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News From Around the Fish Farms, December 2003

MARINE HARVEST FISH FARM BLOCKADE

Residents from the small West Highland community of Scoraig launched their own distinctive protest against Scotland’s largest fish farmers, Dutch-owned Marine Harvest, at the end of November. They took to the waters of Little Loch Broom near Ullapool in a fleet of boats to blockade the company’s fish farm site in the loch. The ‘sailors’ included men, women and children of all ages, and even a wheel-chair bound local. The event attracted nation-wide press and television coverage and was a wonderful success.

Protest organizer Aaron Forsyth said, “The marine environment is a shared and common resource and caring for it calls for a shared responsibility. The salmon farming industry has had its boom and is already bust – it’s high time that developments such as this were approached from a different angle. It is time to give coastal communities an opportunity to exercise responsibility in the management of the marine resource upon which they rely.” A Marine Harvest spokesman denied that the company had failed to consult fully on their proposals but added, “We accept the Scoraig community’s right to protest in a peaceful way.”

Images by courtesy of Peter Jolly, NorthPix, Inverness. email: northpixscotland@btconnect.com ; Tel: 01463 234587; Mobile: 07971 285749

JOBS CRISIS IN THE WEST HIGHLANDS (see also front page story)

With farm salmon prices scraping the bottom of the barrel, Scotland’s foreign-owned fake fish farmers face an uncertain future. So far this year Marine Harvest has laid off 80 workers in Lewis when they closed their fish processing plant in Stornoway. They have now announced more job losses in South Uist; and three sites, Loch a Laip, Loch Sheilavaig and Carnan, are to be fallowed [left empty of fish] with eight employees losing their jobs.

In the past, when Marine Harvest fallowed cages, workers have been kept on. This time, however, according to local reports, they face redundancy, just before Christmas, in spite of the fact that some of them have served for the company for 18 years. Marine Harvest regional manager David Cahill, who will not be losing his job, said: “We are always sorry to have to lose staff but times are tough in the salmon industry and as we make cutbacks there are fewer opportunities for moving people around the business.”

Lighthouse of Scotland Limited, the company trying to open a salmon farm on the banks of a tributary of the River Tweed, one of the world’s premier wild salmon fisheries, is also paying off staff in the West Highlands. The company has announced the closure of sites at Mid-Strome and Aird in Wester Ross, and freshwater sites at Loch Sgamhain near Achnasheen and Loch Ness in the Great Glen. 30 of their workers will be having a less than happy Christmas.

Brian Simpson, chief executive officer of the fish farmer’s representative body, Scottish Qaulity Salmon, said: “Up to 200 jobs have been lost in the industry this year alone and not a lot of jobs are being created just now. The situation will not improve until there is an upturn in prices and until the legislation makes it easier for production to expand.” Or, to put it another way, until their friends in the Scottish Executive (SE) give them more tax-payer cash handouts.

The future for fish farming in Scotland looks even bleaker when consideration is taken of another little announcement from Marine Harvest: they intend to abandon the development of halibut farming here and relocate this sector to Norway. How much cash has the EU and the SE doled out to promote halibut farming in Scotland? Can any of this money be recovered?

And how long is it going to take Nutreco, the world’s largest salmon farmer and owner of Marine Harvest, to decide to abandon Scotland altogether and relocate their salmon interests to Chile; a go as/do as you please environment for fish farming where the average weekly wage of a fish farm worker is in the order of £25? Perhaps senior Marine Harvest executives in Scotland should look for a ‘Teach yourself South American Spanish’ in their Christmas stocking this year.

None of this, however, has had any effect on the numbers of the vital jobs that the SE claims the industry supports “in rural areas.” The SE (see Gordon Grant’s letter in this issue) still insists that the industry supports 6,500 jobs, as they have done for the past six years. This is, even by the industry’s own admission, transparent nonsense and an insult to the intelligence of all who follow the affairs of this dirty business.

The SE justifies its support for the industry on the grounds that any damage fish farming might do, and they allege that it does no damage whatsoever, is outweighed by the importance of the employment it provides. This fallacy has finally been exposed for what it is: a wicked lie. The truth is that fish farming is wrecking social, economic and environmental havoc amongst Scotland’s most fragile communities; eagerly aided and abetted by the very people who should be protecting them: the Scottish Executive.

DISASTER FOR ORKNEY TROUT – LOCH OF STENNESS DEVOID OF FISH

Orkney fish farm cages by the famous Italian Chapel

Images by courtesy of Bill Brady, Edinburgh

The Loch of Stenness is one of Scotland’s most unique wild brown trout waters; a fish weighing 29lb 8oz has been caught in the loch and a cast of this magnificent trout may be seen in Kirkwall. The loch is also famous for the Neolithic standing stones that overlook the south west shore, and for the adjacent 5,000 year-old Ring of Brogar to the east. It is the largest brackish (a mixture of fresh and sea water) loch in UK and is connected to the sea at Bridge of Waith on the A965 Stromness/Kirkwall road.

And therein lies the cause of its downfall: sea water flowing into the loch also brings with it fish farm sea lice that have, over the years, destroyed a once thriving species of wild fish. In spite of being supposedly ‘protected’ by various conservation designations, and constant calls for action from Orcadian anglers to save the loch, Orkney Island Council, the local tourist board et al, has done nothing whatsoever to stem the tide of parasitic lice that kill the trout.

Orkney Trout Fishing Association (OTFA) official Ken Kennedy said: “This has been the worst year so far for the loch and anglers had to stop fishing because there were absolutely no fish to be seen or caught. Catch returns for the past season have been abysmal and continues the downward spiral of what was once Orkney’s premier fishery. Urgent action is required or the unique Stenness trout which are of international importance could be completely wiped out.”

Colin Kirkpatrick, also a member of the OTFA and a Salmon Farm Protest Group supporter has no doubt about the cause of the decline of Loch of Stenness trout: “There has been a dramatic increase in the amount of sea lice on fish in Stenness,” he said, “This has been monitored to a certain extent and one fish had 200 lice on it [15 lice is generally considered fatal]. We have been taking samples again this year but as yet haven’t processed the results.” Kirkpatrick concluded, “Sea lice are a naturally occurring parasite but there has been a massive increase of them right up the West Coast, parallel to the expansion of fish farms.”

In recent years, Orkney has topped the league for fish farm escapes. Hundreds of thousands of fish have escaped. Tonnes of chemical-enhanced food pellets have been ‘accidentally’ lost during storms; areas of sea bed have been strewn with decomposing fish farm feed and feed bags; islanders collecting and eating ‘spoots’ [razor fish] from local beaches have become violently ill; constant, ‘naturally occurring’, poisonous algal blooms make it difficult to harvest scallops and other shellfish species; dead or diseased farm salmon have been illegally buried at secret sites.

But the council continues their blinkered way, often against the express wishes of entire local communities (see November ‘News for around the fish farms’) to dish out consents for ever more fish farm production. For an island that allegedly places a great deal of importance on its reputation for producing quality food from a quality environment to allow that reputation to be destroyed by foreign-owned fish farmers is extraordinary; for an island that allegedly places a great deal of importance on tourism, it is little short of criminal.

CUTTING THE CAKE SHETLAND-STYLE

In spite of the recent farce involving the ambiguous payment of £100,000 to a fish farmer (see November issue of ‘News from around the fish farms), the boys who control the purse strings in the UK’s richest local authority dished out more millions to their fish farming chums between December 2002 and October 2003; SSG Seafood Ltd, £3.5 million; Johnson shellfish Ltd, £340,000; Cro-Lax Ltd, £298,459; Shetland Halibut Company Ltd, £210,000; Johnson Seafarms Ltd, £200,000; Allan Umphray, £47,500; C&A Thomason, £45,000; LCL Shipping, ££39,563; and Suthravoe Shellfish, £26,000.

This largesse was distributed by Shetland Development Trust whose general manager, Neil Grant said that the investments were “…targeted at rationalising the existing industry to enable its business to compete favourably on the world market. Confidence among banks and independent commercial investors”, he explained, “remained very low and gave cause for concern, particularly as certain banks had tried to get out of existing investments.”

So that’s all right then, isn’t it? When experts consider that continuing financial support for a business is simply a question throwing good money after bad, Shetland Development Trust will step in and start scattering cash like confetti, regardless of whether or not it will produce measurable, long-term social and economic benefis. I wonder if they would be so generous if the money was coming out of their own pockets.

Meanwhile, toxic algal blooms, disease and pollution from fish farms wrecks havoc on the Shetland environment. Shetland was once world-famous as a wild sea-trout fishery. Now, these wonderful fighting fish have been all but wiped out by fish farm sea lice, and the visitors who flocked to fish for them gone.

IRAQI FISH FARM WORKERS RIOT IN DINGWALL

Immigrant workers, illegal and otherwise, have a long history of being involved in angst in the East Ross town of Dingwall. They are resented by some members of the local community, but vital to fake farm salmon processors: without the input of immigrant workers fish processing plants would be hard-pushed to keep their production lines moving because few locals want to work there.

The principal fish processing business in Dingwall is The Edinburgh Smoked Salmon Company, owned by JW Seafoods of Aberdeen and employing 200 people.

In the recent past, when workers were laid off at the fish processing plant, those getting the ‘chop’ were locals and they alleged that they were being discriminated against in favour of immigrant workers whom, they claimed, cost less to employ. The company vigorously denied these allegations.

There have also been ructions because local people on the housing list were being passed over in favour of immigrant workers at the fish processing plant. The council vigorously denied these allegations.

In November, however, violence erupted in the town centre when a Dingwall man accused a group of Iraqi fish farm workers of harassing local girls. The Iraqi group set upon him and the man subsequently required hospital treatment for a head injury.

It is unclear just how many immigrant workers are employed by Scotland’s fake fish processors, but recent evidence suggests that up to 50% could be from Central Europe, Iberia and the Middle East. If this is indeed the case, surely it is all the more important to carry out a survey of employment patterns and numbers employed in the industry?

The Scottish Executive insist that fish farming provides vital jobs for local people and that that is why they pour tax-payer cash into the business. But is this really the case?

IN THEE WE TRUST

The Association of West Coast Fisheries Trusts, Chairman Jane Wright, former president of the Scottish Anglers’ National Association, has issued an astonishing little brochure to promote their 2003 Auction Catalogue; aimed at raising funds for the work of the nine trusts involved.

The trusts were the brain-child of the West Highland Sea Trout and Salmon Group; set up in the early 1990’s by the then Scottish Office to determine the cause or causes of the decline in West Highland sea trout and salmon stocks. The Group was packed with government civil servants, fishery scientists and fish farmers, with only two representatives from Scotland’s sport angling bodies: The Salmon & Trout (Scotland) Association (S&TA), and the Scottish National Anglers’ Association (SANA).

The report the Group produced essentially ‘white-washed’ the fish farmers of all complicity in the decline of West Highland wild salmonids and, along the way to doing so, refused to seriously consider Norwegian evidence that showed that fish farm sea lice were implicated. The final report only ‘noted’ that they had received a submission from Norway.

When the report was published both S&TA and SANA issued an independent statement complaining that because of the structure of the Group it had been difficult, indeed almost impossible, for them to make their case against the fish farmers. As such, they distanced themselves from the findings of the Group.

Two years later Jane Wright became President of SANA, a position she held until recently when she stepped down in favour of Professor David Mackay, the former North Region Director of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. The previous President of SANA was David MacDonald, the SANA representative on the West Highland Sea Trout and Salmon Group and who signed the joint statement with S&TA expressing concern about how the Group was constructed. Ms Wright, therefore, must have been aware of the ‘hatchet job’ carried out by the Group in defense of the fish farmers.

But in her preamble to the Association of West Coast Fisheries Trust 2003 Auction Catalogue, Ms Wright is astonishingly coy about the reason why West Coast wild fish stocks have collapsed and why these fish are now extinct in a number of rivers and on the verge of extinction in others.

Instead, commenting on the decline, Ms Wright says: “There is no single cure for the problems affecting fish stocks across the West Coast of Scotland, as problems and solutions differ from area to area. Even as there will always be factors beyond the scope of the local fishery manager – such as global warming or changing sea currents – other aspects that can be managed require informed answers to such questions as what currently limits fish numbers on a catchment by catchment basis.”

More of the same ‘Yes Minister-speak follows’, “Of course not all problems can be fixed quickly. A long-term view and real perseverance is required. The Trusts provide focus and unity during the often delicate negotiations between wild fishery interests and industry – whether discussing a plan to set up area management agreements with fish farmers or the restructuring of conifer plantations.”

By this time, if like me you love our wild fish and want them survive, you will be reaching for a sick bag. With friends like Jane Wright, our wild fish have no need of enemies. Ms Wright quite clearly has no understanding or appreciation of the plight of our wild fish face. I honestly believe, by issuing statements like those quoted above she is, much as she will protest that she has their best interests at heart, hurrying them towards certain oblivion.