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Guest Column, October 2005

Annat Bay, where the wishes of local communities have been overlooked.

Donald Rice of Dundonnell Estate, owner of one of the rivers in the area (Runie, Ullapool, Broom, Dundonnell, Gruinards) where wild salmon have been affected by the spread of fish farm sea lice, provides this report on the circumstances surrounding the Reporterís decision.

Lacking concern for Scotland's local communities

A Special Report by Donald Rice

In 1998, the then Scottish Office (now Scottish Executive) announced that planning decisions in regard to the approval of fish farms would be removed from the Crown Estate and placed in the hands of local authorities. Seven years have passed since that announcement was made, but this promised legislation has yet to be implemented; the Scottish Executive claims that they have been unable to find the necessary parliamentary time to address the legal requirements involved. In the interim period, it was agreed that the Crown Estate would be Ďboundí to accept recommendations made to them by local authorities in planning decisions for fish farm applications.

In 2004, Highland Council visited Ullapool, Wester Ross, to consider the implications of an application for a new fish farm site on the North side of the Scoraig peninsula at Annat Bay in Loch Broom (pictured above). At a packed meeting, 350 local people voiced serious concerns, after which Highland Council asked the Crown Estate to reject the proposal. The applicant appealed and a Reporter from the Scottish Executive reviewed the decision and overturned the Councilís decision.

"I am extremely disappointed that the Crown Estate has chosen to ignore the findings of the Highland Council, and to uphold the appeal of Annat Bay Marine Limited. It is quite simply breathtaking that a democratic decision can be reached after a full and public debate, only to be overturned by one representative of an unelected organisation.

Last year, after the Highland Council rejected the proposed fin-fish farm at Annat bay, those opposed to the development believed they had won because the local arguments - made by local people - had been listened to. Annat Bay's unique setting, and the communities that lie near it, had, quite rightly, been at the forefront of the campaign.

The development threatened the sustainability of the communities on the Scoraig peninsula. These communities, as Councillor Urquhart has repeatedly said, need to be considered a business in their own right. They are sustainable, they are ecologically sound, and they are thriving. Surely this is precisely the sort of community that politicians are always quick to try to promote and preserve?

Time and time again the aquaculture industry has fallen back on its one trump card: that it provides employment in remote regions of Scotland. This is increasingly being exposed as a canard, with the industry relying less and less on manual labour, shedding jobs, whilst relying on migrant workers for those that remain.

The communities on the Scoraig peninsula are remote, they are successful and they are permanent residents. Their businesses are threatened by an aquaculture industry that has slowly but surely surrounded them.

The report by the Crown Estate Commission seemed to have been written without taking a hard look at either the Scoraig community and what it represents, or the plans of Annat Bay Marine Limited. The two are not compatible. I predict many years of unhappiness - for both sides of this debate - should this expansion go ahead.

I would also urge the Crown estate not to approve the expansion, should they wish their reputation to retain any kind of standing in Wester Ross.

The Dundonnell Estate supported the Scoraig community (which is at the north west end of the estate) in its opposition to the development, and also objected on the grounds of potential damage to migrating salmonids. The Annat Bay expansion would undoubtedly threaten stocks of wild fish in local rivers which have only recently begun to show a recovery. The Little Gruinard cSAC is also likely to suffer, as a result of increasing numbers of sea lice on salmonoids.

The Dundonnell River itself has the most thorough and longest-established records of lice monitoring on wild fish anywhere in Scotland. Every year since records began, smolts have been found to have levels of lice at and beyond danger levels, thanks to local salmon farms. There has been a substantial improvement in the last three years, which may be reversed should the Annat Bay development get the go-ahead.

I was particularly stunned at the almost total absence of the words 'sea trout' in the Crown Estate Report. The reporter was happy to talk about salmon, wild or farmed, and the movement of smolts around the coast. But what of sea trout? It is widely accepted that they are the ones to suffer most from salmon farms around the coastal waters of the West Highlands because they do not go far out to sea like salmon. It demonstrates the report's breathtaking lack of concern for local detail.

I am not a fool. I know there are arguments on both sides here. I know that aquaculture has support too. But this development is unjustifiable and is a kick in the teeth for a community that is sustainable, thriving and desirable. I only hope that this development can be turned down at a ministerial level thanks to the cSAC status of the Little Gruinard, or, even better, because a minister comes to see Annat for himself!"

Donald Rice