Bruce Sandison, who is undoubtedly the leading defender of Scotland's wild fish and a gifted writer has kindly given me permission to publish as a guest post the following article, which appeared recently in the press.
Farming salmon seemed like a good idea at the time, back in 1965; the perfect adjunct and enhancement to subsistence crofting in remote rural areas of the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It was believed that the industry would provide much-needed employment by attracting young families to the area who would then sustain and expand every aspect of community life; new faces and new ideas, a bustling economy and busy shops, more children at local schools, a golden age of growth and prosperity.
Other people were less sanguine and predicted that the end result would most likely be tears and acrimony, pollution on an unprecedented scale and environmental disaster. They claimed that insufficient research had been carried out into the environmental consequences of salmon farming and that to proceed without a sound scientific base upon which to build would be irresponsible
Fifty years down the line the doubters seem to have been right: conflict and acrimony currently surrounds the industry. Many communities in the West Highlands and Islands are mounting furious battles to try to keep the fish farmers out of their back yards; thousands of people sign petitions opposing the expansion of salmon farming into new areas; conservation groups are considering legal action, accusing fish farms of driving distinct populations of wild salmon and sea-trout to the verge of extinction. They allege that the sea lice that breed in their billions in the farmers fish-packed cages attack not only farm salmon, but also wild fish that pass by farm cages.
These allegations have been vigorously denied by the industry who say that there is not enough evidence to suggest that sea lice were responsible for any declines in wild fish stocks. None of these claims and counter-claims is new: for more than twenty years the industry and those concerned about the adverse impact they say salmon farming is having on the marine and freshwater environment have been fighting over this same ground. All of the many attempts at finding common purpose through consultation have failed: meetings, joint committees, discussion papers, aquaculture framework strategies, codes of conduct, et al.
Salmon farming is judged to be one of Scotland's most successful industries and is estimated to be worth upwards of £450 million pounds to the Scottish economy. The industry also supports 6,500 jobs, many of which are in remote rural areas where other employment opportunities are limited. Scottish farmed salmon is one Scotland's biggest export earners, second only to whisky in value, and yet, in spite of this, the Scottish fisheries minister, Stewart Stevenson has now suggested that new legislation planned for later this year might see farms banned from areas that are important for wild fish stocks. The minister also revealed that he is considering forcing fish farmers to publish information about sea lice levels on specific farms; a measure that is already in place in Norway to protect their iconic stocks of wild salmon and sea-trout.
Like many observers of the irresistible rise and rise of salmon farming, I am puzzled by this apparent sea-change in the minister's attitude towards an industry that heretofore has appeared to be beyond reproach; an industry that has benefited mightily from continuous support by governments regardless of their political persuasion. Since the 1980's, when doubts about the environmental impact of salmon farms began to be voiced, many alleged government shielded the industry from any form of meaningful public scrutiny and repeatedly resisted all calls for an independent public inquiry into these murky waters.
At the heart of this dispute are matters of vital importance, now, and to future generations: on the one hand, is a perceived risk to the health and integrity of an irreplaceable part of Scotland's natural heritage, on the other, the economic wealth that the fish farmers say they bring to the nation. With both parties entrenched in intractable positions, finding a solution is not going to be easy. But there has to be a solution and a new initiative by government has been launched in an attempt to bring the warring parties together. An influential Scottish parliament committee appears to be promoting this initiative, led by its Convener, MSP Rob Gibson. The committee is determined to get to the bottom of the bitter argument raging between anglers and the fish farmers and propose to invite interested parties to round-table discussion to address their concerns.
The beauty of the wild lands of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland draw thousands of visitor each year to enjoy the majesty of their mountains, moorlands and myriad lochs and rivers. Visiting yachts anchor in sheltered bays, their crews coming ashore in the evening to local restaurants and hostelries to relish wonderful seafood; scallops, mussels, lobsters crab and prawns, freshly delivered each day. Children splash in crystal-clear shallows and play on white-sand, near-deserted beaches. Local communities rely on income by providing visitors with bed and breakfast accommodation in their homes, self-catering cottages and caravan sites and other services. Guesthouses and hotels also provide accommodation and extensive employment opportunities.
Rod and line sport anglers prized the salmon, sea-trout and brown trout that thrived in pristine, unpolluted waters. But now many lochs and rivers that once supported remarkable numbers of fish are virtually devoid of these species because, it is alleged, of the impact of fish farm sea lice. The Loch Maree Hotel in Wester Ross, where some 2,000 sea-trout could be could caught be each season and which employed eleven gillies to guide anglers to the best fishing spots has closed its doors. Other West Highland and Islands fisheries that enjoyed a world-wide reputation for the quality of sport have suffered a similar fate; such as Stack, More, Shiel and Eilt, and the rivers Dionard, Laxford, Inver, Kirkaig and Ailort.
The late Mrs Pauline Cameron-Head of Inverailort House is credited with bringing the benefits of salmon farming to Scotland. In 1965 she agreed to lease her land for use as a shore-base from which to service a fish farm in Loch Ailort; a sea loch on the famous 'Road the Isles' close to where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in 1745 to try to reclaim his father's lost kingship of the British Isles. The fish farm company involved in the deal was Marine Harvest, then a wholly-owned subsidiary of the multi-national Unilever organisation, now Norwegian-owned and the largest producer of farm salmon in the world. The company operate a fish farm in Loch Ailort to this day.
Loch Eilt and the River Ailort, which drain into Loch Ailort used to be counted as amongst the most prolific sea-trout systems in Europe that could produce 1,500 sea-trout each season. Now, the numbers of sea-trout caught may be counted on the fingers of one hand, with some fingers to spare. A picture, taken in1941 of Lochan Dubh, an extension of the river, shows just how many sea-trout used to run the system. It was sent to me by Iain Thornber - historian, archaeologist and author from Morvern. He explained that explosives were used to kill the fish in the picture; a criminal offence, hence the soldier with the fishing rod strategically placed to try to suggest that the fish had been caught legally. All of the fish were sea-trout and used to feed Special Operations Executive commandos stationed at nearby Inverailort Castle. Iain remembers Pauline Cameron-Head telling him that the number of sea-trout in the system was so great that the noise they made splashing to upstream spawning grounds could be heard from the castle.
The assumption that fish farming would be initiated and carried out by crofters never materialised; capital costs were high, disease episodes and consequent loss of stock frequent and the expertise required to successfully rear fish to slaughter-weight was woefully absent. This knowledge gap was filled by fishery scientists from government agencies, the Fisheries Research Services, now renamed as Marine Scotland, and by scientists from a number of Universities, including Aberdeen, St Andrews and the Department of Aquaculture at Stirling University. Funding grants to further research programmes into fish farming came from the European Union, UK government and industry bodies.
Within a short time the industry began to consolidate into fewer and fewer farms owned and run by fewer and fewer multi-national companies, the majority of which were Norwegian. In the 1980's when 20,000 tonnes of farmed salmon were being produced annually the industry directly employed in excess of 2,000 people on their farms, fulfilling the claim that they were creating jobs. However, by the mid-1990's when production peaked at nearly 150,000 tonnes, employment figures, because of advances in technology - particularly automatic feeding systems - the number of jobs had fallen to below 1,000. Indirect employment, however, soared, reaching an alleged 7,000 people; but almost 50% of these jobs were taken by immigrants for Europe, the Middle East and Iberia and some 25% of those were illegal entrants to UK.
The industry claims that it is one of the most highly regulated businesses in the world and open to constant scrutiny and control. This is substantially true, but those worried by the fish farmer's actions suggest that such scrutiny is poorly implemented and ineffective; one anomaly being that for most of its existence the Crown Estate had the sole right to issue sea-bed licences to operate fish farms and to issue planning permissions. The Crown Estate benefits to the tune of approximately £2 million a year from fish farming and this suggested a clear conflict of interest. After more than seven years of government promises, the planning role was given to local authorities. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) also has to give their approval for operating cages in the sea and generally did. For instance, during the period 2008 to 2011 SEPA received more than two hundred applications, all but fifteen of which were approved.
The problems for wild salmon and sea-trout from fish farms are, however, vividly illustrated by comparing wild fish numbers in East coast rivers such as Spey, Dee, Tay and Tweed with those in the West Highlands and Islands: whilst there has been a total collapse of wild stocks in many of the later, with few signs of recovery, stocks in the former are currently producing record numbers of fish returning to spawn. There are no fish farms in East coast waters because, when fish farming began, it was decided to adopt a precautionary principal to protect these major rivers, and give the industry free reign to operate amongst the smaller rivers in the West. In substance, this is the core of the present dispute: wild fish that have survived in these waters since the end of the last Ice Age are being sacrificed for the financial benefit of a few, against the express wishes of the many.
There is a way out of this impasse that would, I believe, be of benefit to both sides of the argument: move the industry into closed containment systems by building a solid barrier between the fish in the container, and the sea water in which the container floats. There would be immense financial savings for the industry, including freedom from sea lice attack and other sea-born diseases, reduced expenditure on chemicals and medicines, fewer escapes from these new farms and a more secure work-platform for staff. Water from the containers could be cleaned and recycled back into the sea. Even better, and more secure, is to operate these containers from land-based, onshore sites.
For anglers, wild salmon and sea-trout would have unhindered and safe access to their natal spawning grounds to get on with what they do best, the propagation of their species. Such systems, tried and tested, already exist and are being introduced in Canada. The Norwegians themselves are also showing great interest. It makes sense; at least it does to me and it offers a realistic opportunity to bring this sad, sorry, costly and unseemly conflict to an end.
This photograph shows Major Donald Gilchrist greeting Mrs Pauline Cameron-Head, who wears the green beret, a privilege extended to her by the Commandos in recognition of either her ability to keep them under control off-duty or her skills at blowing up fish for their dinner with dynamite, I'm not sure which. I also don't know which would have been the more dangerous.