Sunday, 1 April 2012

Proposed Fish Farm on Colonsay

I was on Colonsay at the beginning of February at the request of some of the residents to take part in the discussion at a public meeting called to consider the issues surrounding the proposed Marine Harvest fish farm. I greatly enjoyed my visit to what was a new island for me, but one I had often seen tantalisingly on the horizon from the top of Dun Fada, the prehistoric vantage point at Degnish. Colonsay's situation out in the Atlantic with little shelter has always put me off attempting a visit in my small engineless boat. The summons was thus welcome, if a little daunting, as I understood that Marine Harvest folk were to be at the meeting in force. In the event everyone kept his or her cool and there was a mature and level-headed exchange of views.

I've already written about the non-political aspects of my trip on my blog, here :- Cool Colonsay As the debate is now hotting up, with an article in today's Sunday Herald, readable here:- £50,000 Bribe for Salmon Farm Site it's appropriate for me to set out what I said at the meeting, with some afterthoughts added.

For the avoidance of doubt (as lawyers often say) I am no eco-warrior and took an interest in fish farms only because the area of mid-Argyll where I live hosts more of them than the local environment can sustain and matters are approaching a crisis point. A year ago a group of our local residents formed ourselves into a campaign group to stop further expansion in our area. If you visit our website you will see that we have tried to evaluate the various arguments raging around fish-farming. We have had a lot of professional input and have not just tried to educate ourselves by trawling the internet. For my talk on Colonsay I decided to present some of the arguments against fish farms, in order to give people a starting point for further research and discussion.

What follows is an outline of my talk, updated in bold text in the light of the discussion at the meeting.

First a few words about the historic background.

Fish farming in Scotland started in the late 1960s and soon came to be encouraged by central and local government as a low investment addition to rural economies. It was envisaged that crofting and fishing families would establish small scale operations in their localities, producing a healthy, easily-marketed product that would benefit from the fantastic reputation already enjoyed world-wide by Scotland's wild salmon. It was probably thought that these small units would add something to the tourist experience in giving people the chance to see wild fish close up. I certainly remember looking at a trout farm off the Inverary to Dalmally road early on and it had a small visitor centre next to it. 

As often happens with well-intentioned schemes this rather idyllic business model was never realised. From the beginning very few local families became involved in setting up farms and those who did quickly discovered that the levels of veterinary knowledge and new skills involved in rearing large quantities of fish in a confined space were too problematical and expensive to acquire. Soon a number of companies were formed, which have amalgamated and grown over the years, until today there is only a handful of which Marine Harvest is probably the largest.

I agree with Kenny Black's remark at the meeting that the original crofting model could have been ecologically damaging. A large company with careful management and a proper structure of training in fish management is a necessary, but perhaps not a sufficient condition for a safe operation.

Control of pollution

It was always known that even a small installation would result in waste matter such as uneaten food and effluent landing on the seabed, fish farms would cause pollution, so in line with the best scientific advice at the time leases were granted for ten year periods. At the end of the lease the cages would be moved to a different location in the same neighbourhood to allow the seabed to recover. In practice this never happened and the principle has now been abandoned.

In the years up to the early 1980s fish farms typically had a capacity of about 100 tonnes, representing a population of about 25,000 mature salmon, assuming 4 kg per fish. Figures collected by the then Scottish Office show that by 1986 the industry was producing 8,700 tonnes of salmon, and waste equivalent to that produced by the entire human population of the region where the farms were situated. Fast forward to 2012, we find that the Scottish industry claims to be one of the biggest in the World, set to produce about 150,000 tonnes of fish in the current year. To produce this the individual units have grown, so that SEPA will now licence biomass up to 2,500 tonnes per unit, about 600,000 mature fish.

No one disputes that fish farms pollute and it's obvious that large ones do so more than small ones. Because of this farms were always allowed to drop pollution onto the seabed within a defined area, the "Allowable Zone of Effects". Originally this was set at, I believe, twenty five metres from the edge of the cages, but later it was extended to much greater distances and a system of computer modelling known as Autodepomod was introduced, whereby an attempt is made to predict where all the uneaten food and fish waste will end up. How this works is difficult for lay persons to understand, but I think it is agreed by the industry that it all depends on the accuracy of the data about the strengths and directions of tidal flows and the seabed. For example a muddy or sandy bed will cope better than a rocky one, as the tiny marine animals that live below the surface are supposed to clean up the mess. Unfortunately we have evidence from divers that at some sites these creatures have themselves been asphyxiated, as conditions were totally anoxic.

In the course of the meeting we learned that the present limit of 2,500 tonnes results from the limitations of the current version of Autodepomod and that farms are likely to get even bigger when new software is developed and tested.

Right now the seabed round all of Colonsay is absolutely clean and people should think long and hard before encouraging a major polluter to come in, and on a permanent basis.

East versus West

The entire Scottish fish-farming industry has been accommodated on the West coast, which for obvious geographical reasons doesn't include the coasts of Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway, so effectively there is a sort of aquaculture coast from the far north west down to the Mull of Kintyre, with parts of the wider Firth of Clyde thrown in.

This is because it has been Government policy from the earliest days to spare the Big Four rivers, Spey, Dee, Tay and Tweed. Hypocritically Scottish planning guidelines state

"There is a presumption against development of marine finfish farm developments on the north and east coasts to safeguard migratory fish species. (my italics)"

absurdly implying that West coast salmon prefer to stay at home. A more likely explanation would be that the proprietors of these great fishing rivers, where a fortnight on a half mile stretch of bank sells for millions, possess more clout than those in the West.

One effect of this is to create by accident a sort of scientific experiment, with the East as a control group for the West. This is not lost on campaigners in both sides. The industry says that their farms have no effect on fish stocks; wild fish campaigners differ.

There's no doubt that a great deal of information and disinformation is being put about. Wild fishing interests historically had a lot to answer for, but now have very strict rules about returning catches. Also, netting traditionally devastated stocks, but most of the netting stations have been shut down, those in the West as they became unprofitable, those in the East through being bought out by fishing interests and closed. For me the clincher is the evidence from the River Ruel. The wild salmon there had become virtually extinct, but since the salmon farm in Loch Riddon was relocated to Ardmaddy in 2005 they have gradually been returning.

Possible types of interaction between caged and wild fish

Next let's have a look at how farmed salmon and wild fish interact with each other. The latter are of course not just wild salmon, but also sea trout. Not a lot of research has been done on sea trout, but it's known that they aren't migratory like salmon. There are no salmon rivers on Colonsay, but they must migrate past the island. There are sea trout in abundance.

The main issues are (a) possible interbreeding when caged fish escape, (b) infectious diseases and (c) sea lice. The first of these is very contentious and to explore it here would get us into very technical territory. Infectious disease is a serious risk where any large populations, be they battery hens, cattle or whatever are kept in factory conditions. Infectious salmon anaemia resulted in the entire Chilean fish farming industry being closed down. There was widespread human misery when everyone got sacked without compensation. There is no doubt that if disease breaks out it will infect local wild fish populations. The third threat, which is most immediate, is sea lice.

The sea-lice menace.

Sea-lice are an absolute menace to both farmed and wild fish. But what are they? Sea-lice is the common term used for one group of small parasitic crustaceans which occur naturally on fish world-wide. They are akin to other crustaceans such as lobsters, prawns and crabs. At an early stage in their development they can be carried long distances until they find a host fish, after which they fasten to it and mature to spend the rest of their life feeding on it. When fully grown they are about 1cm long and can easily be spotted clinging on to the body of the fish. A sheep tick is very small by comparison.

Sea-lice have been around for millennia and in numbers are devastating to fish. They die in fresh water, affording some relief to migratory species such as salmon, but very little research has been done on sea trout. It's beyond argument that the huge populations of caged fish in large industrial farms are sea-lice paradise. They have caused massive losses of fish and require farms to be closed down and fallowed periodically.

To deal with the menace the industry uses a number of pesticides to kill the lice, ideally before they reach their final egg-bearing stage. Historically hydrogen peroxide (bleach) was added, but proved relatively ineffective. It did have the advantage that it dispersed in sea water fairly rapidly. The industry has moved on as the lice have developed immunities and there has been pressure on SEPA to license the use of new, stronger treatments.

At the meeting the Marine Harvest spokesman Ben Hadfield mentioned the use of wrasse as a way of controlling sea-lice. These are small scavenger fish that co-exist with the caged salmon and eat the sea-lice. Ben mentioned the project that is currently running at Machrihanish to breed these magic fish (funded incidentally to the extent of one half each by the taxpayer and the industry).

What was not made clear was whether wrasse would be used at Colonsay from the beginning instead of conventional pesticides, or rather that their development was still aspirational, something that could be introduced in future.

Data on the SEPA website show that in 2010 Marine Harvest were still using various pesticides at its existing sites. This is a matter that can be easily cleared up, by asking Marine Harvest formally to confirm if they will use pesticides and if so which ones, or use wrasse exclusively from the outset.

Pesticides and Lobsters

As noted above sea-lice are crustacea and the pesticides that kill them are likely to harm lobsters, crabs, prawns and oysters, all of which are found in abundance around the island at present.

Impacts on wild life
Fish farms attract seals, of which there are established colonies on Colonsay. Marine Harvest intend to apply for a licence to shoot them if necessary, under the new system whereby Marine Scotland issue licences. The first returns were actually published on the day of the meeting and are easily found online, as are the comments of the various conservation groups, so I won't add to that literature here.
Shooting is said to be a last resort, but most supporters of the seals believe there are other alternatives, such as surrounding the cages with a second anti-predator net. Kenny Black expressed the view that a properly constructed and tensioned single net should be perfectly seal-proof, making shooting unnecessary.

Another method of anti-predator control is the use of acoustic deterrent devices to frighten off the seals, but there is authoritative expert opinion that these can have devastating effects on other wildlife.

Afterthoughts and Conclusions

I learned a lot from the discussions at and around the meeting. I formed the view that Marine Harvest intend to be on the scene for the long haul and are concerned that it should not self-destruct after a few years due to excessive pollution. They are interested in Colonsay and the other islands precisely because these locations benefit from good tidal streams to disperse pollutants far and wide, as opposed to inshore stretches of water such as Seil/Shuna/Melfort, where there is now clear evidence of pollution and environmental damage.

Further, as noted above, there are no salmon rivers on Colonsay, although it's obvious that salmon will migrate past and there are local sea trout, which are not a migratory species. As the latter, unlike salmon, don't have anyone to speak up for them it's likely that the project will not attract much opposition from wild salmon interests.

That's what Colonsay offers Marine Harvest. What does Colonsay get in return?

At the meeting, and confirmed in the Sunday Herald article these seem to be two- six full-time jobs plus a financial inducement of £50,000 plus £10,000 per year to the local community. That's it, pure and simple. There's no attempt, for example, to suggest that the operation will increase visitor numbers, provide food products locally, or that the fish will be processed locally. 

What is the downside, if Colonsay accepts Marine Harvest's jobs and shilling(s)? I'm not going to comment on the latter, as I believe that money should not decide the argument.

While on the island I confined myself to outlining the arguments on the environmental aspects, partly because that was my brief, but also as it seemed arrogant and presumptuous to suggest on a first visit ways in which the residents of Colonsay could address their various local problems and issues. It didn't stop one resident accusing me of scaremongering, but that was absolutely not my intention.

Having had time to reflect, digest and read up on certain aspects I'm going to venture some views here, with an element of trepidation.

I think it's commonly accepted that the main problem on Colonsay is the declining resident population, presently about 120, of whom many are now ageing. Associated is the lack of employment opportunities.

Rob Edwards in today's Sunday Herald reports that there are currently sixteen full-time jobs, but I suspect that the part-timers form a significant contingent as well. We all know that throughout the Highlands and Islands this is the case, with many holding down several occupations.There's also a lot of self-employment.

The island sustains a primary school, medical practice, social service support, an Hotel, a nice café/restaurant, art gallery and numerous self-employed artists and craftspeople.

There is a local lobster man, an oyster rearing business, a brewery, Colonsay Honey and Lochar Publishing. Sorry if I've missed people.

The main industry is tourism and holiday traffic. There are about five hundred visitor beds.

It's obvious that summer-only employment is much higher than year-round.

It was noticeable that the older residents, including many folk who have retired to the island, spoke in favour of the jobs on offer. During my stay I walked about and spoke to several younger residents, some of whom could be part of the Marine Harvest job pool. None seemed interested in full-time work on a fish farm, although winter work would be welcome. I'm not saying my method was scientific, but I don't think anyone has done a survey among the young locals. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Marine Harvest are a progressive (if non-union) employer who offer a structured training programme. Staff intended for Colonsay would require to spend time on, say, Barra being trained and would then be expected to work year-round. The salary levels mentioned at the meeting seemed very attractive and to me implied that a serious commitment would be required. On balance I'm not convinced that all or perhaps any of the new jobs would appeal to locals. (This is not a reflection on them personally. I just that the quasi-industrial lifestyle is quite different from what attracts people to island life.)

If the jobs went to incomers they would require housing.

It's notorious that the housing stock on most or all of the islands is getting old, with rebuilding and repair costs extortionate. There are reports specific to Colonsay confirming this. The high proportion of holiday and second homes, while necessary to sustain island income, accentuates the problem. All islands face the same housing problems to a greater or lesser extent and they usually are linked to patterns of land-ownership. Taking two non-Colonsay and thus non-contentious examples, on Gigha ten years of community ownership has shown that people will come in with money, ideas and enterprise and stay to make things work, while National Trust or RSPB ownership elsewhere have denied incomers the security and opportunity to contribute that make them want to migrate in the first place.

Would six fish farm jobs be offset by losses elsewhere? I suggest that they could be.

The island economy depends on visitors who come because of its incredibly unspoilt location on the edge of the Atlantic to enjoy the sight of clear pure seas, unpolluted beaches and the wild life that frequent these habitats. Of the latter the grey seal colonies are legendary.

Shooting seals is officially a last resort, but only time will tell how many last resorts there are in practice. Around mid-Argyll there have been nasty historical instances of entire seal colonies being wiped out, something that visitors find abhorrent. These did not involve Marine Harvest, who I am sure would behave responsibly, but I suggest even the most limited culling could have serious consequences.

I was sorry to learn that the local lobster man doesn't have an apprentice, because I guess he will eventually retire and there's a great job there for someone. Colonsay lobsters are said to be thriving, with many being taken by boats from Islay just now. As I argued above, the pesticides used to control sea-lice will present a risk of damage to the colonies along the East of the island. Watching the local lobster fishers (and consuming the product) has always been part of the visitor experience in Scottish coastal resorts. I wouldn't give much for the chances of the local oysters either.

And presenting visitors arriving on the ferry with the sight of a massive fish farm  won't exactly enhance their first impression of the island.

I'm aware that opinion on the island seems to be divided pretty equally, but with everyone wanting the same solution in the longer term, a stronger local economy to stem population decline and add to the general prosperity. Those presently in favour should reflect long and hard on the risks involved, because if Marine Harvest get in now they will be on Colonsay for a very long haul.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water