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News From Around the Fish Farms, May 2003

Dumping

According to the fish farmers and their supporters, the world as we know it will come to an immediate end unless the European Commission takes urgent action to prevent Norway, the Faroe Isles and Chile from dumping 'cheap' farm salmon onto EU markets.

Calum Macdonald, MP for the Western Isles, who asked Prime Minister Tony Blair to help, complained, "If the European Commission's (EC) decision is allowed to stand, the consequences for the Scottish industry on the west coast could be catastrophic."

At a meeting with Baroness Symons of the Department of Trade and Industry, Mr MacDonald claimed: "It [salmon farming] is of vital importance to Scotland's rural economy that the industry is protected from unfair competition from overseas."

In Shetland, David Sandison, General Secretary of the Shetland Aquaculture Producers Organisation (SQPO), agreed, blaming the EC for allowing Norway, Faroe and Chile to sell salmon at below production costs and thus creating a crisis that could damage the whole industry.

So who is the prime suspect in the dumping stakes? Step forward Chile, soon expected to overtake Norway as the world's largest producer of fake salmon. And which Chilean company exports most farm salmon? Marine Harvest (Chile), who, during 2002, shipped out 28,500 tonnes of the stuff to overseas markets.

Marine Harvest (Chile) is a 'sister' company of Marine Harvest (Scotland), who produce one third of Scotland's annual output (150,000 tonnes) of farm salmon. Both companies are wholly-owned by the Dutch multi-national Nutreco. Has Nutreco some sort of 'secret agenda' for its Scottish operation? Has it found that expanding production in Chile is more profitable than low returns and environmental angst in Scotland?

If that should be the case, however unlikely, or if Nutreco were for some reason at some time in the future to decide to abandon Scotland as a production area, then the consequences for some West Highlands and Islands communities compelled to depend upon the industry for employment could indeed, as Calum MacDonald warns, "be catastrophic".

More 'dumping'

The last bastion of justification for the continued development and expansion of fish farming is that it provides much-needed jobs (see above) in "fragile rural areas". This is the primary reason national and local politicians cling to the skirts of the industry; hoping that, by association, their electorate will see that they are supporting employment.

But the number of jobs the industry claims to support is as variable and reliable as political promises. One moment, 6,000 jobs are claimed, another 7,000, and (see Tory Party leader David McLetchie's policy on salmon farming), 11,100 jobs. The truth is that nobody really knows and that no independent survey has ever been conducted into the matter.

Once thing, however, is quite certain: that many people in the Highlands and Island don't want to work on fish farms or in fish processing plants. Consequently, for a number of years, to make up their work force, fish farmers have been forced to look overseas to find the help they need.

In recent times, foreign workers, from Albania, Croatia and other Central European countries, and Iraq, have been shipped in to help, at the Marine Harvest plant in Fort William and Farne Salmon in Duns; and shipped out again just as quickly by police and immigration officials when it was discovered that their work permits were not in order.

Most recently, Orkney Salmon had need of outside assistance because of a shortage of suitable local workers. They employed two Portuguese, one Spaniard and one Frenchman, located through an Inverness company, Alban Security Recruitment.

Kirsten Hay, Orkney Salmon factory manager said, "We got four other staff from there. At least one of them can speak good English and someone from the Alban agency comes up with them to sort out their accommodation and travel." A spokesman for the Kirkwall Jobcentre, commented, "The local workforce is simply not large enough to support the number of jobs available in the county." A fragile rural area?

Scenic Shetland

The Shetland Isles lie 100 miles north from mainland Scotland. They are outstanding in their scenic beauty and in the diversity of their flora and fauna. But for how long?

In March, Shetland Island Council was asked to review its policy of 'no-go areas' for salmon farms, instituted in the 1980's to protect some of Shetland's most scenic voes and bays from the intrusion of unsightly fish farm cages.

Matters have been brought to a head by the continued expansion of the industry which now claims to support 1,000 jobs and to produce approximately 40,000 tonnes of fake fish each year. The problem is that fish farmers are fast running out of sites for their cages.

Debate recently centered round an application for a mussel farm within a 'no-go' area. Councillor Florence Grains said, "No-go' areas were agreed when big mussel farms were unknown and the intention had been purely to stop salmon farms." Ms Grains said that with other applications coming in for farms in other protected voes it was time to look at the policy again.

Does conservation threaten fish farming?

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) launched a remarkable public relations exercise recently to in order to reassure the public that a planned 'Special Area of Conservation' (SAC) designation would not damage fish farming. The proposed SAC is to include Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh, by the 'Road to the Isles' and Eilean Donan Castle on the A87 route to the Island of Skye.

According to SNH project officer Angus McHattie, the 'plethora' of planning applications and regulations fish farmers have to adhere to provides adequate protection for the marine environment. Mr McHattie claimed, "This will not be adding another layer of obstacles to fish farming, it will bring an overall tightening of the regulations." So that's all right then?

The return of the native

Much publicity has been given to an alleged increase in the numbers of salmon returning to Scotland's west coast streams and rivers, including the Awe, Lochy, Scaddle, and Gour and, in North Sutherland, the River Polla.

Most of the trumpet blowing has come from fish farmers and their chums in West Coast Fisheries Trusts. None of the information being peddled is backed by any independent verification and much of it is, in my honest opinion, deeply flawed.

In regard to the 'recovery' on the west coast, this can be explained by the infectious salmon anemia (ISA) outbreak in 1998 that subsequently caused 25% of west coast fish farms to be placed in quarantine. As such, many of the cages were force-fallowed, allowing migrating smolts safe passage to sea, rather than being attacked in the process by fish farm sea lice.

These fish are now returning as adults, but their progeny will be killed by fish farm sea lice as the salmon cages have been restocked. This is exemplified by the absence of increased sea-trout returns. In their marine phase, sea-trout remain close their rivers of origin, and as such, when the fish farms were restocked they were attacked by sea lice.

The River Polla, in North Sutherland was affected in another way. Quite simply, the fish farm in Loch Eriboll, into which the Polla drains, was closed for two years, thus allowing both salmon and sea-trout to pass safely to sea, and to return safely to their natal spawning grounds. The fish farm has now been re-opened and will, once again, decimate returning wild salmonids.

None of the 'flood' of press reports address's these issues, preferring instead to pretend that fish farm sea lice are not responsible for the disaster of declining West Highlands and Islands wild salmon and sea-trout stocks. My view is that stocks in these allegedly 'recovering' rivers will soon disappear, courtesy of the continuing pursuit of fish farm profit.