UNDERWATER devices used to stop seals eating farmed salmon could take a bite out of the tourism industry by driving whales away, it is claimed.

In evidence to the ongoing inquiry into salmon farming by MSPs, the Mull-based Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) claims wildlife tourism could be compromised by “underwater noise pollution” cause by acoustic deterrent devices (ADDs).

The equipment is used by some fish farms to keep seals and other predators away from the lucrative stocks.

The sound frequencies emitted are within the scope of those used by other marine mammals, such as minke whales, which visit Scottish waters during the summer months.

In its submission to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, HWDT claims the continued use of the devices could put rural tourism at threat as the sector’s growth plans see more deployed around the coast. Currently worth £600 million a year in exports, salmon farming also supports around 2500 jobs.

Last month Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing – who will appear before the committee today – reaffirmed that the Scottish Government “fully supports” plans for “sustainable growth” as part of efforts to double the overall value of the aquaculture sector to £3.6 billion by 2030.

But HWDT said they “do not fully understand the environmental impacts of this rapidly expanding industry” and increased ADD use could sink other enterprises on the country’s coastline.

The claim is based on research into the effects of ADDs in keeping minke whales – a key draw for cruise services – away from offshore wind developments. Published in November by the Carbon Trust, the paper found the species swims away from the gadgets even after they have been deactivated.

HWDT said: “Marine mammals serve as charismatic flagship species underpinning many financially important ecotourism activities in the region, such as whale-watching, which in 2015 generated an estimated £3.7m in indirect revenue from an estimated 51,200 whale-watching passengers on vessels operating on Scotland’s west coast.

“This research highlighted that minke whales are the most important cetacean to whale-watch operators on the west coast of Scotland.

“The new research ... on the avoidance of minke whales to ADDs is of particular concern given that these two economically important industries overlap geographically, in particular on the west coast of Scotland.”

In its own submission to the inquiry, the Scottish Salmon Producer’s Organisation says the industry has long “used science to shape its development and continuously adapts to embrace best practice for production efficiency, fish health and welfare and responsible farming”.

It goes on to state that facilities are managed to “ensure minimal impact of salmon farms on the environment”.

However, Green MSP Mark Ruskell said ministers must halt the industry’s expansion unless environmental regulator SEPA gains resources for independent research on its affects. The agency said this was limited by budget constraints in November 2016.

Ruskell said: “If the Scottish Government wants to double the size of the salmon farming industry, then ministers should fund independent research and regulation to protect the environment that our coastal communities rely on. Given the rapid expansion of this industry, it’s simply unacceptable that our environmental regulator has no independent research budget to examine its impact.”