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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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Guest Column, March 2004

Dr Richard Shelton headed the government’s Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Pitlochry, Scotland, from 1982 until 2001. He is currently Research Director of the Atlantic Salmon Trust and Honorary Senior Lecturer in Environment and Evolutionary Biology at the University of St. Andrews. This extract from his highly acclaimed book, The Longshoreman, is reproduced here by courtesy of the author.

The Longshoreman: The Tragic Price of Salmon Farms

Dr Richard Shelton

A father and son, Royal Naval Officers, fished Loch Maree together during the 2nd World War. The son survived the conflict and Dr Shelton recounts what happened when he returned to fish the loch in 1989 …

The sub-lieutenant of 1939 was now a retired commander obliged by his family responsibilities to leave the service he loved and follow his father’s footsteps ashore. Angus John’s [their ghillie] time in the Lovat Scouts had come to an end not long before and, when the two men met, equals now, at the boatshed, only unspoken thoughts of the old Captain dimmed the joy of their reunion. ‘The fish are waiting for you, Jamie’ was Angus John’s greeting.

It was to be the first of many such meetings. When there was wind and water, they did very well, and when there was not, they spent less time on the big loch and more on the high hill lochans among the bright brownies. Always there were fish to be had and every so often a veritable submarine would bring to mind the Captain’s fish.

Jamie was in the study of the big house when the telephone rang in 1989. It was Angus John. ‘The fish are just no’ here, Jamie’ was his anxious message. Right enough, they had not seen as many over the last year or two and they had not seen a double-figure sea trout for several seasons. But similar hiccups had happened before at times of low summer rainfall and neither of them had worried unduly.

Despite Angus John’s entreaties, Jamie had no intention of cancelling his annual fishing holiday but, during the long run north in the train, he began to think about what might lie behind Angus John’s message. Jamie was not a great reader, but he kept up with the sporting press and had heard about the problems sea trout had been experiencing in County Mayo and Galway.

Not only had their numbers fallen sharply, but there were reports of fish returning early to fresh water grievously scarred about the head and dorsal fin. The Irish scientists, who had sampled the stricken fish in the Burrishoole River they had been monitoring for many decades, were certain that the injuries were caused by the same sea lice that were infesting the caged salmon in farms along the coast.

It was a shaken Angus John who collected Jamie at Inverness in the battered old shooting brake. The day before, he and a couple of fellow ghillies had been speaking to Dr Andy Walker of the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Pitlochry. Dr Walker’s careful sampling had convinced him that sea trout populations up and down the west coast of Scotland were in mortal danger from the very same cause he had now seen at first hand when visiting his fellow scientists in Ireland.

Jamie caught a few finnock (trout that have returned to the river after a few weeks at sea) during his fortnight and one sea trout of about a couple of pounds. There was no summer job for Angus John the following year and, for the first time since the war Jamie’s dapping rod lay untouched in the gunroom.

As season followed season, and the caged fish grew ever more numerous, the more obvious it became that the new jobs on the salmon farms had been bought at a terrible price. The sea trout had been the first to suffer because they spend the summer feeding close inshore, the very place where sea louse larvae tend to accumulate. Soon there were complaints from rivers entering long sea lochs that the salmon populations were also in trouble as their smolts ran the sea-louse gauntlet.

Unlike the sea trout, salmon smolts are rigidly programmed to stay at sea until they reach adulthood. Theirs was a hidden Calvary, far offshore, as the maturing lice they had picked up in the sea lochs bit through the skin and destroyed the fluid balance of the worst-affected fish.

It was to be years before a reluctant government would grudgingly accept the disastrous consequences which their regional development polices had helped to create. With blooms of algae in mid-winter that forced the seasonal closure of valuable scallop fisheries, with vile blankets or rotting ordure below the salmon cages, the sheltered waters of the west were an undersea Eden no longer.

The Longshoreman, by Richard Shelton is published by Atlantic Books,
Grove Atlantic Ltd., 26-27 Boswell Street, London WC1N 3JZ