISLAD) Working Group, which was tasked with ensuring that opportunities exist for expansion of the industry in the right places, with streamlined and proportionate regulations and procedures to ensure faster decisions and to minimise adverse impacts on other users of the marine and freshwater environment. ISLAD completed its work in 2011.

ISLAD and APT oversaw the implementation of the actions in Delivering Planning Reform for Aquaculture ( DPRA) and DPRA 2, which set out shared objectives across the aquaculture sector, regulating authorities and statutory bodies on development planning, case handling and co-operation, collaboration and alignment. The DPRA 2 report is available here.

Table 3.1: A Fresh Start: findings from the key theme: improved systems for licensing aquaculture developments (Marine Scotland, 2009)

Issues identified by stakeholders

Link to other themes

SG Strategic Objectives

Desired outcomes






Improved availability of sites for expansion and rationalisation

M, F,

Aquaculture plans, in the context of marine plans and river basin management plans, which provide a clear indication of where aquaculture development may take place for production of shellfish, finfish and other species

Large numbers of undeveloped leases

M, F

Maximise use of available sites where appropriate, informed by an improved database and other information sources and develop an alternative to the current system of ad hoc "firebreaks" created by unused consents

Fitness for purpose of locational guidelines

C, H

Clear guidance for environmental quality, disease control and landscape, taking into account the assimilative capacity of water bodies and resolving the issue of unused consents

Simplification of procedures and links with Marine Bill and Marine Scotland

C, M, F

Clear indication of how freshwater and marine aquaculture will be dealt with including maximising opportunities for linkage to other marine industries

Impact of aquaculture on other users

C, M, F

Impact of aquaculture on wild fisheries, biodiversity and wider environment minimised through robust and appropriate planning and licensing systems

Other key themes: M: better marketing and improved image, F: improved access to finance, C: improved containment, H: healthier fish and shellfish. Strategic objectives: WF: wealthier and fairer, S: smarter, H: healthier, SS: safer and stronger and G: greener

ISLAD oversaw the preparation of the Working Arrangement document. The Working Arrangement (2010) document sets out the requirements and responsibilities of the main statutory consultees, as well as consultation protocols in relation to marine aquaculture planning applications. It sets out a Working Agreement between Scottish Environment Protection Agency ( SEPA), Scottish Natural Heritage ( SNH), Marine Scotland Science ( MSS) and District Salmon Fishery Boards ( DSFBs) in how they provide advice to Local Authorities to inform Planning Permission decisions.

The actions and recommendations resulting from DPRA and DPRA 2, and their subsequent implementation can be reviewed here. Actions included improving coordination between statutory consultees with respect to planning applications, EIA templates, developing a pre-application protocol, improved communication on industry technical innovations, the implementation of the 'Audit and Review' process, consultation on Permitted Development Rights ( PDR), guidance on pre-application discussions and consultation, checklist guidance on completing application forms, planning fee review, exploring revision of the DEPOMOD modelling tool ( SEPA), updating landscape guidance ( SNH), and nature conservation sensitivity maps ( SNH) to support Local Development Plans.

The 2013 Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Act focused on farm management and the interaction of farmed and wild fisheries. Chapter 4 contains some amended wording to Section 31A of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 (planning permission in respect of operation of marine fish farm), but no significant change to the consenting regime was introduced at this time.

At the planning authority level, the planning system is divided into the plan-led Development Plan system, which comprises a mix of Strategic Development Plans for the four city regions, and Local Development Plans for each Local Authority area, and the Development Management system which handles consenting and control of development. In addition, Local Development Plans are supported by a range of statutory and non-statutory documents including Supplementary Planning Guidance, Development Frameworks, masterplans and development briefs approved by Councils.

There is a hierarchy of development:

  • National Developments, which are projects included in National Planning Framework 3;
  • Major Developments, which are projects listed in Schedule 1 of the Town and Country Planning (Hierarchy of Development) (Scotland) Regulations 2009 (the Hierarchy Regulations); and
  • Local Developments, which are neither national or major developments.

The Hierarchy Regulations describe fish farming as the placing or assembly of equipment for the purpose of fish farming within the meaning of section 26(6) of the Planning Act. This definition applies to all waters covered by the Planning Acts, both freshwater and those within Scotland's marine territorial waters (out to the 12 nautical mile limit).

For aquaculture the threshold for major development is where equipment covers a surface area of water greater than 2 hectares. This triggers a twelve-week pre-application consultation period, which requires formal engagement with the local community. In practise only finfish farms with very large pontoons, numerous and/or large diameter cages or exceptionally large oyster farms are likely to fall into the major development category; - the vast majority of applications are considered under the local developments category.


3.2.1 Scotland's Aquaculture website

The Scotland's Aquaculture website is part of Scotland's Environment Web and has been developed by a partnership of The Crown Estate, Food Standards Scotland, SEPA and Marine Scotland. It provides a database of resources relating to Scottish aquaculture including an environment library, publications, a list of organisations, and access to a wide range of datasets such as fish escapes, emissions, biotoxin monitoring and operator transfers.

The website hosts an interactive map with locational details on active and inactive aquaculture sites, CAR licensed fish farms, shellfish growing water areas, classified shellfish harvesting areas, active Crown Estate lease areas, Marine Scotland disease management areas, locational guideline areas, Special Protected Areas and Local Authority boundaries.

It is a very useful information resource, although it's scope does not extend to providing information about the planning process and consenting, which is available on Marine Scotland's website here.

3.2.2 SARF project on Scottish shellfish aquaculture regulations

The Scottish Aquaculture Research Forum ( SARF) commissioned the project titled 'Strategic Considerations for Locational Regulation of Shellfish Aquaculture in Scotland' ( SARF110). The aim of the study is to undertake a systematic review of all aspects of the Scottish shellfish planning decision-making process. The project remit was to assess the consistency with which planning determinations are made by Local Authorities across Scotland, with regard to the planning considerations that underpin the decisions. The project objectives were to:

  • Review recent shellfish aquaculture regulatory decision-making in each of the main relevant LA areas in Scotland;
  • Summarise the main issues or considerations that are difficult and/or inconsistent across Scotland;
  • Take account of how current planning considerations under the Town and Country Planning Act might change or be integrated with the new Marine Planning Partnerships;
  • Specifically identify the extent to which biological growth performance assessment is seen as a key decision-making issue for regulators;
  • Identify whether or not there is existing guidance for the key issues identified; and
  • Discuss the overall findings and recommendations of the research with key stakeholders, regulators and others.

The SARF project is on-going with a draft report expected imminently. The project team has maintained a dialogue with APBMer who are undertaking the work, and it is hoped that a brief summary of the outcomes can be included within the final reporting stages of this research.

3.2.3 Wild salmon research

The interactions between wild and farmed salmon and impacts on wild populations are not fully understood. Currently aquaculture planning decisions relating to whether potential impacts on wild salmon are acceptable or not are made by the relevant LA, who are informed by scientific advice from Marine Scotland Science and SNH, in consultation with the relevant DSFB.

In 2015 Marine Scotland started a ten-year programme of research to investigate any potential risk to wild salmon from sea lice in the Scottish coastal environment.

The Marine Scotland project will examine the outward migration of salmon smolts using acoustic tracking in key coastal areas coupled with modelling of salmon movement patterns based on swimming behaviour in relation to tides and currents. In parallel, maps of sea lice distribution in coastal waters will be generated, indicating areas of high and low concentrations of the parasite. The maps will be based on sea lice data from farms, and modelling of the dispersal of sea lice by prevailing winds or currents. Information on the distribution of smolts and of sea lice will be combined to assess the risk of interaction and data will also be collected to estimate the proportion of the lice in the fish's environment that can be expected to settle on the salmon. This information will be coupled with assessment of the effects different numbers of settled lice on the welfare of the salmon. In this way, it is hoped that any risk due to interaction and the impact of that interaction will be better understood.

Modelled predictions from this suite of studies will be compared with the evidence of impacts from smolt treatment experiments. The approaches and the data collected to look at sea lice distribution can also provide information on connections between different farming areas and how lice spread and establish between them.

Ultimately, this 10-year project will inform options for development and improved management of aquaculture and conservation of wild salmon stocks. It is expected that this research will support the provision of more specific advice from MSS in the future.

SNH provide advice on wild fish interactions through their Habitat Regulations responsibility for Special Areas of Conservation ( SACs) for wild salmon (and for Pearl mussel); SNH have an internal Wild Fish Policy and Guidance document to support this advice.

A SARF research project is also currently underway looking at the scale of sea lice impact on numbers of wild salmon returning to spawn by collecting data from a network of sites in which survival of smolts treated with anti-lice chemicals will be compared with controls. This should complement the work being undertaken by Marine Scotland.

3.2.4 Cultivated seaweed

A Seaweed Policy Statement is currently being developed by Marine Scotland. It went out for consultation in August 2013; consultation responses have been analysed and will inform the finalised Seaweed Policy Statement.

The draft policy statement included presentation of a series of options for revising the current cultivated seaweed consenting process. Cultivated seaweed has therefore not been the focus of this work, although due regard has been given to any views and/or recommendations made throughout this project.

3.2.5 Aquaculture sensitivity mapping

As described in Section 2.1, 2015 saw the publication of the National Marine Plan and powers for the establishment of 11 Scottish Marine Regions. To support this and improve the information available to all stakeholders, Marine Scotland Science have undertaken a mapping exercise for finfish and shellfish aquaculture - identifying areas on the basis of their potential suitability for new development using a wide diversity of spatial data including for example environmental sustainability and competing uses of space. The results will be made available on National Marine Plan interactive. This should assist in identifying problems during the planning process where potential planning/licensing issues are made apparent upfront.

3.2.6 Other studies

Other relevant programmes and research include:

  • Horizon 2020 EU Aquaspace - being led by SAMS - is considering consenting models. A stakeholder workshop is being held in January 2016. The project is considering 16 different tools including GIS, visual impact and landscape character maps. This will form another information resource to inform planning.
  • SEPA model Autodepomod is being updated; it is likely that it will provide greater confidence for removing the precautionary biomass limit of 2,500 tonnes in certain circumstances e.g. where higher limits are indicated by modelling.


Back to top