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News From Around the Fish Farms, July 2003

One by one, assertions made by fish farmers that their farms do not damage wild fish populations are being exposed for what they are – myths, based up hope rather than upon scientific fact. The latest casualty is the claim that escapee farm salmon will not compete or breed with wild fish because they lack an instinctive desire to do so.

Research released in June by Dr Dany Garant and his colleagues at Oxford University shows that escapee farm salmon not only do interbreed with wild fish, but that they are more sexually successful than wild fish because they are more aggressive. Commenting in The Sunday Times (8/6/03), Dr Garant said:

“This suggests that farmed fish have been able to displace the wild in most of the cases. The result of this is that farmed salmon can pass on traits to their offspring so, given their faster life cycles, these fish could very quickly spread their genes through wild populations.”

Dr Garant added, “In Norway, some rivers are completely invaded by farmed fish. Because Atlantic salmon is being farmed on the Pacific coasts of North America, stocks of wild Pacific salmon could be threatened as well.”

Scottish Quality Salmon, the industry representative body, has always claimed that escapes from their farms amount to but a small fraction of the total number of fish reared, perhaps 1%. In real terms, however, given an annual production of 140,000 farmed fish, escapes could amount to 1.4 million farm fish each year.

Latest figures released by the Scottish Executive show that the annual catch of wild salmon in Scottish waters, by all methods, is now down to 55,000, the lowest figure since accurate recording began in 1952. How has the Scottish Executive reacted to these figures? It has promised to investigate the possibility of moving some salmon farms away from the migratory routes of some wild fish, reporting back to parliament on the matter sometime in the year 2005.

Scotland’s largest fish farmer, Dutch-owned Marine Harvest has been accused of “a betrayal of staff” by Western Isles MSP Alisdair Morrison. Dutch-owned Marine Harvest, the largest of Scotland’s foreign-owned fish farmers is sacking the workers at its fish processing plant in Stornoway. The company has decided to ‘rationalise’ its fish-gathering and process activity and centre them at a new harvesting factory based at Mallaig and on its Fort William processing plant. A total of 82 people will loose their jobs, 69 in Stornoway and 13 in Kyle of Lochalsh.

In a splendid slice of “double-talk” Marine Harvest MD Graeme Dear claimed that the job loses would make employment more secure for the staff that remained: “The loss of these jobs is painful but it will make the remaining jobs more secure. The Western Isles will still be a major base for us. It provides a wonderful environment in which to grow our fish and nobody should doubt our commitment to this part of the world.”

In the 1980s, when Scottish fish farms were producing approximately 18,000 tonnes of salmon annually, direct employment in sea cage fish farming amounted to approximately 1,600 people. Now, 15 years later with the industry producing upwards of 150,000 tonnes each year, direct employment in the industry is little more than 1,000, and it is certain that as multi-nationals consolidate and ‘rationlaise’ business more jobs will be shed. Yet MSP’s, The Highland Council, Highland & Islands Enterprise, et al, still persist in the mistaken belief that fish farming provides jobs.

Several hundreds of jobs have gone in fishing farming throughout the West Highlands and Islands in recent years due to the impact of the ISA disease outbreaks, and to the introduction of more automated feeding systems. As the crisis of world-wide over-production continues to cripple the industry it is almost certain that more Scottish job losses will follow. Indeed, there is no reason why companies might choose to abandon Scotland and move production to Chile where labour costs are less and where there is even less regulation of the industry than there is here.

This view is certainly echoed by Angus Grains, MD of Shetland Salmon Group and secretary of the European Salmon Producers Group. Commenting on over-production, Mr Grains said recently, “This is completely unsustainable for independent or even multi-national salmon farmers in Scotland.”

The West Sutherland Fisheries Trust has launched a “sponsor a sea-trout” scheme. The public are being invited to pay £2 to sponsor a fish and for that they will receive a certificate detailing the number of their trout, where and when it was caught, its length, weight and age. They will also be informed of any further details should it be recaptured. Shona Marshall, the trust biologist, said: “This [tagged fish] will provide further information on the growth rate, movements and marine survival of the species…the more fish that are tagged the better.” A laudable aim.

Rather less laudable, however, is the trust’s persistent obfuscation over the reasons for the decline of sea-trout in the trust’s area of operations; from Loch Hope on the north coast, west and south round Cape Wrath down to near the Summer Isles in Wester Ross. The trust says that sea-trout stocks in the area have been declining since the 1950’s and are now at extremely low levels. What has caused the decline? Ms Marshall explained that this could be due to oceanographic changes, commercial over-fishing of prey species such as sand eels, increased predation and freshwater habitat degradation.

Yes, salmonid stocks have been in decline, throughout Scotland, since 1952, when accurate recording began. But whilst the decline has been gradual on the East Coast, where there are no salmon farms, West Coast salmonid numbers went into free-fall after the expansion of fish farming in the late 1980’s. Sea lice from these farms kill wild fish as the pass by farm cages placed on their migratory routes.

Every responsible fisheries scientist agrees that this is the case. Even the fish farmers agree, as do their friends in the Scottish Executive. So why is Ms Marshall being so coy over the matter? Why does she trot out the old “since the 1950s” discredited apology for the damage fish farms have done? What is the relationship between the trust and local fish farmers? Is there any conflict of interest?

A new report, published by the World Wild Life Fund and the Atlantic Salmon Federation alleges that the Scottish Executive (formerly the Scottish Office) has irresponsibly allowed Scotland’s wild fish stocks to decline unchecked during the past 10 years.

Helen McLachlan the WWF’s Scottish marine policy officer said, “Farmed fish now outnumber wild fish 48 to one in the North Atlantic. Scotland, which produces more than 22% of all the farmed salmon in the Atlantic, has a big part to play in this unfolding tragedy.”

The document, ‘Protecting Wild Salmon from the Impacts of Aquacultue’ and reported in the Aberdeen Press & Journal (30/5/03) claims that a decade of poorly regulated ex­pansion in fish farming in Scot­land, together with Canada, the US, Norway, Ireland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, has jeopar­dised the future of wild salmon.

It claims the decline of wild salmon is being increasingly linked with sea lice infestations from farmed salmon sites and the mixing of escaped farmed salmon with wild populations. “While populations of wild salmon have declined by 45% from 1983 to 2001, farmed salmon production in the North Atlantic has been allowed to grow to over 750,000 tonnes in 2002, a 55-fold increase in 20 years.”

The report Aberdeen Press & Journal report outlines what it claims is the Scottish Executive’s failure, during its first four years in power, to regulate the industry. It also argues that little action has been taken to restrict placing farms at the mouths of salmon rivers, where sea lice infestation most affect wild salmon.

A number of issues are being addressed by the Scottish Exec­utive’s aquaculture strategy, pub­lished earlier this year, which the WWF says is welcomed. But it says it will judge its success on a number of measures, including the establishment of fish farm free zones in areas of outstanding natural beauty and environmen­tal sensitivity.

Responding to the report, Bruce Sandison, chairman of the Salmon Farm Protest Group, said: “The Scottish Executive’s failure to protect Scotland’s King of Fish, is disgraceful. The exec­utive is top of the class only when it comes to licensing fish farm pollution. We propose to lodge a formal complaint with the European Commission and we call upon the Executive to act now to save Scotland’s wild salmon from extinction.”

However, a spokesman for the Scottish Executive said yes­terday: “The Scottish Executive published its strategic frame­ work for Scottish aquaculture in March this year. This was pre­pared in conjunction with a wide range of stakeholders including WWF Scotland and wild fishery interests. The framework identified the key issues and set out a programme of action to deliver a more sustainable balance be­tween the interests of wild and farmed salmon.”

Orri Vigfusson, The Chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) is one of the most effective champions of wild salmonids. In the 1990’s he warned the Scottish Office (now the Scottish Executive) that they were “Studying [your] wild salmon to death”. Responding to a call from a Canadian conference for more research into wild salmon survival, Mr Vigfùsson returned to that theme, saying,

“As far as the Atlantic salmon is concerned, more research is not what is needed. Far from it. Billions of dollars of research funds have failed to produce dividends and spending billions more will not solve the problems of dwindling salmon stocks. We need to build up stocks first.

Then, if we still want to invest in studies of natural fluctuations, the research programmes would be much cheaper to conduct, results would be more forthcoming and perhaps we would also be in a position to afford it. Investment in information research must be repaid. So far investment in salmon information has failed miserably.

“I do not see environmental fluctuations as a major problem for wild Atlantic salmon. Sea survival rates have always fluctuated and I have not seen any credible evidence that this is a greater problem today than at other times in history.”

Commenting on the work of NASF in Iceland, Mr Vigfusson said, “Mixed stock salmon fisheries were eliminated, sand eels are left to feed cod and salmon, capelin are managed sustainably and over-fishing is simply not allowed. As a result Iceland is maintaining and improving stocks” (see this month’s guest column).

The Crown Estate has just announced an award of £193,000 for research projects and supports various. However, given that the estate rakes in upwards of £28 million from their tenants each year, to some this might seem to be parsimonious, particularly Western Isles MP Alistair Carmichael. He complained: “The Crown Estate always makes a song and dance about the amount they invest in marine-related research; however, since 1997 they have cut this spending by almost 40%.

One award, £46,000 to Scottish Quality Salmon – the industry representative body – to research in-vessel compositing as a safe method for the treatment of fish farm mortalities and for processing by-products, is worthy of note. According to industry figures, approximately 3 million farm salmon (5%) die in their cages, for one reason or another, and ‘disposing’ of them is an ever-present problem.

Indeed, nobody really knows how, or where, they are disposed of. The Highland Council says the fish farmers don’t use their landfill sites, SEPA haven’t a clue either. If a ‘dedicated’ vessel is designed to do this unpleasant task, it should give the regulatory authorities an opportunity to control these activities and to avoid the improper disposal of mortalities, some of which might otherwise just simply be dumped into the ocean.