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Guest Column, March 2004

Charlie Whelan is best known as the former chief spin-doctor to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. He worked for the New Labour Government in its first few years and now works as a freelance writer and Broadcaster. Charlie can be heard on BBC Radio 5 Live every Sunday morning but now spends most of his time fishing on the River Spey in the Scottish Highlands.

Why I Wont Eat Farmed Salmon

Charlie Whelan

When the Hutton inquiry was in full swing a fellow salmon fisherman asked me if it wouldn’t be a good idea if we had a similar enquiry into Salmon farming? As I never thought for a moment that Lord Hutton would criticize the man who appointed him I didn’t agree with my fellow angler.

Something though has to happen and it came as absolutely no surprise to me then when a report last month exposed the fact that eating too much farmed salmon can give you cancer. You would have thought that was pretty obvious given the fact that fish farms have already wiped out tens of thousands of wild sea trout on the west coast and seriously affected the numbers of wild salmon.

Intensive farming will always cause problems and with thousands of fish in such a confined space, sea lice inevitably spread and kill off the wild species. That’s not all though. It has now been proved that escaped salmon breeding with wild stock can weaken them and, who knows, the day may come when salmon will no longer be seen leaping up our rivers.

Over the past few months pheasants, ducks, partridge and hares have been kindly delivered to my doorstep by friends who love shooting but not cooking. I’m the opposite - my only hunting is for fish. For cooking game I always turn to ‘The river cottage cookbook’ by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The author isn’t afraid to express his opinions about the food we eat and he is particularly vocal about farmed salmon.

He say’s that it is, ‘rubbish - not least because it is fed rubbish, (almost literally in some cases) and rubbish laced with chemicals.’ He goes on to tell us that wild and farmed salmon ‘look and taste a different species.’ - As anyone who has tried both will know.

If you don’t believe that fish farms are dangerous places then you only have to look at the case of fish farm worker James Findlay. Since an incident at a fish farm where he was handling chemicals, his health has deteriorated. According to reports in the Aberdeen Press and Journal he has had stress, pains in his muscles and joints, fatigue, sleep disturbance, panic attacks and mood swings. Last year, he also discovered he was infertile and his condition is expected to deteriorate further resulting in possible paralysis.

Like all big multimillion pound business the fish farm owners employ spin-doctors to claim that everything they do is for our benefit. They are so good at their job that you will read everywhere that fish farming in Scotland is responsible for creating more than 6,000 jobs. In fact less than 2,000 people are actually employed the other 4,000 allegedly work in ‘associated’ businesses. Don’t believe a word of it. The truth is that wild salmon and trout fishing are much more important to the Scottish economy than fish farms. Visitors pump millions of ponds into the local economy and even the local fishing club in Grantown that I belong to employs a full time river watcher.

It is not just the fish farmers who will lie to us about their product, the Scottish food standards agency is at it too. They spent weeks wasting our money on a big PR campaign telling us that farmed salmon was safe, yet only last week commissioned two separate inquiries into farmed salmon because they are worried about gaps in their knowledge.

My big sadness about the latest report into the dangers of eating farmed salmon was some famous Scottish chiefs being persuaded by the fish farmers to tell us it was safe. Even if that was the case, which it isn’t, any decent chef will tell you that farmed fish is a different and inferior species. As Hugh Whittingstall, who fishes the Findhorn says, ‘The flesh of a farmed fish looks flabby and greasy, and is dyed an unnatural orange. The wild fish is a proper salmon pink, and its flesh is firm, tight and almost dry to touch.’

As someone who has spent many hours in the company of politicians I regret to say that salmon and trout fishing does not very often hit their radar screens. Gordon Brown, I know is well aware of the legislation of fishing and does at least listen to my views. I wish I could say the same about anyone on the Scottish Executive. They go along with the fish farmer’s lies even when it is obvious to almost everyone that fish farming not only damages our health but that of other fish.

Every time I can, on the radio, TV or in print I tell the truth about fish-farming – yes ex spin-doctors can tell the truth. I also enjoy telling people when they say ‘have you any dietary requirements Charlie?’ ‘Yes, I won’t eat farmed salmon.’

I will be returning the compliments of those who delivered wild birds for me to eat. Hopefully it will be with wild salmon and trout caught in the Spey. I would never eat the poisonous farmed stuff so why should I expect others to.

For salmon fishing courses on the River Spey with Charlie Whelan, go to: