Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Bad Neighbours

My last post has stirred up a certain amount of activity in the blogosphere, mainly on bluemoment.com and Yachting World's scuttlebutt, raising issues that go well beyond navigational matters at Ardmaddy.

Comment has been equally divided. On one hand I have been told off for being hysterical, that fish farms don't have exclusion zones and that it is easy to power past a salmon farm under engine. On the other hand Adrian Morgan has eloquently expressed his views in a comment on the last post and coincidentally Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has recently been agitating on the whole subject of farmed fish. He can be read online here.

To the charge of hysteria I must say that mild protest rarely works, particularly when dealing with an industry that has enormous financial and political clout. There is much more traffic at the new location than the present one and I will be shouting hard to stop it being blocked for half its width.

On exclusion zones I did write "effectively" a zone, not legally one. In my view it would be insanely bad seamanship to sail within the perimeter of a fish farm, let alone a mussel farm, where the floats are tied together with steel wires.

And not all mariners have or wish to use engines. Loch Melfort is constantly visited by small sailing craft, rowing craft and canoes.Visitors walk and occasionally camp on its shores.

Several comments decried the loss of wonderful natural harbours such as Craobh. A fellow called Quandary used to anchor there in the 1970s and as it happens so did I. I entirely agree with these comments, which only underline the need for proper regulation of the use of the seabed. A quite magical, remote cluster of little islands has been ruined by a garish pastiche of a village.

The comments raised general issues too, and I shall try to address some of them.

The salmon farming industry undoubtedly contributes massively to the national economy, but I have to ask if it really helps micro-economies in places like Argyll, where tourism and leisure are now by far the biggest earners. Would it not be better to locate the installations in places where visitors rarely go?

At a local level the installations generate very few jobs, invariably minimum wage and low-skilled. Living, say, in a remote caravan, tipping processed fish-meal and occasional doses of medicine into the sea is scarcely an appealing career option.  Standing on the hillside above, for example, Degnish Point, one may wonder how many fin-fish and shell-fish farms the area can stand before it loses its beauty and appeal to visitors. Is there not a serious risk that for every additional job on a fish farm another job in a hotel, a boat-yard or self-catering is put at risk?

One comment referred to our seas being massively over-fished. Of course they are, but according to the aforesaid Hugh it takes three tons of fish meal to produce one ton of salmon, so this industry is hardly helping.

Then there is the conflict between the industry and those concerned with the wild salmon. Why are there no wild salmon on the West coast, where the farms are, and plenty on the East coast, where they are not? Indeed why are there no farms on the East coast? The industry maintains there is no connection! There's a current petition before the Scottish Parliament and the briefing notes can be found here.

There's also the potential for conflict between salmon farms and shell fish farms. During my professional life I came across the owner of an oyster farm who was put out of business when his oysters were poisoned by TBT antifouling leaching from a nearby salmon farm.

For those who wish to inform themselves more there's a lot of information on sites such as  http://www.salmonfarmmonitor.org.

Finally, let's have a look at the historical background. The ownership of the seabed in Scotland has been successfully claimed by the Crown as part of its prerogative. For most of our history this probably didn't matter too much, certainly not in financial terms, because the Crown prerogative was subject to certain inalienable rights of the general public, namely to fish (including shellfish but not salmon), to navigate and for recreation.

Matters came to a head in the late 1970s when the Crown Estate Commissioners, a body of London-based gentlemen, decided to levy charges for the fixed moorings laid by boatyards and the result was the well-known case of the Commissioners versus the Fairlie Yacht Slip. The issue boiled down to whether or not the owner of a vessel on a mooring was engaged in navigation. The argument could easily have gone either way, but in the event the Court was persuaded that navigation was what happened only when a vessel was on a voyage, so the Crown won. Since then a river of hard-earned cash has flowed from Scottish boat operators, be they commercial or recreational, to London. Belatedly the Scottish Government has just started to wake up to this.

After winning on the moorings issue the Commissioners quickly realised that further pickings could be made from fish farms. A problem for the general public was that the Crown was not only the owner of the seabed and entitled to rent it out, it was also the custodian of the rights of the public and thus charged with defending them. This conflict of interest was pointed out by the Scottish Law Commission in 2003, but to date no action has been taken to remedy it.

Ten years or so after the Fairlie case a certain Mr Walford bravely challenged the Commissioners when they had leased an area of the seabed between Scalpay and Skye. His first attempt at a judicial review failed, because the Commissioners found a statutory provision that appeared to make their actions unchallengeable (a contention that the Scottish Law Commission later said they didn't agree with). He had another go and lost again. The court held that the public had to tolerate having their rights interfered with, even to a material extent.

These litigations focussed on the right to navigate, but the public also have the right to use the sea for recreation. Perhaps this would have been a better basis to go to court on.

The fact is that regulation is presently in a complete mess. Apart from the Crown Estate Commissioners there are the Scottish Government and the local authorities, and organisations such as SEPA, not to speak of the European Union and proposed marine nature reserves. Ultimately for regulation to work it should be based in Scotland and the revenue must flow here too.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water