SSAC Report - Use of Science and Evidence in Aquaculture Consenting and the Sustainable Development of Scottish Aquaculture

Approach and analysis

One or more members of the Working Group (WG) conducted virtual interviews with a total of 15 stakeholder groups from coastal community networks, community councils, environmental NGOs, industry representatives, academics, SG and SG agencies. Over 100 stakeholders, including all interviewees plus additional stakeholders who had been identified through their interactions with Marine Scotland, were invited to a virtual roundtable which was held on 14 February 2023 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (details in Annex B). The initial interviews informed the format of the roundtable. Six independent (of the original WG) experts were invited to chair the breakout sessions during the roundtable (presentations can be viewed in Annex C). 

SSAC agreed with Marine Scotland at the start of this review that this project would examine current use and communication of science and scientific evidence in aquaculture consenting against the following principles taken from the International Science Council’s (ISC) Principles and Structures of Science Advice6 : independence, legitimacy, relevance and access, diversity, and reducing uncertainty. We conducted our analysis against those criteria.

1. Independence: “Science advice should take the form of honest brokerage rather than advocacy. This requires a level of independence from the policymaking apparatus to ensure trusted advice for evidence-informed policy.”7

Mention of advocacy as something to be avoided draws attention to the need for use of science across the sector to be objective. In other words, independent from ALL agendas. In our discussions, a widely held perception seemed to be that any science is considered independent if an article had been published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, research funders also use peer review by independent experts at an earlier stage, when awarding grants. That is to ensure that the questions being addressed by research are subject to independent challenge. For policy relevance, asking the right question is important, as well as the quality of the science. These peer reviewers can be both experts and users of research outputs. An example of good practice for innovation is SAIC having a Board with industry representation as it aims to increase the economic impact of aquaculture whilst also reducing its environmental footprint – but with final funding decisions being taken by the Board, some stakeholders question SAIC’s independence and in particular its legitimacy in identifying research required by policy.

We heard frequent references by interviewees and during the roundtable discussion (see Annex A) to the selectivity of the science being quoted as well as observing this in our interactions. Representations from communities using different models to those used by government agencies earlier in the consenting process may identify different levels of risk, but this happens too late in the process and leaves final decision making to Councillors at local government level being advised by officials with some, but limited, scientific input. In Norway, the Institute of Marine Research (which is 40% funded by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries8 ) and considered to be independent of government and industry, produces an annual Risk Report for Norwegian Farming9 . (This report for 2022 includes a chapter on the effect of sea lice.) SSAC supports Marine Scotland’s consideration of the appointment of an independent Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and one of the roles of this post (if approved) could be to commission independent reviews of disputed areas of science (which cannot be resolved in the annual forum) or to bring existing published syntheses to the attention of all stakeholders. There are a number of CSAs within the SG and across the UK, and a Marine CSA would be well positioned to consult their colleagues from other disciplines and their own professional networks to bring perspectives from biology, ecology, analytics, fisheries science, data and social science, to take account of multiple factors (we were told that there are 12) which influence wild salmonid numbers. These influences need to be looked at holistically.

2. Legitimacy: “Science advice must be conscious of the need to maintain trust and legitimacy with multiple communities simultaneously; the political community, the policy community, the public and the science community.”7

It is clear from the Griggs report that there is a significant absence of trust and a failure of the acceptance of the legitimacy of the individual stakeholders with an interest in Scottish aquaculture. This is a complex ecosystem comprising: the Scottish Government; Marine Scotland Science’s academic and policy advisors; SEPA; a diverse range of “the public”; the academic science community; and the aquaculture industry: - individual companies, including some international, and trade associations. Each of these communities has a diversity and plurality of membership. For example, “the public” includes, inter alia: isolated individuals, and community groups with a range of knowledge and expertise; through to highly organised, professionally run advocacy groups, with significant resources. This ecosystem has multiple nodes of interaction, some informal but many based on the statutory regulation framework. Details of the Scottish Aquaculture Regulatory Framework are in Annex D and of international comparisons in Annex E.

The foundation of the regulatory framework is the scientific evidence base, upon which, ideally, the components of the “ecosystem” could agree and rely. However, as Griggs noted, and as was clear from our interviews, there is a lack of trust between some of the stakeholders not only about the interpretation of the science but also its source. This is partly driven by what is accessible. Marine Scotland Science (MSS) reports on specific topics in a series called Scottish Marine and Freshwater Science (SMFS) and some of these reports attract stakeholder attention for being limited in terms of the extent of literature referenced (e.g.10). Their peer review system lacks transparency, but our understanding is that it is more internal than external. Collaborative studies published in peer-reviewed journals such as this collaboration to develop a standardised framework for sea lice modelling11 do not seem to attract the publicity or attention.

This highlights the point that not all evidence is accessed by all stakeholders. For example, the “industry” is open about the evidence it collects for its own purposes. Not unreasonably much of this is deemed as commercially confidential. In addition, some members of the ecosystem – for example applicants for planning applications – commission scientific studies to support their particular positions. Such evidence can be easily de-legitimised by being deemed “not independent” as was noted for one Argyll and Bute application, although the consultee (NHS Highland) did go on to conclude they were not able to give a definitive opinion and ultimately did not object to the application.12 This illustrates the difficulties posed when evidence is used very selectively rather than more holistically.

Another, slightly tangential aspect of legitimacy (but raised by a number of stakeholders) is the perceived disproportionality of scientific evidence being requested of the aquaculture sector, relative to the less extensive evidence required of land-based agriculture. In coastal areas other bodies may also be adding to pollution; e.g., the quantity of chemicals used by Local Authorities in maintaining communal areas was a topic raised during the roundtable. This is another example of where the environmental impact of aquaculture, as a relatively new industry, is more in the public eye than pollution from other, more mature sectors. Scottish marine scientists have recently been involved in a European project which developed a toolbox of tools for assessing sustainability13 which may help stakeholders understand the complexities and give some ideas to Local Authorities. 

3. Relevance and access: “This involves an iterative process of knowledge brokerage which begins with the collaborative work of framing the policy question and continues through ongoing dialogue between policy and science community collaborators to ensure that the evidence provided aligns with the needs of the policy community.”7

There are strong moves in the international science community for more open access to data14, and that data management schemes abide by the FAIR principles being “findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable”15. In addition, in both the interviews and roundtable, points were made concerning data including challenges over data accessibility, the vision of open data allowing data discovery, improved data sharing and the platform to gain intelligence from data. Scotland’s Aquaculture | Home is a major source of data for the sector and there is also a web-based tool developed by NatureScot to investigate the sensitivity of marine features (habitats, species, geology and landforms) in Scotland’s seas Feature Activity Sensitivity Tool (FeAST) | NatureScot. For a more detailed discussion on Scotland’s data see SSAC’s report on geospatial knowledge16.

Comments from the roundtable and interviews stressed that improving “access” also means having data all in one place, in comprehensive and understandable format and accessible at various levels of knowledge. However, that would be difficult to curate, given the differing objectives of the major data collectors (e.g., industry vs regulators). There were also suggestions that providing background to information (e.g., demonstrating why data is reported and what it means) would also be beneficial. These are important points which are key to the interpretation of generic data with respect to specific contexts and hence important for the licensing of new fish farms in specific locations and indeed to the wider question of the cumulative impacts of multiple fish farms within a region. This question of cumulative impact came up  repeatedly in both interviews and the roundtable discussions.

4. Diversity: “Science advice mechanisms comprising a diversity of expertise, cultures, and languages (where relevant to context) help to uncover hidden bias, which supports selfreflexivity in individuals and teams.”7

The type of knowledge considered valid and relevant for regulation of aquaculture activities encompasses both expert knowledge from a range of different disciplines (e.g. biology, social sciences, veterinary medicine, engineering, and many others), and knowledge derived from experience – such as that of fishers who are well familiar with spawning grounds in their local area, or the insights of community stakeholders in terms of current controversies that should be resolved to ensure aquaculture has a strong social licence. Furthermore, the knowledge and experience of public authorities in applying available knowledge towards regulating aquaculture is a very valuable input towards creating efficient regulation balancing the needs of both industry and society. The aquaculture industry itself has insight into how their production practices can best be adapted and have knowledge of its needs towards creating a sustainable and thriving industry. The combination of such expert knowledge and experience is a powerful tool to shape and form how aquaculture is regulated, and this approach is endorsed by the ISC6: “Evidence synthesis aims to establish the state of available knowledge on a given issue through a range of methods including literature reviews, scientific assessments, and expert inputs.” Nonetheless, the ISC also adds: “Importantly it must consider the multiple disciplines and framings that should contribute knowledge to the question in hand.” Only a limited number of disciplines appear to have been involved in this process in aquaculture in Scotland (although change is happening as described in one of the presentations in the roundtable (see Annex C and a recent study of the social licence between communities and companies17) and the framing of dialogues could benefit from a reappraisal. 

The principle of diversity is strongly related to the status of actors, and whether they are perceived as having a stake in the issues. For example, being considered a statutory consultee is one way of granting status. Who is granted such a status could be reconsidered in parts of the consenting process. There appears to be a lack of shared arenas for voicing concerns and dialogue which continues to fuel a perception of secrecy and misunderstandings. Are regulators and industry aware of their responsibilities in relating to community and in providing information? While diversity in knowledge helps progression towards inclusion and a broader knowledge base, such an understanding should be coupled with an emphasis on the concerns and questions many have in regard to aquaculture. Providing an outlet for voicing concerns and questions might point to more common ground between stakeholders, and, allow such concerns to be addressed.

5. Reducing uncertainty: “This principle holds that the main function of knowledge brokerage is to clarify what is known, not known, knowable and unknowable about an issue without seeking to provide a definitive answer or explanation, but rather to reduce doubt to the extent possible, from multiple perspectives.”7

The nature of the science process is that the accumulation of knowledge over time and spatially should reduce the uncertainty in its broader interpretation. A large body of research has led to identification of “concentrations of substances identified within relevant legislation and international obligations are below levels at which adverse effects are likely to occur” which form the basis of regulation of the coastal, estuarine and freshwaters across Europe. The regulatory regime is widely based on a set of environmental quality standards (EQS) which are (or have been) set at EU level for priority substances and which are regularly updated, both in terms of numerical values but also on the addition of new priority substances. EQS are based on a synthesis of the science (predominantly from peer reviewed international science) surrounding the environmental effects of the substance (in freshwater, seawater, sediment and biota and also human health). Where there is uncertainty, assessment factors are used, to add an additional level of protection and as a realisation of the precautionary principle (PP).

In other areas of environmental impact in aquaculture, the evidence base is made up from: (1) numerical models – which we know by their nature are simplifications, and which depend to varying extents on data and assumptions about what data are relevant; (2) data obtained through observation and monitoring – which by their nature are incomplete, informed by priorities over what should be monitored and technical realities of what can be monitored, and sometimes not widely accessible; and (3) expert opinion – which is inevitably inflected in sometimes useful and sometimes less desirable ways by personal and professional experience. With multiple lines of evidence, procedures are widely used, known as a “weight of evidence” approach (“the extent to which evidence supports possible answers to a scientific question”18). “Factors such as the quality of the data, reliability of the model(s), consistency of results, nature and severity of effects, relevance of the information will have an influence on the weight given to the available evidence.”19

The use of these lines of evidence (and their uncertainties) in the licensing process and in decision making introduces the basis of the precautionary principle.

“The precautionary principle enables decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high. The precautionary principle is closely linked to governance. This has three aspects: risk governance (risk assessment, management and communication), science-policy interfaces and the link between precaution and innovation.”20

Reliable and robust science is the basis for applying precaution while recognising that this will change and be expanded over time.

Opinions in interviews and the roundtable were divided on the application of precautionary measures, with some views expressed that PP has lost its meaning, and that it needs to be more socialised, while others were supportive of adaptive management – which uses monitoring and review to inform the evolution of licensing and management, responding to the fact that the science base and our understanding improves with time. The Griggs Report noted: “Also without an agreed framework within which everyone operates to ensure that decisions are made consistently then different and sometimes conflicting decisions can be made on the same subject by different parts of the regulatory process.” As part of the socialisation of PP, there should be clear mechanisms for re-evaluating decisions and they should be transparent to all parties.

Best practice: perhaps the most commonly encountered illustration of this is in climate change science, where the scientific evidence base has evolved over more than 30 years, where science and policy are closely entwined and where there was and is considerable uncertainty. Of relevance for aquaculture was the creation by IPCC of a common language and simple scales dealing with scientific evidence, and their uncertainties21. The evidence/agreement scale allows separate assessment of the type, amount, and quality of the evidence base supporting a claim and the level of scientific agreement (both on three-point scales). The five-point confidence scale is closely tied to the evidence/agreement scale and the likelihood scale is used to communicate quantified, probabilistic assessments of uncertainty produced by statistical or modelling analyses, or formal expert elicitation methods. Such a system addresses the uncertainties in the climate change evidence base, but does not necessarily reduce uncertainty. Rather, it acknowledges it explicitly and ensures that there is a shared, transparent, common language to facilitate debate. 

7 These definitions are quotes from the ISC report

Was this page useful?

Select an option

Your feedback helps us to improve this website. Do not give any personal information because we cannot reply to you directly.