GOVERNMENT ministers have taken the exceptional decision to “call in” a controversial planning application for a fish farm in the waters of a Scottish national park – meaning they will decide if the project is given the green light.

The central government made the rare intervention after the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority rejected a proposal to build a new “experimental” type of salmon farm in Loch Long at Beinn Reithe last November.

In February, the firm behind the plans – Loch Long Salmon (LLS) – lodged an appeal claiming the national park’s board had made a “fundamentally flawed” decision due to a “misunderstanding that our plans were the same as existing open net salmon farms”.

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The appeal, like the vast majority of others, was set to be decided by Scottish Government reporters. However, ministers said that the “new technology” being considered “raises issues of national significance” and took power over the proposals into their own hands.

LLS is proposing to construct a salmon farm using a semi-closed containment system (SCCS) – which would be a Scottish first. This technology would see fish housed in nets within impermeable floating enclosures.

Fresh water would be pumped into the enclosure from 20 metres below the surface – where problematic sea lice do not live – in order to reduce a reliance on chemicals for controlling the pests and keep a healthy swimming environment for the fish.

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Waste feed and excrement would exit the net and either sink to the bottom of the impermeable enclosure for collection, or – in the case of some lighter fragments – flow out with waste water.

Stewart Hawthorn, LLS managing director, told the Sunday National that 100% of waste feed and 85% of salmon excrement would be collected at the bottom of the SCCS, while the remaining 15% flowed out into the sea loch.

But campaigners who oppose the proposals say LLS has “failed to provide a working example of an SCCS anywhere in the world where this has been achieved” and that the technology is "experimental".

The AFFtheClyde group went on: “When the FiiZK designed technology was tested in Canada in 2021, the company (Cermaq) abandoned the trial after mass fish mortality.”

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They further pointed to the Canadian conservation group Clayoquot Action, whose divers filmed below the SCCS pilot at Vancouver Island and found “a rain of faeces, uneaten pellets, and tissue falling out”.

AFFtheClyde went on: “Even if the 85% collection of waste can be achieved in Loch Long, other risks come into play as the more confined the location the greater the risk of soluble contaminants, nitrogen, and phosphorus containing wastes promoting toxic algal blooms, as would most likely be the case in Loch Long.

“With a biomass of 3452 tonnes, Beinn Reithe would undoubtedly be the largest aquaculture unit in Scottish waters and would have a huge impact not only in the marine environment but also on land with the support infrastructure required.”

The planning application is not only for the water-based SCCS units, but also for associated works to the shore base, slipway and pontoon, and road upgrades.

The National: The location of the proposed fish farm, with the boundaries of the national park shown in darker greenThe location of the proposed fish farm, with the boundaries of the national park shown in darker green (Image: Google/DPEA)

In a report given to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs board before the initial application was rejected, planning officials said the development would “have an industrial appearance in an area of undeveloped coastline” and raised concerns that there was “not a body of sound evidence on which to rely to make a decision on this new technology”.

However, Hawthorn disputes those arguments. The LLS director said that the proposed fish farm would be “a light agricultural development rather than industrial”.

He went on: “That said, Loch Long has got a military base on it, it’s got a large petrochemical terminal on it and within visual sight of this location. It’s got a navy refueling dock within sight. It’s got large hotels that are incredibly visually impactful. In that setting, overall, our development does fit.”

He said the location was chosen in conjunction with park officials and that it cannot be seen from any houses or walking routes.

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Hawthorn further argued that the project would bring £30 million of much-needed investment to rural Scotland, with £100,000 being generated annually for further community investment.

When up and running, the fish farm would support 12 full-time jobs, which Hawthorn said was only a small part of the wider slate of economic benefits it would bring the area.

He told the Sunday National: “For our Scottish industry to thrive, this type of technology, where you can improve the environmental performance, improve fish welfare, and keep the activity in rural Scotland, is very important.”

The case has split the political parties down the usual lines, with the Greens in opposition and the Tories backing the bid.

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Green MSPs Ariane Burgess (above) and Ross Greer have put in submissions urging ministers to reject the application, with Burgess warning that a “more centralised consenting system would likely be seen to be weighted even more strongly against local democracy”.

Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie has also spoken against it.

Tory MSPs Donald Cameron and Finlay Carson have written in support of the project, with Cameron arguing that the development has “the potential to not only transform the aquaculture sector in Scotland, but also create new local jobs and deliver wider economic and environmental benefits”.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “This appeal has been recalled by Scottish Ministers because the proposed semi-closed farming system is a new technology that raises issues of national significance given its potential impact on Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

“An independent reporter has been appointed to consider the potential development and they will submit a report to the Planning Minister, who will make the final decision as to whether or not planning permission should be granted.”

The current Scottish Planning Minister is Joe FitzPatrick. He is a junior minister who works under the Finance Secretary, Deputy First Minister Shona Robison.

Officials at the Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (DPEA) have suggested that oral evidence hearings will take place as part of the consideration of the application, with invitations to take part sent to interested parties in recent weeks.

If the appeal is ultimately rejected, LLS may still bring an SCCS fish farm to Scotland’s west coast, with plans in the works to submit an application for a site in Loch Linnhe, north of Oban.