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News From Around the Fish Farms, February 2006

Uist dump latest: Western Isles Council complies with Freedom of Information Act

Responding to the intervention of Scottish Information commissioner, Kevin Dunion, Western Isles Council, after a delay of seven months, has final complied with the terms of the Freedom of Information Act and released details requested by the SFPG in connection with the operation of a dead salmon dump on the Island of North Uist.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is currently reviewing the findings of its investigation into SFPG concerns regarding the dump and is due to complete this process in the near future. Read the Freedom of Information Commissioner’s Report and a resume of the present position here.

Shetland Island Council continues to haemorrhage cash on failed fish farms

Following the collapse of two more Shetland fish farms, Hoove Salmon (May 2005) and Papil Salmon (December 2005), originally owned by the Grains brothers whose mother, Florence, is the council’s Vice Convener, Shetland Development Trust stands to lose as much as £500,000. This brings the loss to community funds in support of fish farming over the past three years to a total in the region of £13 million pounds.

In spite of these losses, the council continues to pour public cash into this ailing industry. Norwegian-owned Mainstream Scotland Limited has just been given a grant of £40,000 to help it upgrade its Island of Yell packing station to meet standards set for the processing organic-status salmon. Mainstream also seem to be receiving a further £138,000 in an EU grant to beef-up its own contribution of £217,000. Treble organic salmon stakes all round!

Cod walloped by new disease

Shetland cod farmers, Johnson Seafarms, must be worried by the arrival of a disease that has wiped out an unspecified, but huge, number of cod in Norwegian farms. The disease, Francisella, which produces chronic inflammation reactions and knots in several organs, is believed to be new and there is no vaccine available to treat it.

A spokesman for Marine Harvest, who own the farms, said: “This is a development project for us, and cod is a small segment of Marine Harvest.” However, concern has already been expressed over the possibility of disease transfer from farm fish to the wild.

Meanwhile, Johnson Seafarms md, Karol Rzepkowski, formerly a diving instructor in the Caribbean, believes that Shetland Island cod will soon be appearing on the menu at several top restaurants – providing, that is, that Francisella doesn’t appear first?

Organic farmed salmon mumbo-jumbo

The Soil Association, according to Aquaculture Development Manager Peter Birdson, is the “UK’s leading organic certifier” but admits that developing a standard for organic fish farming has not been easy. In spite of what customers may or may not read on product packaging, the Soil Association’s still classifies its aquaculture standards as ‘interim’.

To move things along, however, the Association has teamed up with fish farmer Aquascot and supermarket giant Waitrose to host a Scottish conference on organic salmon in March. Mr Bridson, in the trade paper FishUpdate, said: “Despite the availability of organic salmon on shop shelves and huge demand from consumers, there is still a need for continued development of the standards and to address the specific concerns of a variety of stakeholders.”

The Association has now appointed its first Scottish Director, Mr Hugh Raven, who has a long history of involvement in fish farming on the family estate at Ardtornish in the West Highlands. According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, one of the worst water pollution incidents in the area occurred on Ardtornish Estate and resulted in "sewage fungus blanketing the River Rannoch".

Since the advent of salmon farming, wild salmon and sea-trout numbers on the River Aline, the principal salmonid water at Ardtornish, have dramatically declined. All very organic.

More bad news for organic farmed salmon

A recent report from the Scottish Executive shows that organic salmon production fell from approximately 2,500 tonnes in 2005/05 compared to 3,117 tonnes in 2003/04, a drop of 24.68% (but not according to the Soil Association – see above)

60% of Scottish organic salmon production was sold to multiple retailers, predominantly HM The Queen’s grocer, Waitrose. Now, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has delivered another body-blow to claims made by organic salmon producers that their fish is better than the ‘bog-standard’ stuff produced by the likes of Marine Harvest.

In a report issued on 17th February on ‘Dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs in farmed and wild fish and shellfish’, the FSA said: “Organic salmon and trout has similar dioxin and dioxin-like PCB concentrations to the conventionally farmed fish.”

You are what you eat

Russian food safety authorities have banned all imports of fresh salmon from Norway because of unacceptably high levels on cadmium in the fish. Cadmium is a highly poisonous heavy metal linked to bone, kidney and lung disorders in humans and suspected of causing kidney and prostate cancer. The salmon become contaminated through the food they were fed. The Norwegians deny that their salmon contain unacceptably high levels of the substance.

Nothing to worry about then, here in UK? Cadmium contaminated fish feed arrived in Scotland last February and March when it is alleged that it contained poisonous heavy metal levels that were more than 30 times the EU limits. Two months later, EWOS, the Norwegian-owned company that produced the feed, alerted the Food Standards Agency (FSA) who subsequently said that all of the contaminated feed had been recalled and destroyed.

All, that is, but 50 kilos of the stuff. Nearly a year later, the fate of the missing 50 kilos has now been tracked down: a spokesman for the FSA confirmed that the feed had been given to young cod at an Argyllshire fish farm.

Apparently, the fish are not ready for slaughter. So, in the interests of human health safety, are the fish going to be culled and dumped? An EC spokesman said, “An assessment indicates that, given the dilution factors and the very small increase in Cadmium in the final fish, the risk to consumers will be low…. It will be ensured that the fish that have consumed the 50 kilos complies with the EU maximum level for cadmium in fish before it is marketed.”

Fewer jobs for the boys

Salmon farming continues to shed jobs, according to figures released by the Scottish Executive’s (SE) Fisheries Research Services unit in Aberdeen. The number of workers directly involved in the industry in 2004 – the ones who get their hands wet and who live and work predominantly in the West Highlands and Islands – has fallen to 1,161 (1,217 in 2003).

The FRS is careful to note that these figures do not include staff involved with processing or marketing. The SE claims that job numbers in that sector of the industry have risen from 5,500 in 1998 to approximately 9,000 in 2004; which is pretty miraculous, given that the output of farmed salmon in 2004 actually decreased by 7% and that more than a dozen firms have gone belly-up in Shetland during the past three years.

Harmful algal blooms

For years, the Scottish Executive (formerly The Scottish Office) and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency have denied that the occurrence of toxic algal blooms in Scottish waters, both in the sea and in freshwater lochs, had anything to do with fish farms. References to the presence of toxic algal blooms were invariably preceded with the words ‘naturally occurring’.

It has now emerged that a report, commissioned by the Scottish Executive (SE) and highly critical of the lack of research into algal blooms in Scottish waters, was completed in November 2004 and has only now been released (February 2006) by the SE. The report (www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2006.02/03095327/0) said that there was a “conspicuous lack of commensurate harmful algal research effort in Scotland” and that this “reduced effort ill-prepares Scotland and its aquaculture should a series of devastating, recurrent harmful blooms develop similar to those ongoing in Scandinavian waters.”

The SFPG have consistently called on the SE to recognise that toxic algal blooms in Scottish waters are exacerbated by the discharge of untreated waste from fish farms; waste that is estimated to be comparable in content to the waste discharged from a human population of more than 10 million people.

Until the expansion of fish farming in the late 1980’s, there had been only one recorded incident of a toxic algal bloom in the West Highlands – and that was at Otter Ferry in Argyll and associated with a fish farm. Now, they are an all-year-round occurrence, sometimes requiring the closure of thousands of square miles of water to shellfish fishermen because the shellfish have been poisoned by harmful algal blooms.

The latest example of this was a ban on harvesting King scallops off the south east coast of Mull. The original closure was ordered last October when samples collected showed 34 grammes domoic acid per gramme in the shellfish, when the limit for ASP is 20 grammes of domoic acid per gramme. The ban was lifted four months later, on 19th January 2006.

ASP (amnesic shellfish poisoning) if ingested by humans can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, shot-term memory loss, hallucinations, confusion and seizures. Other ‘nasties’ for humans resulting from toxic alagal blooms are Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) and Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP).

Strangely, the SE report doesn’t seem to highlight the danger to human health from ‘Harmful Algal Blooms’, or at least not in the parts of the document that I read. It seems to me that they are more concerned with the danger to factory famed, fake salmon.