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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
"That which you have wasted will not be there for future generations"

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Guest Column, May 2004

Jackie Mackenzie describes what happend to him when he worked at Ardessie Fish Farm in Little Loch Broom near Dundonnell in the West Highlands of Scotland. At that time, farm salmon from Ardessie were being smoked and sold by mail order by a local company - who never told their customers that the fish they were buying were farmed, but instead, implied that they were wild salmon.

The Chemical Culture of Scottish Salmon Farming

Jackie Mackenzie

For more than five years filling in forms has been a large part of my life; telling my story to doctors, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Department of Social Security, benefit officials, housing benefit officials, health and safety medical specialists, local councillor, Vetinary Medicines Directorate, other organic phosphate sufferers, solicitors, homeopaths, herbalists, marine biologists and television and press journalists.

I want to move on and try to forget all that has happened to me but I can’t. This will be with me for the rest of my life. My health is testimony to that, and yet, with the exception of a few, I am constantly made to feel that I have to prove myself, explain myself, defend myself. Why should I? After all, I am the one who has been poisoned.

My life as I knew it, and all the possibilities for the future have been stripped away simply because of one greedy fish farmer showed no respect for his workers. Yet in spite of being expelled from Scottish Quality Salmon, this fish farmer has neither admitted nor denied that he was using illegal pesticides and Scottish Quality Salmon has never said why they expelled him.

SEPA did next to nothing; health and safety regulations apparently cover only the legal use of pesticides. The Vetinary Medicines Directorate didn’t contact me until four years after I was poisoned, despite the fact that my case was wildly known. They told me that it was too late then for them to do anything.

When I signed a legal affidavit that described what had happed to me on the fish farm, my family and I were subjected to malicious criticism for speaking out. I understand why other fish farm workers might be reluctant to talk about their experiences, but material things are irrelevant when you don’t have the health to enjoy them.

I have always been drawn to the sea and especially to salmon. I am fascinated by the life cycle of a fish that my ancestors considered sacred, so when the opportunity arose to study fish farming at Seafield College in Wester Ross, I was delighted. I honestly believed then that fish farming could be economically and environmentally viable; a small-scale farm producing a high quality product, an asset to rural the Highlands.

I chose to work at Ardessie Fish Farm in Little Loch Broom after a work-placement there whilst I was at college. The owners, John and Claire Parry seemed nice enough and were aware of the fact that I had Hepatitis ‘C’, contracted through a blood transfusion. The scale of the fish farm measured up to my ideal and the Parry’s agreed to me living on site in my caravan as it meant I could ‘cover’ weekends. This had been a problem for them.

But once working full time with them, I found that my idealism was misplaced. The farm had a SEPA discharge consent only for the use of hydrogen peroxide, but one day Johnny Parry asked me to help him prepare some medicated feed. We sprayed the toxic substance ivermectin [to treat fish farm sea lice] onto food pellets and he asked me if I minded feeding it at the weekend as it was a “bit naughty”. He said it was safe. I fed the pellets to the smolts and this was my introduction to illegal pesticide use.

One day Johnny came back very excited from a Scottish Quality Salmon meeting and called me in for tea. He told me that he had heard of a chemical that was good for treating sea lice, that it was very cheap and hard to detect. I asked him if it was safe for me to use it as I had Hepatitis ‘C’ and he said that it was. This is when we started using ‘Deosan Deosect,’ the active ingredient of which is another toxic chemical, cypermethrin.

I immediately started experiencing alarming symptoms; sever skin tingling and twitches and bouts of depression for no apparent reason. They got worse the more I used the chemical. I started to get chest infections, memory problems and rheumatics. I attempted suicide. Throughout this time I was attending my local doctor to be monitored for Hepatitis ‘C’. When my chest infections developed into double pneumonia, he started asking what chemicals were being used on the fish farm.

He was horrified when I told him and wanted to report this straight away, but I asked him to wait until my family and I had found accommodation away from the fish farm. He also threatened to hospitalise me unless I took time off sick, but agreed to wait before reporting the fish farmer. Johnny Parry had always made it difficult for me to take time off sick. He would more or less harass me back to work.

Luckily we found accommodation quickly in another village which meant I had to change doctors. During this time I reported Johnny Parry to SEPA four times. When SEPA did visit, Johnny took them by boat to untreated cages. They never followed up on any other information; like the paperwork that would have shown that the empty tub of hydrogen peroxide on the shore was four years old. After my last ‘phone call, SEPA arrived to find Mrs. Parry with four cans of Deosan Descent – she claimed they were to treat her six hens. SEPA took no action.

I was struggling to work until, finally, in December 1998, after another treatment using cypermethrin, I couldn’t take it any more. I was on the verge of collapse. It was as though my body had just seized up. For more than six months I could barely get out of bed. Sometimes, I could manage an hour or two but I was soon exhausted and in severe pain. My body temperature control didn’t seem to work so I was house-bound during cold weather. We had to go on statuary sick pay for about 5 months, a bare amount to live on.

During this time we were hassled by the Parry’s. They wanted me to come off their books. But this meant that we wouldn’t be entitled to any benefit and would have had virtually no income at all. So they said that they would buy my caravan and gave us a deposit of £350, but in writing afterwards they said that it was towards a ‘bonus’ for me coming off their books. We then went to the Citizens Advice Bureau who were wonderful and mediated on our behalf with the Parry’s. They resolved everything, including benefits and other entitlements.

But my health was getting worse again and the codeine prescription I was given made me irritable, although it relieved the pain. I became addicted to them and needed to take more and more. That September, I had a convulsive fit that nearly killed me. My wife borrowed money from the family and took me to a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner who specialised in Hepatitis ‘C’ and understood that I had been poisoned. We also had a holiday in Crete so that I could get some much-needed heat back in my body.

I no longer take prescription medication and I now see an excellent Chinese and Ayvedic practitioner in Inverness and have regular herbal treatments and acupuncture which is gradually improving my health. I am no longer depressed. But winters hit me hard and I get exhausted if I go without sleep during the day.

I still get flu-like symptoms from time to time and I have other, persistent problems such as numbness in my fingers and legs. But I am better at coping and understanding the nature of my health condition and having others understand as well has been incredibly important.

As to the future of fish farming? I believe that the only way that it can be properly regulated for the health of the workers and for the environment is to have self-contained, land-based units.