The next in our series of blogs on Scotland's draft National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4), this article considers the policies that impact the aquaculture sector. Has the boat come in, or is it still out at sea?

Of course, the first thing to note while that catchy nursery rhyme is playing on your internal radio, is that the aquaculture sector in Scotland spans more than just fish - there is much bounty to be won from Scotland's waters and shores.

The importance of aquaculture to Scotland's economy should not be understated - it's a major industry and the draft NPF4 does well to highlight its contribution to the nationally significant food and drink sector. Alongside finfish and shellfish, seaweed is also farmed in Scotland, and its explicit mention in the draft NPF4 is a positive for this emerging industry.

As with Scottish Planning Policy (SPP), the draft NPF4 recognises aquaculture's contribution to Scotland but the policy support given is tempered by the need to minimise potential impact on the environment. The principle of 'sustainable aquaculture' is carried over from SPP, even emphasised. This is of course what the industry is striving to achieve.

Local development plans (LDPs) no longer need to "make positive provision for aquaculture developments", rather they should "guide new aquaculture development to locations that reflect industry needs and take account of environmental impact, including cumulative impacts that arise from other existing and planned aquaculture developments in the area, and wider marine planning."

The previous reference to "best" suiting industry needs is gone. While the overall tenor remains supportive, these small changes appear to be a weakening of the previous SPP stance.

The blanket presumption against further marine finfish farm developments on the north and east coasts of the mainland is refined to salmon and trout open pen fish farm developments, in order to safeguard migratory fish species. The debate around the impact of fish farming on wild fish populations is well documented, with much work ongoing by SEPA and the Scottish Government in this space.

Interesting then is the exclusion of certain aquaculture developments from some universal policies that are associated with conserving and enhancing biodiversity, namely Policy 3: Nature Crisis. Applications for farmed fish or shellfish development are expressly excluded from the requirements of paragraph (d) that "Development proposals for national, major and of EIA development or development for which an Appropriate Assessment is required should only be supported where it can be demonstrated that the proposal will conserve and enhance biodiversity, including nature networks within and adjacent to the site, so that they are in a demonstrably better state than without intervention, including through future management.", and paragraph (e) whereby "Proposals for local development should only be supported if they include appropriate measures to enhance biodiversity, in proportion to the nature and scale of development".

Was this viewed as being sufficiently addressed by SEPA though its separate regulatory role? The relationship between farmed fish and their impact on the environment remains firmly under the spotlight as the industry grapples with changing regulation and new methods of assessment, such as SEPA's spatially based risk assessment framework for regulating the interaction between sea lice from marine finfish farms and wild Atlantic salmon (consultation closes on 14 March 2022). Whatever the rationale, this carve-out will no doubt be lauded by some, and raise the eyebrows of others.

Back to the specific policy, and the wider regulatory regime is acknowledged, as development proposals are to be supported where they comply with the LDP, National Marine Plan, and (where relevant) the Regional Marine Plan. The challenge of working with overlapping policies and regulatory frameworks forms part of the background to ongoing work which explores possible reform, including single consenting systems (see the recent report by Russel Griggs, A Review of the Aquaculture Regulatory Process in Scotland).

Finally, development management aspects are broadly aligned with those set out in SPP. Development proposals for fish farm developments should demonstrate that (i) operational impacts are acceptable, comply with the relevant regulatory framework (with reference to acoustic deterrent devices, sea lice and aquaculture litter now added), and appropriately address significant cumulative impacts, and (ii) the siting and design of both offshore and onshore components are appropriate for the location. The issues to be considered when determining applications remain complex and it's a significant amount of technical work for planning authorities struggling with resources.

Overall, the ship is perhaps somewhere in the intertidal zone. The overall principles are broadly the same, but some of the changes appear to dilute the strong policy support currently expressed in SPP. The industry should address these matters through their continuing engagement with Scottish Government and the NPF4 process. Aquaculture's contribution to Scotland is well highlighted, and rightly so, as is the need to minimise its potential impacts on the environment - which is no great surprise when the overall theme of the draft NPF4 is a modern-day green revolution. Thou shalt have a fishy on a little dishy after all (as long as it's sustainable).

You can find the rest of our draft NPF4 blog series here.

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