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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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Guest Column, May 2003

Miochael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, 1995 - 1997.

Scotland's Natural Heritage in Mortal peril

Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland 1995-1997, confesses to his naivete in promoting fish-farming while in office.

A leaping salmon is one of nature's grandest sights, and the king of fish is a potent symbol of everything we value in Scotland's natural heritage. Yet this wonderful and mysterious creature is in mortal peril.

A recent World Wildlife Fund survey found that the Atlantic salmon had all but disappeared in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and was on the brink of extinction in Estonia, Portugal, Poland, the United States and parts of Canada.

Almost 90% of the world's salmon population is now found in only four countries: Iceland, Norway, Ireland and, of course, Scotland, where, according to the WWF the species is endangered in 37% of our rivers.

It is important to remember that each river has its own distinctive salmon which are genetically programmed to return from feeding at sea and spawn in the place where they first emerged from an egg to begin their remarkable life cycle.

Once the wild native population of a river is lost it is probably gone forever. Our west coast rivers have seen the salmon and sea trout populations collapse and there is no doubt that fish fanning has been a major contributor.

I once naively believed that farmed salmon would help save wild fish by providing food for the table at lower cost. In fact, poorly managed farms have done enormous damage by allowing escapes, nearly 400,000 last year alone, which result in interbreeding and catastrophic damage to the gene pool.

Siting of cages at the mouths of river has meant that young smolts setting off to feeding grounds at sea are ruthlessly attacked by sea lice from the fanned fish. The lice cluster around the young salmon or sea trout. One piece of Norwegian research found that more than three-quarters of the smolts leaving a river were killed by sea lice from fish farms.

In fairness to the industry and the Scottish Executive now recognize there are problems, but tough regulatory controls with real teeth and sanctions are needed.

When one of the Tweed's best Ghillies, Cohn Bell, told me that a Norwegian company wanted to set up a smolt farm on the Ettrick within the Tweed catchment, I assumed he must be mistaken. There was an understanding, I thought, that no fish farms would be allowed in the East Coast. It turns out that the plan is to produce three to four million smolts from non-native salmon.

The consequences for the Tweed, which is one of the few remaining natural wild salmon rivers in the world, could be disastrous from escapes, disease, parasites and pathogens. In Norway such a plan would be unthinkable. In Scotland our controls are hopelessly inadequate and I cannot help thinking that the Executive are a little complacent about protecting our salmon heritage and the rural economies which depend on it. Salmon fishing is vital to the Borders economy, employing 520 people and bringing an income of 13m to the local area.

Another danger is drift netting. This was banned in Scotland in 1962, but for years when I was in government we struggled to stop drift netting for salmon by fishermen from the north-east of England, eventually agreeing to a gradual phase-out in 1993. Most of the 33,655 fish the netsmen catch are heading for the Tweed and other Scottish river.

To his credit, the English Fisheries Minister, Elliot Morley, initially offered 0.75m, if matched by private funding, to buy out 80% of the netsmen. Agreement has now been reached on a price of 3.34m which, obviously, leaves a gap. Mr Morley has increased his contribution to 1.25m and private interests through the Atlantic Salmon Fund have found Lim, but the Scottish Executive is refusing to contribute a penny, risking the whole deal, even though an estimated 25,000 Scottish salmon will be saved.

The documentation and the additional Lim have to be in place by early May as the netting season begins on June 1.

The Executive's position is irresponsible, stupid and disingenuous given the statements made by Ministers to the Scottish parliament. Here is Rhona Brankin in answer to an intervention from the SNP's Brian Adam asking when the north-east drift net fishery might come to a conclusion: "We take the matter seriously and we are in discussions with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about it"; and in the same debate: "If the numbers of fish returning to the rivers continues to decline there is a real danger that there will be too few spawning fish to ensure that the juvenile population is maintained at safe levels. I am afraid the picture is bleak" (November 2000).

Quite so; the picture is indeed bleak if ministers are not prepared to lead and turn warm words into action. "Lost at Sea" may very well prove to be the Atlantic salmon's epitaph.

Lord Nickson, who chaired the Task Force on Salmon Strategy [published 14 February 1997], calculates that the black hole through which the little smolts going to sea must pass before returning two years later is now swallowing up to one million more fish than it did 20 to 30 years ago. That is actually twice as many fish as return to our shores.

The black hole is complex but it certainly includes fish farms, seals, pelagic trawlers, drift nets and climate change. Some estimates suggest that 900,000 young salmon are being killed by mackerel and herring fishing fleets in the North Sea only to be dumped over the side as by-catch discards.

All of these issues can be addressed despite the complexity and the need in some cases for transnational agreement. Why not, for example, establish a Seal Commission along the lines of the Red Deer Commission I set up when Secretary of State? An added bonus would be that the hard-pressed Scottish Fishermen's Federation would have something to be cheerful about in these difficult times.

But time is running out. Let us hope our policy-makers rise to the challenge. Failure could well see these wonderful creatures go the way of the Panda, the Bengal Tiger and the Snow Leopard.

Reproduced by kind permission of the author and 'Scotland on Sunday' (http://www.scotlandonsunday.com)