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News From Around the Fish Farms, October 2003

Fish farm apologists call more government support for ‘Scottish’ salmon farmers

Calum MacDonald, UK Member of Parliament for the Western Isles wants government to protect Scottish fish farmers from Norwegian fish farmers who, he alleges, ‘dump’ cheap farm salmon on the market at below production costs. Mr MacDonald further alleges that “The continuing disrupting of the market is threatening the thousands of jobs sustained by the industry and firms are complaining that they are on the verge of bankruptcy.”

Mr MacDonald has written to Department of Trade and Industry minister Mike O’Brien asking him to intervene. He says, “As you will appreciate, the salmon industry is a literally irreplaceable source of employment in Scotland’s remote and economically fragile areas.” What Calumn MacDonald fails to understand is that there is no such thing as a ‘Scottish’ fish farming industry - Duart Salmon at Scourie in North West Sutherland is, to the best of my knowledge, the only truly Scottish company in the business.

Therefore, all the misguided MP for the Western Isles is doing is asking the minister to pour more tax-payer cash (£40 million pounds so far) into the coffers of the very Norwegian-owned companies he accuses of creating the problem in the first place.

This species of double-talk was further developed by Alistair Barge, chairman of the British marine finfish association at their annual meeting in Inveraray last month. Mr Barge bewailed the fact that low market prices for farm salmon were preventing the fish farmers from abandoning fake salmon and moving into what they see as more profitable fake cod, halibut and haddock production instead: “The difficult market conditions mean the salmon companies on which we depend for the development of marine finfish fish farming are being forced to concentrate their limited resources on their core business [salmon farming] at a time when they are crying out for diversification.”

Mr Barge claims that if the government gave his members more money, then farming new species would create 600 full-time jobs and be worth £100 million pa to the Scottish economy in 10 years. He also claims that the farming of new species would help to preserve wild fish stocks: “It is important the government and stakeholders in the industry do everything in their power to create the financial climate to realise the full potential of marine finfish farming. Doing so will not only create economic activity in the Highlands and Islands but also alleviate pressure on wild stocks,” he said.

Another politician anxious to help Scotland’s Norwegian and Dutch fish farmers is SMP Jim Mather, the Scottish national party spokesman on enterprise and the economy. Mr Mather attend the Inveraray finfish meeting and immediately demanded that the Scottish executive explain the socio-economic importance of fish farming to Scotland’s banking community and encourage them to give loans to the industry so that it could afford to diversify into new species.

Sounds familiar? All the goodies outlined above were claimed for the infant salmon farm industry back in the early days of its development in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. But on the evidence of the fish farmers themselves, this ridiculous adventure has proved to be nothing other than a resounding disaster, financially, socially and environmentally.

Much of the industry faces bankruptcy, not because of ‘dumping’ but because of over-production. It is increasingly difficult for the salmon farmers to obtain insurance against diseases that they themselves are almost certainly responsible for creating through the intensive production methods they employ. In spite of Scottish production rising from 25,000 tonnes pa in the mid 1980’s to more than 150,000 tonnes today, fewer people are directly employed in sea cage fish farming now than there were 15 years ago.

Salmon farming has not helped preserve wild stocks – in the West Highlands and Islands disease and pollution from fish farms has brought many distinction populations of wild salmon and sea-trout to extinction. The same foreign companies that have created this disaster in Scotland now focus much of their attention on Chile where regulations are less stringent and labour costs ‘minimal’ compared to Scotland; the average Chilean salmon farm worker (most of whom are woman) earn the equivalent of about £150 per month and tolerate appalling working conditions for the privilege of doing so.

How long is it going to take the multi-nationals to give up on Scotland and move production to Chile? Last year, Dutch-owned Marine Harvest, whose Scottish arm is the largest fake salmon farmer in Scotland, increased production in Chile by 45%. Is anyone, including Calum MacDonald, Jim Mather and Alistair Barge so naive as to ignore this commercial reality? Fish farmers are not philanthropists. They are in business to make a profit. If they can’t do so in Scotland, believe me, they will move somewhere where they can without shedding a tear or a backward glance. If this be error and upon me proved I will even stomach eating a fake salmon stake.

Accidental and Deliberate Introductions of Farm Salmon Result in Reduced Survival and Fitness and could Lead to Extinction of Vulnerable Wild Populations of Atlantic Salmon

After ten years of scientific research, it is now possible to state categorically that which most people have suspected since the industry first began to decimate wild salmonids around the world: escapee farm fish interbreed with wild wish and degrade their genetic integrity – and that stocking of rivers and lochs with hatchery-reared fish has a similar effect on the ability of wild fish to survive.

Key findings from the report:

The Salmon Farm Protest Group will be writing to Allan Wilson, Scottish Executive minister responsible for aquaculture to ask if he agrees with the findings of this study and if he will now reconsider his position in regard to bringing salmon farming ashore.

The SFPG policy on this matter is and always has been unequivocal: to prevent damage to the marine and freshwater environment and to protect species that depend upon a clean environment for their survival, aquaculture must be conducted from land-based closed containment systems.

Read more details on the article ...

No stars for Sainsbury’s or Waitrose oak smoked salmon

The Times Magazine ran an interesting ‘Taste Test’ on oak smoked salmon on 4th October. Guest panelist Michael McEnearney, head chef at Scotts, W1 (020 7629 5248) warned consumers what to watch out for in buying the product: “Firm texture, a natural colour (too lurid and it may have been fed carotene supplements), broad flakes as opposed to strips.”

Given that about 95% of all smoked salmon on sale in UK supermarkets is sourced from fake salmon farms, it is almost certain that the fish will have been fed on “carotene supplements”, to colour the flesh red or pink, depending upon what the buyer thinks will most enthuse his customers.

One thing, however, is certain: the unsuspecting customer will never know, because the product packaging won’t say so. Indeed, customers will be very lucky indeed to be told where the fish came from - a farm or from the wild. The ‘Taste Test’ carefully avoided any mention of this either.

Six products were tasted and stars were awarded. Only two were given no stars, fish from Sainsburys and from Royal Grocers Waitrose. Chef Michael said that the Sainsbury’s smoked salmon was “Quite fatty and salty on the finish. So thinly sliced, it disintegrated to resemble cobwebs.”

Poor old Waitrose fared just as badly: “Rather sticky (which suggests it might have been frozen before smoking), with a very salty aftertaste overpowering any suggestion of smoke.”

The third entrant, Simply Salmon, did slightly better, being awarded one star. Michael found the fish to be “A bit lurid and glossy in appearance, with a fatty greasiness that coated the lips. Good texture, though.”

Top place went to Loch Fyne oak smoked salmon: “Looks good, with a nice broad flake and cut “on the D” as aficionados prefer. Quite a mild smoke, but the flavour of the salmon really comes through.”

Why, I wonder, are ‘foodies’ and supermarkets so shy about telling their customers the whole truth about the products they promote?


Industrial fishing for sandeels scandal highlighted in Trout and Salmon magazine editorial comment

BRITAIN’S AND INDEED Europe’s salmon face a plethora of problems, as Trout & Salmon highlights frequently. By far the most serious and insidious problem is that of marine survival. Thanks to a great raft of conservation measures, some of our rivers are now sending as many salmon smolts to sea as was the case when returning adults were plentiful; however, generally the number of salmon and grilse returning to our coastline today is probably only one third of the stocks 30 or 40 years ago.

Evidence is already mounting that this year’s grilse, the mainstay of our summer fishing, are scarce. Some English rivers where there has been no shortage of water report a decline of between 75 per cent and 90 per cent compared to recent years. With the worst drought in decades afflicting much of Scotland, the picture is less clear, but several of the best grilse rivers where flows are maintained through stored or compensation water are seeing disappointing numbers.

There also seem to be a worrying number of small and/or thin grilse. While many netting stations have had a bumper year, this generally reflects great hauls of salmon (two-sea-winter fish) rather than an abundance of grilse; some report their grilse catch to be down by some 50 per cent. It is of course possible that the 2003 one sea-winter fish are simply late, but as I write, two weeks into August, such a theory is losing credibility.

Recent news from Denmark may well shed some light on their fate. The 999 fishmeal factory in Esbjerg, the country’s largest operation of its kind, announced that this year’s sandeel season has been “catastrophic” and “the worst in living memory”. Between March and May landings of sandeels to the 999 factories amounted to 276,000 tonnes compared to 573,000 tonnes in 2002. On the face of it, sanded stocks are collapsing.

The International Council for the Exploitation of the Sea (ICES) is the body that considers the status of fish stocks and advises Brussels accordingly. Its assessment working group on the North Sea sandeel fishery, which next meets in September, will recommend curtailment only if they believe the spawning stock of sandeels has dropped below 600,000 tonnes. To date they have concluded that the fishery is within “safe biological limits” and “sustainable”. Estimating marine fish stocks is notoriously difficult, particularly with a small prey species.

Juvenile sandeels are a vital source of food for young salmon as they migrate from Britain to the north Atlantic. The scientists are strangely coy on the ramifications of the industrial sandeel fishery for predator species, as indicated in a March 2003 press release from the Scottish Executive’s Fisheries Research Services (Britain’s leading experts on the marine environment and closely linked with ICES): “less clear is the impact of the removal of sandeels on other elements of the marine ecosystem”. In other words the scientists do not have a clue about the effect of the sandeel fishery on predators which depend on this forage specie such as young salmon as well as other important fish such as cod and haddock.

We will probably never know definitely, but this year’s “disastrous” mature sandeel catch would imply a scarcity of juvenile sandeels in 2002, on which last year’s smolts, including those due to return this summer as grilse, would have depended during their first few weeks at sea.

For the EU to permit industrial fishing on such a massive scale for a species near the bottom of the food chain is environmentally reprehensible. To allow it to continue without an absolute understanding of its effect on other species further up the food chain is an obscenity. Given this year’s sandeel catch, the precautionary principle must prevail and it is imperative that Elliott Morley, the UK’s Fisheries Minister, fights tooth and nail to persuade the EU to introduce an immediate moratorium on sandeel fishing throughout the North Sea.

His priority must be to ensure the future of Britain’s salmon and indeed whitefish industries, both of which have an infinitely greater economic value than Danish fishmeal processing.

Sandy Leventon, Editor


Scottish Seafarms Limited pollute West Highland river

The River Rannoch at Ardtornish in Agyllshire might not be one of Scotland’s major salmon streams (long, steep falls prevent this) but it deserves better care than it has received in recent years. There is a salmon hatchery by the river and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has issued written warnings to Scottish Seafarms about their practices there, or rather lack of them.

This time, however, when Scottish Seafarms illegally discharged liquid waste into this lovely little stream, SEPA decided to act and sent a report on the incident to the procurator fiscals office in Fort William. In consequence, Scottish Seafarms, after pleading guilty by letter to the charge of illegally polluting the river, was fined £1,000.

A SEPA spokesman said: “We understand that Scottish Seafarms are now taking action, but we are disappointed that it has taken a pollution incident and a court case to achieve this. Some preventative steps would have protected the environment and saved the company considerable time and expense.”

It is hard to understand how Scottish Seafarms were involved in “considerable time and expense”. Scottish Seafarms pleaded guilty by letter, no doubt written by their solicitor and stamped by his secretary, and £1,000 is hardly likely to break their piggy-bank, and they would have had to take preventative steps sooner than later anyway.

I also wonder why Ardtornish Estate continue to lease their land to a company that has clearly shown a complete disregard for environmental probity; although that might be a bit too much to ask since the estate itself has been closely involved in fish farming for more than a decade.

Until fish farm crime is treated with the seriousness it merits, then some of these people will always be tempted to take short cuts in the hope that they will get away with it – and given the fact that SEPA is hardly MI5 or sufficiently well-staffed to cope with the problem, they most often do.

In my view, also, it is an insult to public decency that the few fish farmers hauled up before the beak for environmental crimes have the courtesy to appear in court personally to plead guilty to their crime. It seems to me that a ‘point system’ could well be applied, as in driving offences: when the culprit accrues a predetermined number of points on his licence, he is automatically banned from operating.

Democracy Shetland style

The support Shetland fish farmers receive from the local council and from Shetland Enterprise knows know bounds- even extending to suspicious payments to help out chums in the business who find themselves short of the odd £100,000 or so.

When Skerries Salmon discovered that its bankers were not prepared to extend the company’s overdraft, director Gibby Johnson got in touch with his colleagues in Shetland Enterprise- of which he is also a director – to see if they could help. Shortly thereafter, then Shetland Enterprise chief executive David Finch recommended that Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE), their parent body, give the company the sum of £200,000 to tide them over.

When HIE refused to agree to this proposal David Finch used his delegated powers to pay Skerries Salmon £100,000. At the same time Shetland Enterprise sent off another proposal to HIE for payment of a £193,000 grant to Skerries Salmon, strangely forgetting to mention the fact it had already dished of £100,000 to the company. David Finch left Shetland Enterprise, and the island, last June.

This sorry scandal came to light when Robert Black, Scotland’s Auditor General presented a special report on the case, published alongside HIE’s annual accounts. The report accuses Shetland Enterprise of a catalogue of failures including: Skerries Salmon being told that Shetland Enterprise would provide the cash help before it was approved, and that the level of grant assistance was based on the delegated authority of the agency’s chief executive, not on need. Still, it’s an ill wind - Skerries Salmon has been allowed to keep the cash.

Democracy Orkney style

For months, the residents of the little island of Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands have fought a proposal for a massive salmon farm in one of their most scenic bays, Vast Ness off the south west coast of Papay.

90% of the population of the island signed a petition objecting to the fish farm claiming that it would damage their tourist business and their environment. Orkney Island Council rejected the petition and gave approval for the fish farm to go ahead, 16 cages as part of a project that will see additional cages in other sites around the island.

In desperation, the islanders appealed to the Crown Estate who lease seabed site to the fish farmers, asking them not to grant the company a lease. Nobody was really surprised when the Crown Estate refused this request. After all, business is business, and most of the cash flowing into Crown Estate coffers comes from, yes, you guessed, fish farming.