PLANS to expand salmon farming could cause “irrecoverable damage” to the environment, MSPs say.

The cross-party Environment Committee has revealed it is “deeply concerned” about potential harm to local ecosystems by the sector, which is part of the £1.8 billion-a-year aquaculture industry.

Plans unveiled by a working group including trade leaders aim to produce 350,000 tonnes of salmon for consumption by 2030, helping to push the value of fin and shellfish production to £3.6bn.

The scheme includes boosting salmon tonnage by around five per cent every year.

But in a report released yesterday, the committee raises serious fears about the impact of salmon farming on the country’s coastline, claiming regulation is insufficient and the planned expansion could “place huge pressures on the environment”.

Urging change to close “significant gaps” in monitoring, data collection and research, it says there has been little improvement to concerns reported in 2002, concluding that the sector’s own plans “do not take into account the capacity of the environment to farm that quantity of salmon”.

The report states: “Scotland is at a critical point in considering how salmon farming develops in a sustainable way in relation to the environment.

“The planned expansion of the industry over the next 10-15 years will place huge pressures on the environment. If the current issues are not addressed this expansion will be unsustainable and may cause irrecoverable damage to the environment.”

Calling for an “ecosystems-based approach” to planning and development, it goes on: “The committee is supportive of aquaculture, but further development and expansion must be on the basis of a precautionary approach and must be based on resolving the environmental problems. The status quo is not an option.”

There are currently 250 salmon farms around Scotland.

The committee took evidence on potential disease impacts on wild fish, including the impact of deadly sea lice, and the discharge of waste materials farms into the marine environment. This includes the impact of sea lice treatments and chemicals.

Members, led by convenor Graeme Dey, MSP for Angus South, say independent assessments should now take place.

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation said: “The industry takes this inquiry very seriously and has provided written and oral evidence to the committee to highlight our commitment to long-term sustainability through high standards of fish health, husbandry and environmentally responsible production.

“With investment of over £50m in new innovations and around £10m per year spent on research, it is clear that the Scottish salmon farming industry is proud of its achievement to become the UK’s top food export.

“We are determined to address any challenges to the sector maintaining that position.”

However, Andrew Graham-Stewart of charity Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland said: “This is a complete vindication of what we have been arguing for many years now, often in the face of denials and opposition from within Scottish Government and Scottish public authorities, that open cage salmon farming in sea lochs is way out of balance with the environment, particularly with the conservation of wild salmon and sea trout.”

He went on: “In the short term, there must be an immediate moratorium on all new farms or any expansion of existing farms, until all impacts, including those on wild salmon and sea trout are under proper control, which the committee clearly realises is not the case today.”