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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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News From Around the Fish Farms Special

THE SALMON – KILLER DISEASE THAT NEVER WAS

BRUCE SANDISON ASSESS AVAILABLE EVIDENCE AND REPORTS FROM a FARM FISH DISPOSAL DUMP ON NORTH UIST AND FROM THE MARINE HARVEST FISH FARM AT LOCH SHEILAVAIG ON SOUTH UIST

As we reported in May, the SFPG has been unable to obtain information from the Scottish Executive’s (SE) Fisheries Research Services (FRS) about what is really happening on Marine Harvest fish farm sites in South Uist; particularly at the site at Loch Sheilavaig where the salmon-killer disease ISA (infectious salmon anaemia) was suspected: how many fish died there, what did they die of, which freshwater hatchery supplied the fish that became diseased, how many diseased fish escaped from the site during last January’s storms.

The reason given by the FRS for withholding this information, which FRS admit they have, is that Marine Harvest refused to give permission for the release of details to the SFPG, and, as such, FRS could not then legally divulge that information to us.

The SE announced in November that there was a suspected outbreak of ISA at the Loch Sheilavaig site and that a movement control order had been imposed and controls placed upon nearby farms in Benbecula and North Uist. The Loch Sheilavaig controls were lifted on 19th May when the SE said there was no “continuing evidence” of the disease.

Lewis Macdonald, Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development said: “Prompt action by companies in co-operation with the Fisheries Research Service’s Health Inspectors is critical to preventing any possibility of disease spreading. It is because Marine Harvest responded in this way that we are today able to lift these restrictions.”

So how did the fish die? FRS inspectors reported (10th November) that fish in one cage (at Loch Sheilavaig) were behaving abnormally, “congregating at the surface”, that the majority of fish had “high sea lice load”, that one fish, “which had been dead for a considerable period of time, had a dark liver.” However, in response to written questions from the Scottish Green Party, the Lewis Macdonald would say only that ISA had not been found at the site.

But dead fish are still being removed from a Marine Harvest site in South Uist and there has been no SE announcement, at least none that the SFPG has seen, imposing new restriction orders on any fish farm site in the area.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), under the Environmental Information Act, supplied SPFG with some detail about how dead fish were being disposed of near Kyles- paible in North Uist, but that information appears to contradict reports received by SFPG about the location, use and operation of the site.

Jamie Hepburn, SEPA Environment Protection Officer, in a letter (7th December 04) to David Fraser of FRS, identified the burial site as being at Gd Reference 750670, but according to the planning approval issued by Western Isles Council, the site is in fact about half a mile further west at Gd Reference 737664.

Stuart Baird, also of SEPA, reported to David Fraser on 7th December 04 that SEPA had made “…an assessment of the site that is being utilised to bury fish at Bornish, North Uist.” But Bornish is in South Uist, not North Uist?

Jamie Hepburn visited the site on 14th December, accompanied by Hazel MacLeod and Matt Macdonald. Which site they visited is not clear; the one he identified, or the one identified by Western Isles Council? Hepburn said: “The area is now taking fish waste from ISA sites on East Uist.” SEPA thus confirm that ISA was present, but the Minister denies ISA was found.

In a further letter dated 17th December, Mr Hepburn wrote: “The designated area is fenced and has access from the beach via a gate. There is a disinfectant procedure inside the gate. There was no evidence of any liquid escape or impact on the beach or surrounding area, there was no evidence of smell at the site. The site had numbered markers for each burial area and there is seaweed being spread over these areas where burial is complete.

“The active area has a ground net to prevent scavenging by birds. I am aware that the recent fish culls at a number of fish farms has lead to increased activity at the site but found no sign of any impact on the beach or machair. I was shown records that are being kept. They record each delivery, their site of origin and area of burial. Generally the site operation is satisfactory and I have no concerns regarding impact or pollution.”

To try to find out what was really happening, SFPG Chairman Bruce Sandison visited North and South Uist from 31st May to 3rd June. He revels here the result of that visit and in doing so exposes a tale of mismanagement, intimidation and regulatory failure that implicates the Scottish Executive, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Western Isles Council and Scottish Natural Heritage; neither does it reflect credit on Marine Harvest or upon dump-site-operator Angus MacDonald, who dispose of dead fish in this way.. The SFPG is now seeking full disclosure of all information pertaining to these matters.

Visit to North and South Uist 31st May/ 3rd June 2004. Report by Bruce Sandison

Our family first visited these islands in the 1970’s and have been returning ever since; to fish for wild brown trout, climb the hills, Eaval, Hecla, Ben Corodale and Beinn Mhor, walk gold-sand beaches, and to look for wild flowers on the fertile machair lands that margin them.

This time it was different. The purpose of my visit was not pleasure, but to try to find the truth about massive fish deaths and a suspected outbreak of the salmon-killer disease, infectious salmon anaemia at a Marine Harvest fish farm at Loch Sheilavaig. I also needed to see for myself where and how the dead fish were being buried.

I drove to Bayhead on North Uist and parked close to the beach at Kyles-paible where I had been told the burial site was. I saw a trailer on the beach, and a number of large coloured bins that a man was hosing down. The water drained onto the beach. I walked by and found smelly sea-pools stained with brown liquid which I presumed came from the washing process.

Clearly, dead fish arrived here in the coloured bins, and, from tracks in the sand, were then transported along the beach to the dump site. I followed the tracks west. After about a mile I discovered a 170ft length of dunes that had been heaped up to form a bund wall. The vehicle marks on the beach lead north, through a wide gap in the wall.

I climbed the wall. Below me, approximately 2.5 hectares of machair had been turned into a scene from hell. Bits of drift wood with numbers painted crudely on them had been stuck into the ground, 1, 13, 3, 5, 17, and 4? Close by, a heap of dirty plastic bags lay in a hollow, with a further bundle in a rusty trough. They stank of something rotten and were covered with flies.

Three white containers lay to my right. A notice on one said: “Salartect… contains hydrogen peroxide which causes blindness, burns the skin, intended as a bath treatment for the removal of sea lice from Atlantic salmon.” Were the dead fish being soaked in this substance before burial? The containers must have come from a fish farm? Was there some other substance in them, a disinfectant?

The most recent activity was at the north end of the site, where it also seemed to have spilled over and extended onto adjacent land. A huge heap of sand drew my attention. It enclosed a pond of slurry. As I came downwind of the pile and caught the smell from it, my stomach churned and I doubled over to be wretchedly sick.

The whole area reminded me of a scene from the aftermath of the 1917 Battle of Passchendale; the broken barbwire fences, the crude marker post stuck in the sand, the appalling smell of death and decay, and the clouds of flies. How could anybody, I thought, allow this to happen? How could Marine Harvest, or any other fish farmer who used the dump, pretend that they cared for the environment?

Had Marine Harvest inspected the site? Did anybody ever check what was going on here, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, and Western Isles Council, who authorized the site? Is this what Scottish Executive minister Lewis Macdonald meant when he praised Marine Harvest for acting to prevent the spread of disease?

The following morning, at 11.15am, I photographed a lorry arriving at Kyles-paible. It stank to high heaven. I had spotted it leaving the Marine Harvest fish farm site at Carnan at 10.30am. To make sure that the lorry did indeed deliver its load to the yard by the shore, I returned to my parking place of the previous day.

After a few moments, a vehicle left the yard and parked at the top of the track, blocking my exit to the road. A tractor then drove along the beach and parked in the gap in the dunes that lead to the beach. It lowered its front loader, effectively making sure that I could not drive onto the beach. The driver, a short, stocky man sporting red beard got down from the cab and came over and tapped on the window of my car.

He wanted to know if I had photographed the lorry, what I was doing there and what I was looking for. He asked these questions in an aggressive manner. I said I was leaving and he said that I should. When I pointed out that the other vehicle was blocking my exit, he said, “Oh, no, at least not this time. Maybe next time. Don’t come back here.” I reported the incident to the police and made a statement at Balavanich the following morning.

On the evening of Tuesday 31st May, I visited the Marine Harvest site at Loch Sheilavaig. I was shocked to see the state of the site; rubbish, machinery and bits and pieces stacked out of sight behind a shed; a container that appeared to be leaking, similar to the ones I had seen at the dump site. Is this the kind of scenery people come to the Western Isles to enjoy?

On their website, Marine Harvest note, “As a responsible company Marine Harvest invests time, money and attention to reducing environmental impacts while aiming for positive effects on the community.” I have no doubt whatsoever that the company really means that, but after my visit to North and South Uist, I honestly believe that in this instance they have got it seriously wrong.

In a letter to Jamie Hepburn of SEPA dated 9th December 04, David Cahill, Marine Harvest Regional Business Manager (South) says, about the disposal of fish mortalities at Kyles-paible, “I believe this is a pragmatic and sensible solution for salmon mortality disposal on the Uists.” In the opinion of at least this observer, I don’t think so.

Since this report was written the SFPG understand that Marine Harvest say that they have only used the Kyles-paible site for the disposal of fish on four occasions during the past two months, including the delivery seen by Bruce Sandison on Wednesday 1st June.

But there are reports of lorry deliveries being made to the site every day last week (Monday 6th June/Saturday 11th June) with, sometimes, lorry deliveries and deliveries by a slurry tanker on the same day.

On Saturday 11th June, a large, tracked excavator was delivered to the site, presumably to cope more adequately with the volume of dead fish and slurry now being delivered to the site. How many farm fish are dying in the Uists, of what, and on which farms? The SFPG thinks that we may be talking about upwards of 300,000 farm salmon. Exactly what is going on?