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

Michael Iain Wigan, Author and journalist, who contributes to The Financial Times, Guardian, Field magazine, Spectator, and the Scottish Sporting Gazette. His books include: The Scottish Highland Estate (1991), Stag At Bay (1993), The Last of The Hunter Gatherers: Fisheries Crisis at Sea (1998), Grimersta: The History of a River (2000). He is Resident manager of Borrobol Estate, including loch fishings, in Sutherland, North Highlands, and the Manager of the Helmsdale Salmon Fishery Board in Sutherland.

Salmon Farming Convulsions

Bio-technology in the food industry keeps a step ahead of legislation which perpetually adjusts the limits of what is acceptable. During the long evolution of milling wheat to make bread the twenty or so vitamins and minerals present in the original wheat grain have been steadily reduced by milling companies so that profitable residues could be sold elsewhere, for example as feed for livestock. Less nutrition was left in bread. 1940 was one of many years in which government legislated to restrict the downgrading of human consumption bread.

Today, we see this increasingly. Recent legislation includes maximum salt and sugar levels allowed in processed foods, contents descriptions on the labels, and stringently controlled animal feeds. Manufacturers respond with disingenuous arguments about individual choice, making novel use of wastes, and by making contents labels illegible. There is an endless struggle.

So it is with salmon farming. Salmon farmers devise ways of cutting growth cycles or feed costs, whilst the authorities try to curb the drift towards over-manufactured food whose disadvantages outweigh its nourishment.

In international terms Britain has been comparatively slow to act against salmon farming. Take America. In 2003 a federal judge simply ordered closure for Maine salmon farms because they violated water pollution laws. On those farms not closed fallowing was imposed to allow ocean floor conditions to recover.

Nonetheless in Britain salmon farming’s critics have come further than they realise. Consumer consciousness is evolving. Wildness in salmon as in other foods has a cachet. Wild salmon has moved from being a commodity to a speciality in the food market. In April the Billingsgate price for large spring salmon was £50 per kilo. If you dwell for a moment on what the caterers who buy this stuff will charge at the consumer end, that is a huge figure. It is a direct result of new public awareness about the risks of eating its ersatz equivalent, cage salmon.

Recent scares about toxins in salmon-feed have led public interest up a path salmon farmers would rather it did not go.

Stories about ugly deformed farmed semi-fish barely recognisable as the mint-silver fish-king of legend, and anecdotes about sea estuaries polluted by cage farming’s wastes and chemical residues, do not directly affect consumers. It is a choice whether or not to register them. Cage salmon-feed is different. The same material goes into the consumer.

When it was reported that cage salmon accumulated PCBs and dioxins from its diet of oily ‘industrial’ fish, consumer complacency was stirred. For some time nearly every chef with a public profile had inveighed against farm salmon, but consumption had continued growing. A fish was a fish, and it was cheap. Disquiet about farm salmon diet hits harder.

Dioxins and PCBs are not the whole story; they exist, after all, in other ocean fish. However, the industry response to scares about industrial fish, to feed them vegetables, crosses a different bridge. That is why the industry itself fears it has been pushed into a corner.

Behind-the-scenes policy changes were fast. Farmed salmon in 2003 metabolised a diet of industrial fish, some of which support the species naturally in the wild. But industrial fisheries were failing. The vast EU catch quota for sand-eels remained un-catchable for six consecutive years. Salmon farmers, noticing greater critical interest in sea fisheries, and attention being drawn by the RSPB to over-fished sand-eels because of their role feeding young seabirds, saw serious threats developing to their base-line feed supply.

In 2004 UK farm salmon begun to be fed vegetables; the tolerated allowance was a quarter of all diet. In this conversion, however, a carnivorous animal became something else. There were echoes of BSE, weirdly unnatural diets creeping into an unsupervised sector of the aquaculture industry. Increasingly the public is beginning to suspect farm salmon are not normal salmon at all.

Wild salmon leaving Greenland for European rivers have a 7 per cent body fat quota. When salmon farming started the figure for cage fish was the same. Twenty years later, without too much fuss, the body fat content of cage salmon has quintupled to about 33 per cent.

In many food production industries this would scarcely matter. Coming back to bread, for a century millers reduced the proportion of the best part of the wheat ear to facilitate making whiter bread; more water was used and bread got lighter in weight. No-one cared. But in Canadian salmon farming the practice of feeding feathers and poultry waste skins to salmon had to be stopped immediately the public found out.

For farm salmon’s overstated dietary merits had been promoted on a rickety platform. Omega 3, its key fishy ingredient, had been projected almost as a life-giving force; it fed the human brain itself. The Omega 3 content was hugely boosted by the oil in wild industrial fish; wild fish contain the richest available sources of essential Omega 3. What happens as cage salmon diet moves away from wild fish?

Again, the bio-tech people believe they can stay a step ahead. By genetically modifying oilseed plants it may be possible to produce Omega 3 without using fish at all. Hey presto! Soya-fed cage fish, not impacting precarious wild fish stocks, still boasting keynote Omega 3, feed costing even less: the dream solution!

Is this the end of the rainbow for Scottish farm salmon? No.

Analysts of the food market say eating habits are at last changing. Even government is on-board with its healthy eating initiatives and 5 a Day Programme trialled in Glasgow feeding fresh fruit and vegetables to schoolchildren with startlingly beneficial results. Ministers have stumbled on the truism that healthier eating will save the National Health Service money.

Contemporary shoppers have been identified as preferring food with ‘nomadic’ connotations; we are latching onto a bent in European consumers. Vegetarian cage salmon, swirling in a vortex of whiffy environmental scandals, hit the wrong note. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy quotas for industrial fish will inevitably tighten. Unconstrained Chilean salmon farmers will go on powering ahead of Scotland (presently their output is treble), and the recently-agreed protective tariffs for Scottish salmon will go the way of all tariff barriers under GATT. One way or the other output from Scottish salmon farms is going to fall.