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'Northern Climes, April 2004'

For only the second time in its history the Crown Estate, owner of most of Scotland’s seabed, has rejected a planning application for a new fish farm. Helen Kennedy, CE salmon farm boss, says that they did so because it would have had an inappropriate visual impact on the proposed location of the farm, on the scenic island of Skye.

However, it seems that this refusal might have been prompted not by the CE itself, who licence salmon farms and harvest annual charges of approximately £2m from so doing, but rather by The Highland Council (HC), now a statutory consultee in the planning process.

Planning powers are to be transferred from the CE to local authorities because of a perceived conflict of interests; the position of CE as granter of permissions and receiver of rents is increasingly contentious, given that all but one application to the CE for a salmon farm licence has ever been refused.

But it is hard to believe that ‘adverse scenic impact’ was the real reason for the CE refusal; it has never stopped them granting planning permission before, as any visitor to the Scottish West Highlands will confirm. Does the truth lie elsewhere, perhaps in the suggestion that HC was less than overwhelmed by one section of the Environmental Statement relating to alleged benefits that the farm would bring?

“They [the applicants] estimate eight full time equivalent jobs at an average salary of £20,000. There will also be spin-off benefit to suppliers etc. and the farm will create a demand for processing thus securing or increasing on-shore processing employment. In addition, the presence of the farm benefits the island owner and her employees/guests as farm staff provide reassurance, transport opportunities and emergency assistance.”

And who is author of this piece of wishful thinking? Step forward Dr Kenny Black, marine scientist at a government-funded fishery laboratory and now acting as an expert in assessing the environmental and economic impact of fish farms. Regular readers might remember Dr Black as the ‘independent advisor’ to the Scottish parliament’s recent late and entirely unlamented rolling inquiry into fish farming; appointed to that post by, yup, you guessed, the fish farmers best pals, the Scottish Executive.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Executive (SE) claims that fish farming supports jobs in remote rural areas. And of course it does - in Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Iraq. A Department of Works and Pensions investigation, Operation Shark, found that 50% of workers in fish processing plants were immigrants and that 20% of them were working illegally in UK. Industry sources agreed that immigrant workers were, from time to time, employed, but they were coy about saying exactly how many.

Now, following the tragic drowning of at least 20 Chinese cockle-collectors in Morecambe Bay, the status of immigrants and their appalling working conditions is being closely examined. West Renfrewshire MP Jim Sheridan has introduced a bill seeking to license the gangmasters who financially and physically exploit immigrants. He alleges that he has found immigrants in Scottish fish processing plants being forced to work daily shifts of 12 hours, seven days a week, for less than £1 per day.

When the SE was challenged in October to substantiate industry employment figures and to mount an independent inquiry, senior civil servant Gordon Hart said that the figure of 6,500 jobs, based upon a six-year old flawed report, was used only as an “indicator”. By January he had changed his tune, disclosing the existence of another report “completed in late 2003” that allegedly showed that salmon farming supported “in the region of 8,600 full-time jobs”.

Mr Hart said that the new data was “…obtained directly from individual businesses and the Executive is content that the estimates are sufficiently robust and improve upon the accuracy of the multiplier estimates utilised in the earlier indicator study”. So that’s all right then, isn’t it? But a few weeks later, SE fisheries minister Allan Wilson went further. On 19 January he said, “We estimate that including the suppliers, down stream processors and other service providers over 10,000 jobs are now dependent on salmon farming in Scotland.”

In all of the SE’s meanderings about the numbers of jobs allegedly supported by fish farming they consistently fail to mention a key fact: whatever figures they rely upon to support their, I believe entirely spurious claims, come from the industry itself. As far as I am aware there has been no independent scrutiny of industry-generated employment figures. Indeed, the SE refuses to countenance any such independent inspection. What is certain, however, is that in one of the forms sent to fish farmers about job numbers, the Executive asks the farmers to use their, “discretion” in determining whether a job is full-time or part-time. And, of course, everyone, no matter how remotely connected with the industry, is included.

What an amazingly robust business Scotland’s foreign-owned fake salmon farm industry must be; condemned by a USA ‘Science’ magazine report for allegedly producing the most PCB and dioxin-ridden fish in the world; considered by many to be Scotland’s greatest polluter of the marine environment; apparently reliant on tax-payer handouts and the use of foreign labour to survive; breeding more sea lice in their cages than farm fish; and, the greatest deceit of all, shedding Scottish jobs quicker than a moulting chicken sheds feathers. Still, talking about chickens, the feathers could be profitably sold off to New Zealand or Australia where processed chicken feathers are used as an additive for, yup, you’ve guessed, fish farm food.

Back home, four Shetland farms have gone bust. David Sandison, general manager of the Shetland Salmon Farmers’ Association warns that production could drop by as much as 50% and that 410 jobs could be at risk. There is a developing job crisis in Orkney where the biggest producer, Norwegian-owned Mainstream argues that unless it is allowed to expand as it wishes then they could pull out. Jobs are being lost in the Hebrides and West Highlands where Alan Anderson, md of WISCO in Stornoway announcing six sackings said, “If fish farming were to finish in the Western Isles that would be the end of the islands.” Dutch-owned Marine Harvest, Scotland’s leading fish farmer is vacating Craigcrook Castle, its prestige Edinburgh headquarters and sliming down on staff numbers.

Scottish farm salmon production is falling as fewer and fewer smolts are being put to sea. The market is so oversupplied that the fish farmers have persuaded the Scottish Executive to beg the EU to impose financial restrictions on non-EU salmon imports; mainly from Chile and Norway to try to save the industry from complete collapse and, of course, to save “Scottish” jobs. But I find it hard to understand why I should shed a tear for Scottish fish farmers, and in particular for Marine Harvest (Scotland): the alleged havoc is being caused by their sister companies, Marine Harvest (Chile) and Marine Harvest (Norway).

Every disaster the industry has encountered, infectious salmon aneamia, algal blooms, jellyfish attack, sea lice infestations, malformed and diseased stock et al, has been self-inflicted. They have been the architects of their own misfortune, aided and abetted, of course, by their best chums, Scottish Executive civil servants and fishery scientists. It is proper to give credit where credit is due. Few would deny that Scotland’s fish farming industry would not be where it is today without the guidance and support that it has received from the Scottish Executive.

Rod McGill