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Guest Column, January 2005


December 2004 a friend rang asking if I had seen a particular advert on television. Not being a great television-watcher, I replied no and assumed that would be the end of the matter. However, he spent the next 5 minutes relaying the content of a television advert. I pretended to be listening until the words “fish farm” and “clean water” were used in the same sentence.

I became riveted and when my friend finished talking I sat down and watched the television for the rest of the night until I saw the advert in question. The advert involved ‘Jamie Oliver’ (a Chef of renown I am told) extolling the virtues of farmed salmon. I understood the advert to be promoting farmed salmon on sale in ‘Sainsbury’s’ and I found myself irritated.

Had no one bothered to explain to Mr Oliver or Mr Sainsbury for that matter what farmed salmon are fed on? Had no one bothered to explain how much waste farmed salmon deposit on the seabed? I had assumed everyone knew farmed salmon are fed fish meal and live in their own excrement. I made a few enquiries and was assured by the Scottish Executive that salmon farming was environmentally friendly.

I was not so sure so I thought that I would go and have a look at the salmon farm in question.

By New Years Eve 2004, I had persuaded a small group of friends to come with me and dive below the fish farm in question. We launched my boat in the Kyles of Loch Alsh and headed for the salmon farm in Loch Hourn. The wind was very strong making life a little difficult as we battered into the waves. We eventually entered the mouth of the Loch and stopped by a marker for a shallow reef to admire the view.

This was the first time I had visited Loch Hourn. We were sheltered from the wind by the dramatic steep mountains at either side of the loch. Hourn. It was breathtaking, the wind creating furrows on the loch’s surface; the clouds grey and drab rushing across the sky, crashing into the mountains towering on either side of the loch; stretching into the distance as if cradling the sea.

The fish farm was very easy to locate: a wart nestled in a small sort of bay, a true industrial enclave noisy and defiant in the middle of this beautiful tranquil scenery We found three rows of blue fixed buoys running parallel to the shore, the western end with fish cages between the rows of buoys, the feeder barge, like a giant octopus, black tentacles stretching to each cage intermittently spraying pellets. The water boiled briefly as the captive fish rose to feed.

We would dive about 60m away from the cages under the buoys, we would look for signs of pollution on the sea bed - in fact we would just look and see what was there. We dropped a weight with a line and a buoy as a marker a reference point for the boat and for us as divers. One pair would swim west parallel with the shore and one pair north, down into deeper water. We kitted up and rolled. The water was cold a shock to the system but surprisingly clear.

We completed out checks and headed down into the green murk. The deeper we went the darker it became. On the seabed we could see a litter of white shells, all that remained of the creatures that once lived there. A couple of crabs scurried away into the gloom, the sign of only life.

We clipped a line onto our weight and headed down the gentle slope. We came across a couple of ‘one ton’ feed bags in a heap, ‘industrial litter’, the decked with remains of a dead crab. There was little tidal flow here. We pressed on downward passing numerous, discarded, 5 litre containers, half in half out of the mud, along the way.

Something else was odd’ however, and it took a while to sink in: there was no life, absolutely nothing, the whole area was inert. As we pressed on down we came to a small rocky reef, a vertical wall a meter or so high, but, again, no life. We cruised the wall, left and right, searching for pockets of life; nothing, absolutely nothing.

Again we pressed on down another rocky reef a little more pronounced. We were quite deep now and it was very dark I have not seen a reef so devoid of life. It was as if the rocky outcrops had been smothered. Ah! I remembered, the reef looked just like the lunar landscape I had been so captivated by as I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin ‘moon walk’ on the television when I was six! Gray, drab, inert.

Again we cruised along the reef parallel to the shore. As we headed west we found some life. The rocky outcrops had life, nestled on the flat surfaces. More and more became evident. Large patches spread from the bottom of the wall into the darkness: beggiatoa mat stretched as if trying to smother everything in its path. We had found what we were looking for. It was time to leave. We had a decompression penalty. We waited suspended in the water carrying out our ritual.

On the surface we discussed our findings and hoped the pictures were ok. As we headed for home the sea was rougher but we threaded our way through the waves dodging the worst. We dragged the boat out and headed for home - after all it was New Years Eve.

Just maybe ‘Mr Oliver’ & ‘Mr Sainsbury’ should take a look under the fish farms. Maybe we all should! I often wondered why divers get such a bad press and now I know ‘we are privileged and see’ - don’t shoot the messenger!

Graeme Bruce

• Beggiatoa is a filamentous bacteria. It occurs at sites of organic pollution, often in areas of soft anoxic mud where there is poor water exchange with the open sea. These bacterial mats occur on the surface of the sediment at the hypoxic/anoxic interface. The underlying sediment is primarily impoverished, the low oxygen levels resulting in death or loss of most mega and macro fauna.