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News From Around the Fish Farms, January 2005

Is it or isn’t it ISA - Infectious salmon anaemia outbreak

Fish Health Inspectors from the Scottish Executive (SE) laboratory in Aberdeen are investigating a possible outbreak of the salmon-killer disease infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) in a Marine Harvest Limited fish farm on the Island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

The farm, at Loch Sheilavig on the east coast of the island, has been placed under restrictions including monitoring the movement of fish to try to reduce the risk of the outbreak spreading to other farms in the area; ISA affects the cells lining the blood vessels of fish and damages their liver, causing haemorrhaging, anaemia and, ultimately, death.

The only ISA outbreak confirmed in Scotland was in Loch Nevis near Mallaig in May 1998. At that time 25% of the industry was quarantined and, subsequently, the SE ordered the slaughter of 4 million farmed salmon. The disease was almost certainly self-inflicted and the company at the centre of the outbreak was Norwegian-owned fish farmers, Hydro Seafood.

ISA is endemic in Norway, identified there in 1984, and the smolts that became diseased in Loch Nevis were of Norwegian ancestry and came from a Hydro Seafood hatchery at Eskadale on the banks of the River Beauly in Easter Ross. Two weeks before the SE confirmed the presence of the disease in Loch Nevis, the Eskadale hatchery was closed down and disinfected. Subsequently, Hydro Seafood’s then managing director David Rackham admitted: “There is no doubt at all that we have inadvertently spread it [ISA] from our own operations.”

Since then, an enormous amount of time, money and scientific effort has been invested by the SE into trying to understand and control the disease. However, and in spite of claims by the SE that ISA was under control, in is now clear that it is not. What is most surprising, however, is that after two months of intensive investigation SE scientists are still unable to confirm whether or not the disease was present in the samples that they took from the South Uist fish farm.

This does not seem to have unduly worried Scottish Quality Salmon. A spokesman for the industry-representative body commented that it was not uncommon for testing for the disease to take anything up to six months. The SQS spokesman continued “…. it is good to have no news in this case because it may mean they have not found the disease.”

This might be good news for fish farmers, but perhaps not quite such good for consumers. The public should be aware, as was the case in 1998, that because the SE says that ISA is not a risk to human health, farmers are allowed to slaughter and sell factory salmon that could be infected with ISA, so long as there is no clinical evidence of the disease. Neither are retailers nor supermarkets required to tell customers that the fish they are buying might have came from a farm where ISA was suspected.

And why does it take six months to confirm the presence of ISA? It did not take that length of time to confirm the presence of the disease in more than 13 fish farms in 1998. Could this six month period by any chance be a convenient way in which to give the fake fish farmers time to profitably dispose of potentially diseased fake salmon - instead of being forced to slaughter and dump them as required by EU regulations when ISA is confirmed on a fish farm?

There was a huge falling-out between the SE and the fish farmers in the aftermath of the 1998 outbreak. The industry sought upwards of £20 million pounds in compensation from the government, on the grounds that they had been forced by government to slaughter their fish. Farmers forced to slaughter cattle during the BSE crisis were compensated for their loss, therefore, it was argued, fish farmers should be compensated for their loss.

However, no compensation was paid in spite of threats of legal action by the industry to force government to do so, and relations between the industry and the government remained ‘strained’ for some time. Is it within the bounds of reason to think that, in order to avoid a re-run of the compensation scandal scenario, the SE has created a ‘space’ between suspecting the presence of ISA and proof-positive that it is there which gives the fish farmers a chance to sell suspect stock?

Meanwhile, dripping lorry-loads of dead fish from the Loch Sheilavaig site have been driven across Benbecula to North Uist to be buried in an unlicensed dump on the machair (fertile fringe on the west coast of the Hebrides) at Kyles-paible. According to a report in the West Highland Free Press (17/12/04) Marine Harvest communications director, Dr Graeme Dear, said:

“As a precautionary measure fish from the Loch Sheilavaig farm have been harvested [he means slaughtered], treated to remove any infection that may be present and buried in a responsible manner in strict accordance with guidelines set down by SEERAD (Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department).

But how can you “treat” an infection if you don’t know what the infection is – and if there isn’t an infection, then why prematurely slaughter the fish? If this was a precautionary measure, as Dr Dear claims, then what exactly was being protected? Are we to believe that Marine Harvest voluntarily slaughtered the fish, without any pressure being put on them by SE fishery health inspectors to do so? Hundreds of tonnes of salmon appear to have been disposed of, perhaps up to 250,000 fish, which would have had a retail value of millions of pounds.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) confirmed that the burial site is unlicensed, but, strangely, they claimed that it is “legal” and in full compliance with existing animal by-products legislation. A SEPA spokesman said, “The islands are allowed to do things differently from other parts of Scotland. This [dumping-ground] is not a fully-engineered site lined with an anti-leachate system but if it is managed and planned properly then it will not pose a significant pollution risk or leak into the water table.”

Initially, it was said that the Kyles-paible site was designed to take dead fish only from the Marine Harvest Loch Sheilavaig site. SEPA now say that the site will take dead fish from farms throughout the Southern Isles. If ISA has not been identified, why this unseemly rush to prepare a burial place for bodies? To further confuse what is already a wildly confused situation, local crofter, Angus MacDonald claims that the site has been in operation for two months, not for the two weeks that SEPA claim for it.

And why can’t Comhairle nan Eilean Sair (The Western Isles Council) confirm whether or not the dump needed planning permission prior to opening? If it did need planning permission and no application was lodge with the council to that effect, then the dump is illegal. The operators and Marine Harvest, and SEPA, may well be complicit in committing a serious offence in continuing to use the dump.

SFPG chairman, Bruce Sandison, under the terms of the recently introduced Environmental Information Regulations legislation, has now asked the FRS and SEPA for a full disclosure of the circumstances surrounding the alleged outbreak, which hatchery the fish came from before being transferred to sea, the numbers of fish that have been slaughtered or have died, and which other farms are being investigated and are using the Kyles-paible site to dump dead fish.

The new ISA compliance report published this month by the SE, whilst praising the fish farmers for their efforts to comply with ISA-prevention guidelines, also discloses that instances of non-compliance are still substantial, and serious:

  • 59% of marine farms were stocked with fish from more than one source
  • 39% of marine farms do not have site specific protective clothing for divers
  • 32% of marine farms do not have site specific equipment or disinfect
  • equipment between sites
  • 29% of marine farms do not dispose of fish by ensiling
  • 23% of marine farms received fish or moved fish to another farm
  • Press release via:

    Advertising Standards Authority respond to Jamie Oliver/Sainsburys complaints

    The ASA has received a flood (43 in all) of complaints following the Sainsbury’s pre-Christmas television advertising campaign featuring celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, promoting farmed salmon at a Scottish sea loch. The advert said that the fish were “fit and healthy because they are in a tidal loch which means they have clear, cold water.”

    The ASA response to one such complainant, said: “A tidal loch means the fish are swimming against the current, keeping them fitter, and there is less of the stagnation which encourages parasites and deoxygenation. The Scottish Executive monitors the Scottish Atlantic salmon industry for environmental impact.”

    Even stranger, given that the Sainsbury adverts were clearly intended to persuade people to but and eat Sainsbury’s salmon, the ASA went on to say: “A number of complaints have been concerned about the wider issues of pollution and recent ‘health scares’ about salmon. However the advertisement is not making claims about salmon as a food.”

    Another letter from Mr John Staples (ASA Head of Complaints) suggested that people had been “encouraged to complain on the internet” and so, “how representative this figure is of genuine public feeling must be open to some doubt.” Mr Stales continued, “Any number of objections could be made about all sorts of businesses…. I do understand that these sorts of messages about an industry you so obviously disapprove are irksome to you.”

    Given all of the above it is hard to escape the conclusion that, rather than being, as they claim to be, and independent regulator, the ASA has failed to properly address public concern; preferring instead to accept industry and industry-protectors assurances that everything they say in their adverts is right.

    Unhappily, or happily, depending upon how you view these matters, it now transpires that the sea loch featured in the Sainsburys adverts, Loch Hourn in the Scottish West Highlands, is being investigated by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency because of “deoxygenation” and severe pollution on the sea bed below the cages.

    No doubt John Staples will probably find this sort of messages irksome, particularly as he might to re-visit the ASA’s decision because of these revelations.

    Smoking gun fails to fire on TV food show

    Viewers settling down to enjoy the BBC2 programme Full on Food at 8.00pm on 8th December were promised, as a main course, Stefan Gates smoking his own salmon.

    However, smoked salmon must have been ‘off’ that night because it never appeared. Instead, everything you ever wanted to know about building a pizza oven was dished up, and very good it was too.

    But what could have happened to the smoked salmon? A spokeswoman for the show said that they had never intended to use the item that night and that the script for it was still “being written”.

    She denied that it had been ‘pulled’ at the last minute because of the outcry over Jamie Oliver’s Sainsburys ads in praise of Scottish smoked salmon; its excellence and the environmentally friendly way in which it is produced - in spite of the fact that Jamie won’t use it in his own restaurant.

    The Advertising Standards Authority has been deluged by complaints about the Oliver/Sainsbury ads and the cheeky chappie has had to close down his website forum due to the mountain of angry protest messages he has received.

    When asked why their 8th December BBC website contained full details of Stefan and his smoked salmon, a Full on Food spokeswoman feigned surprise: “Did it?” she said. Further confusion resulted when it was pointed out that the item had also been ‘flagged up’ in the Sunday Times (5th December) ‘Culture’ section TV listings. “There must have been a mistake,” she said.

    Yes indeedy, also in The Times on the 8th , as well as in the Record, Express, Mail, Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Edinburgh Evening News and Aberdeen Press & Journal, to name but a few, on the same day. As far as I have been able to establish the smoked salmon item must have been ‘binned’; which, given that it probably did feature a farm fish, is probably the right place for it.

    Fat and flabby fake fish

    How do you make a fat farm salmon even fatter? Inject it with nitrates? Dutch health inspectors have found illegally high levels of nitrate in samples of farmed salmon, including fish sourced from Scotland.

    The managing director of one of Holland’s major salmon smokers, Tjeerd Hoekstra, alleged that in response to price-pressure from supermarkets some smokers injected nitrate into their product to increase its weight.

    High nitrate levels (in Holland, above 10mg per kg) may cause adverse effects on oxygenation of the blood. There might also be an indirect carcinogenic effect from the formation of nitrosamines. Typical levels in salmon are up to 3mg.

    Brian Simpson, CEO of Scottish Quality Salmon (“Naturally they’re the best”), the industry representative body, asked by the trade magazine IntraFish if Scottish salmon farmers injected nitrate into their fish to add weight said, “I haven’t come across that (in the UK). I have no knowledge of that.”

    Jobs for the boys?

    Increasingly ludicrous claims are being made about the number of jobs fish farming supports in Scotland. The figure fluctuates widely, depending upon the state of the industry. In times of crisis (see suspected ISA outbreak, above), it is invariably “more than 10,000”, but, generally, it is between “6,000 and 8,500”.

    Of course, these figures are pure fantasy; put about by the Scottish Executive (SE) and their chums in Scotland’s foreign-owned salmon factories to keep public cash rolling into their coffers; and to deflect attention away from the damage these farms do to both the marine environment and to rural communities now tied into this unsustainable, dirty business.

    It is irresponsible and, in my view, down-right dishonest of SE to peddle these myths. No matter what disaster overtakes the industry, employment in it miraculously remains the same. Here are just a few recent examples to support that view.

    There have been job losses in Yell, in Shetland, where a salmon farm hatchery has closed; Pan Fish (Scotland) has announced that it will stop production at three sites to concentrate on more cost-effective [bigger] farms; Saga Seafood in Scalloway, Shetland has closed its doors with the loss of 77 jobs. These job losses are ignored by the SE. As far as they are concerned, it’s still business as usual, 10,000, or 8,500, or 8,000, whatever figure comes into their heads.

    And, soon to arrive at a sea loch near you, mega-sites rearing tens of thousands of fake fish: automatically fed, automatically slaughtered, requiring few on-site operatives. Hundreds of jobs will be lost in rural areas because of this rationalisation programme. Communities that have become dependent on fishing farming for their income will be destablised. Lives devastated.

    In 1999, Marine Marvest McConnell - now Marine Harvest (Scotland) Limited - published a press release claiming that they supported 1,400 jobs. This was widely seen for what it was, a sad public relations stunt. But it is interesting, when compared to a statement made by Marine Harvest today. The Dutch-owned company is merging with the Norwegian firm Stolt-Nielsen and together they will form the largest fish farming enterprise in the world. How many people do they say that they will employ in Scotland? Answer: around 600.

    In 1990, according to figures published by the then Scottish Office, the number of people directly employed in fish farming was 1491. The latest figures show that, since then, direct employment in the industry had fallen by 25%. But as far as the SE is concerned they claim that employment figures keep rising.

    The SE refuses to allow any independent survey of employment in the industry, claiming that the modelling figures they use are sufficiently “robust”. In my view they are wrong. The truth is that an independent survey would expose the claims they make as being fantasy. And, of course that must be avoided at all costs.

    Rolls in, rolls in, God how the money rolls in...

    Apart from the £3 million pounds the fish farmers received from government and EU sources in the summer to help the industry to advertise itself, in November the Crown Estate promised the fish farmers a £1 million investment package over two years; to include the funding of an independent scientist whose job will be to independently look for independent evidence that might show that contaminants found independently in farm salmon are not a risk to human health.

    In Shetland, where upwards of £7 million pounds of public money has been squandered over the past two years in propping up failing fish farms, Shetland Development Trust has approved £300,000 of aid to The North Atlantic Fisheries college to help them “provide more effective support to the fishing an aquaculture industries.”

    Meanwhile, the Scottish Executive’s independent Scottish Aquaculture Research Forum is chipping in £300,000 to help the industry with a “number of projects that are regarded as vital to ensure a diverse, sustainable and competitive future”; including the potential consequences of amalgamating fish farms and improving fish health.

    Still, enough is never enough, and the fish farmers want more. The Federation of Scottish Aquaculture Producers (FSAP), which represents all UK finfish producers, is sharpening its pencil in pursuit of ‘real money’: the EU’s Financial Instrument for Fisheries Guidance (FIFG) funds. FSAP has submitted a paper to the European Commission in relation to FIFG funding during the period 2007 -2013, setting out why it should get barrel-loads of public cash for its members.

    The usual half-truths are all there, including this gem: “The Scottish industry [fish farming] already ensures the employment of 8,000, many in remote and rural areas.” Utter rubbish, it’s not a Scottish industry, it is dominated by Dutch and Norwegian interests, and direct employment in aquaculture in rural areas is probably fewer than 800 – soon to be even less when bigger fish farms are introduced.

    So what’s the bottom line for the FSAP? How big is the FSAP’s begging-bowl: they want £27 million over the period, plus further, unspecified millions for a fish slaughtering contingency fund – presumably to compensate them for killing diseased fish that become diseased because of the way in which they are farmed. As we say in Scotland,“ Aye, that’ll be right”.

    Scottish farm salmon – “Naturally they’re the best” - but are they?

    A report from research scientist Marit Espe of the Norwegian Institute of Nutrition and Seafoood Research (NIFES), published in the trade newspaper Fiskaen, claims that Scottish farm salmon are no better than Norwegian farm salmon.

    The research showed no difference in taste or chemical composition among salmon samples from Norway, Scotland or Ireland. The only difference found was on price, with Scottish and Irish salmon being more expensive that the Norwegian product.

    676 French supermarket customers took part in the survey and were asked to say whether or not they found one piece of smoked salmon to be better than another.

    The chemical study considered, amongst other things, the levels of polysaturated fatty acids, vitamin content and levels of micro-organisms. The report claimed that no significant differences were found.

    However, Marit Espe said, “The only difference was that we found a slightly higher level of the ‘good-for-your-heart’ fatty acids in Norwegian salmon… Our research programme puts paid to the myth that Scottish salmon is better than Norwegian salmon. I don’t understand how this myth has come about.”