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News From Around the Fish Farms, February 2004

History in the making

Lost amidst the waves of anger and outrage directed at the USA ‘Science’ magazine report that Scottish farmed salmon was amongst the most contaminated in the world, the Crown Estate’s (CE) decision to refuse a fish farm application in the West Highlands went by almost unnoticed.

Three Skye businessmen had applied for permission to open a new fish farm which, if granted, they allegedly proposed to lease to a major fish farm company, rather then operate it themselves. The application was for a site off the coast of Rassay in the Inner Hebrides and the CE said “no”, only the second time in its history that it has done so.

The first refusal was for a farm in the Dornoch Firth on the east coast of Scotland. On that occasion the CE refused the application on the grounds that sea lice from the farm had the potential to damaging wild salmonids as they passed by on their migratory routes.

Given that the CE had previously licensed hundreds of west coast fish farm applications, where fish farm disease and pollution was killing wild salmon and sea-trout, why did they reject the Dornoch Firth application? The CE, Scottish Ministers and the industry have a private agreement that there will be no fish farms near major salmon rivers on the east coast if the industry is allowed to expand in the west.

The CE said that the Rassay application was rejected because of impairment to visual amenity; an objection that appeared to be the result of concerns expressed by Highland Council (HC), now a statutory consultee on these issues, rather than from the CE itself.

For a number of years Scottish Ministers have said that fish farm planning powers are to be transferred from the CE to local planning authorities; the CE, as both landlord and planning authority, might be otherwise be conceived to have a conflict of interest in these matters since in derives an annual income from the industry in the order of £2 million pounds. So far, four years or so after the promise was made, the transfer hasn’t taken place - but local authorities must now be ‘consulted’.

It further transpires that HC had concerns not only about the visual impact of the farm, but also about the substance of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that accompanied the application. They commissioned an independent study of the document. The study concluded that the alleged level of social and economic benefits associated with operation of the fish farm were open to doubt.

The EIA appears to have been prepared for the applicants by Dr Kenny Black of the government’s Dunstafnage Marine Laboratory near Oban. Given Dr Black’s long record of involvement in matters aquaculture, and his appointment as independent advisor to the recent Scottish Parliament’s ‘rolling inquiry’ into fish farming, it does seem strange that the Rassay EIA failed to pass muster?

Is HC setting standards that are too demanding and could this be a portent of how the council will act when planning powers are transferred to them? Of course, when, and indeed if, that will happen remains a bit of a mystery. In the meantime, however, perhaps those who prepare EIA for the fish farmers should reconsider the environmental criteria they use to support these applications?

Troubled Waters

There is growing alarm in Shetland about the future of the fish farming industry in these most northerly of Scottish isles. In the past six weeks four Shetland salmon farm companies have called in receivers, the latest casualty being Bressay Salmon; owned by John and Alistair Goodlad who also have interests in other Shetland aquaculture ventures.

Morgan Goodlad, Chief Executive of Shetland Isle Council (SIC) is concerned about the £6.78 million pounds of public money extend by the Shetland Development Trust to two other bankrupt salmon farms, SSG Seafoods, and Skerries Salmon. The Trust gave a £3.5 guarantee to allow SSG Seafoods alone to allow them to continue buying fish feed, and another £1.25 million in loans and equity.

David Sandison of the Shetland Salmon Farmers’ Association has expressed his concern that other operators may be vulnerable. Mr Sandison, speaking to the Shetland Times, said “If we haven’t got a means of engendering some confidence in the investment community in the next short while then we will have a very serious situation on our hands. It will dwarf any current issues that we have got with companies that are in receivership.”

Shetland Isles Council is the richest local authority in UK, largely because of the astute negations the then council CEO carried out with the oil industry during the development and expansion of the terminal at Sullom Voe. Many islanders are watching in dismay as this advantage is being squandered trying to save a largely foreign-owned industry that is in terminal decline. When the multi-nationals finally pull out, Shetland will be left to cope with a sadly polluted coastline and damaged families thrown out of work by the actions of a few individuals in hot pursuit of private profit.