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News From Around the Fish Farms, May 2004

Shetlands Shambles

The continuing shambles surrounding fish farming in the Shetland Isles is reaching epic proportions. Shetland fish farmers claim to produce more than a third of the total Scotland’s annual production of farm salmon, but with five bankruptcies and as many months, and more on the horizon, the industry faces an uncertain future. Amazingly, however, as reported in last month’s Monitor, new fish farms are still being opened. Now, another application for a new farm in Yell Sound has been announced by Setterness Salmon Limited, whilst Green Holm Limited is seeking an increase in production at their West Burra Firth site.

Given all this activity, and the thousands of growing salmon now held by the receivers of bankrupt companies, one might have imagined that obtaining farm fish in Shetland at rock-bottom prices would not be too difficult? But it is, at least it is according to Danny Watt, director of the Scalloway fish processing firm of D L Watt Limited that collapsed in April.

Mr Watt blames his misfortunes on being unable to access fish at the ‘right price’: “It’s a lack of salmon at the right price. We are paying ‘ex-Glasgow prices and as long as we were able to import [salmon] from Norway we could keep prices down. We are not able to get supplies at sensible prices here.” he said. Strange, him being surrounded by an industry which produces more than 35,000 tonnes of the stuff each year, claiming that he can buy farm salmon cheaper in Norway than on his own doorstep?

Meanwhile, Guy Mace, managing director of Biomas UK, the company that supplies most of Shetland’s fish farms, has had enough. According to a report in The Shetland Times 9/4/04) Mr Mace told a conference on Shetland aquaculture that his company, and others such as Skretting and EWOS, had “done their bit” and that feed companies can’t bale out any more debt-ridden salmon farms and that it was now time for others, like Shetland council to help the ailing industry.

But there is growing concern over the way in which Shetland money has already been invested in fish farming, to such a degree that the council has been compelled to hold a special meeting to address the matter. Shetland Island Council, because of oil-related revenue, is one of the richest local authorities in UK, but their love-affair with fish farming has cost them dear; so far to the tune of about £7 million pounds awarded to the fish farmers from various local authority funding agencies, including Shetland Development Trust.

So it’s tough times ahead for Shetland fish farmers seeking a council hand-out to tide them over tricky periods. The Trust’s freedom of action has been curtailed. Instead of being allowed to dish out millions of pounds to the fish farmers whenever that wanted to, in future their spending has been limited to £250,000 per request without referral to Shetland Council’s executive committee. That will certainly sort things out, won’t it?

Orkney Follows Shetland

The ‘Shetland disease’, salmon farm job losses and financial and environmental mayhem, seems to be spreading to its southern neighbour, the Orkney Islands - Mainstream Scotland Limited has announced that it is shutting down six of its farm sites in the islands. Up to 20 workers will loose their jobs and the head office of the company at Alness on mainland Scotland will close and be relocated to Kirkwall in Orkney.

It is sometimes difficult to keep track of mergers, buy-outs and amalgamations in the ever-fluxing world of fish farming, and Mainstream Scotland is a case in point. The company started off as Aquascot, but was eventually bought by the Norwegian multinational corporation, Cerqaq; one of the largest salmon faming companies in the world with fish farms in Canada and Chile as well as in Norway and Scotland.

But it would have been difficult to give the Orcadian salmon a specific, user-friendly identity under the Cerqaq banner, so the name was changed to Mainstream Scotland; or at least that’s what I think the reasoning was behind the name change introduced last April.

Robert Murray, a founder member of Aquascot and currently in charge of the Mainstream Scotland operation has offered a number of reasons for the job losses; none of which seem to be attributable to the activities of the company itself, but rather more to do with outside influences.

Speaking to the local newspaper, ‘The Orcadian’, he said: “The lack of a politically positive environment will inevitably cost jobs in remote rural communities which can hardly afford to loose them.” Which is strange, given that Orkney has one of the lowest levels of unemployment in UK and that the industry has to rely on immigrant workers to provide for its needs?

Mr Murray also had some harsh words for the Scottish Executive, saying that they needed to “bang their heads together and back the industry. They should cut through the red tape and allow us to compete on a level playing field.” Presumably this means protecting the industry against the dumping and cheap salmon imports from Norwegian fish farmers like, er, Cerqaq?

Still Studied to Death

Some years ago, Orri Vigfusson, the founding chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, famously warned that the Scottish Executive that they and their fisheries scientists were “studying [your] wild salmon to death.”

One only has to look at the figures for wild salmon and sea-trout numbers in the West Highlands and Islands today to see that Mr Vigf?sson was right. Many rivers that once hosted populations of wild salmonids and now bereft of that species because of disease and pollution from salmon farms.

Neither has the Scottish Executive (SE) done anything to prevent this disgusting act of environmental vandalism; other than, yes, you guessed, to commission more ‘studies’ and ‘consultations’ and by setting up more pointless talking-shops, none of which have any authority and are about as much use in curtailing the activities of the fish farmers as the participants are able to walk on water.

Which is exactly what the SE intend. The last thing they want is for the public to become aware of the lies, deceits and deception that they have practised in order to protect fish farming from public scrutiny. Since the late 1960’s when this dirty baby was birthed, and in spite of all the evidence of massive damage, the SE denies that it has caused any detrimental impact to the marine environment or to sport angling tourism jobs in the Scottish west Highlands and islands.

To continue the ‘spin process’, Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell has launched another ‘sexed-up’ consultation process by announcing that much of Scotland’s coastline could become marine national parks. On 19th April, Mr McConnell said:

“Scotland has an environment that is second to none. Our marine and coastal waters support many thousands of species of birds, fish and other sea life. But they also support many thousands of jobs and countless communities depend on the sea and coast for their livelihood. That is why we must strike a balance between protecting this precious environment and promoting the tourism and other industries on which so many communities, and so may people depend.”

And where did the First Minister choose to make this announcement? When he officially opened a new £500,000 Marine Harvest fish factory at Mallaig in the West Highlands. In a bout of mutual back-slapping, Mr McConnel praised the company, saying, “Marine Harvest has recognised that they must act today to secure the industry of tomorrow. The challenge is for others to follow their lead,” whilst Marine Harvest spokesman, Graeme Dear, commented that their plant would, “… help us meet the challenge of competing in a tough global market.” Treble salmon stakes all round! And a special pat on the back, perhaps, for Jack McConnell’s brother who is a fish farm manager with Marine Harvest?

Talking about Talking Shops

The Scottish Executive has dished out £100,000 to yet another body, set up to “develop Scotland’s aquaculture industry.” The Scottish Aquaculture Forum (Sarf) will be under the chairmanship of Professor Bill Ritchie of Aberdeen University. This university is at the cutting-edge of attracting government and industry funded research into environmental issues; including the impact of aquaculture upon said environment and employment in fish farming.

The bodies involved are: Scottish Environment Link, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Quality Salmon, British Trout Association, Crown Estate, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Sea Fish Industry Authority. The SFPG was not invited to join this august body, whose rationale is to “promote, encourage and support research and development in the sector, which includes fish farming and processing.”

This independent charity was welcomed by deputy environment and rural affairs minister Allan Wilson, who said: “The industry supports some 8,600 full-time equivalent jobs in farmed fish production and processing across Scotland. These jobs are the lifeblood of many of our rural communities. The establishment of the forum reflects the widely recognised need for more research to be carried out, not only in areas that are impacted upon by aquaculture, but also in areas that impact upon aquaculture.”

It is significant that Scottish Executive ministers and civil servants no longer talk about thousands of fish farm jobs in “fragile, remote rural communities in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland.” Now, it’s just “rural communities.” But the truth of the matter is exactly the same, as the SFPG highlighted in the April edition of the Monitor: the Scottish Executive hasn’t a clue about how many jobs the industry supports. They are guessing, and their best guesstimates are based upon flawed statistical information that wouldn’t stand up to a micro-seconds independent investigation – which is, of course, exactly why they refuse to allow any independent review of their figures.

A Colourful Makeover for Fish Farms

When it comes to putting a friendly glow on the unfashionable face of fish farming, nobody does it better than Dr Graeme Dear; the Dutch multinational Nutreco’s spin-doctor for their Scottish fake fish farm company, Marine Harvest.

Dr Dear’s latest ploy is to “challenge” local communities to give unsightly fish farm cages and automatic feed towers a “colourful makeover”. According to a recent press report (Aberdeen Press & Journal, 5th May), last year Marine Harvest launched a competition with the department of landscape architecture at Edinburgh University Art School to find some “interesting designs”.

Excited students have come up with some colourful ideas to enhance the dismal structures that disfigure virtually every sea loch in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland: putting an artistic ‘cap’ on fish farm feed towers; painting multi-coloured polka dots round them; placing lights on the snake-line of black feeding tubes leading from the towers to the fish cages.

Mr Dear commented: “The students were clearly very talented and it was heart-warming to see such enthusiasm for what is one of Scotland’s leading industries. One of the most interesting features of the competition was the number of students who believed we should highlight, not hide, the feeding systems.” Aye, right.