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'Northern Climes, April 2006'

Former Sea Trout Group political lobbyist goes down the Pan

We are inured to sleaze in political life. Hardly a month goes by without some erstwhile senior civil servant retiring and promptly joining the board of a company which he was latterly ‘policing’. This practice seems to envelope every branch of government and it has become well-nigh impossible to recognise any real division between business interests, and the interests of those whom we appoint and elect to govern our affairs.

Whilst this transfer of knowledge and experience from public to private ownership is invariably effected within the law, most of the people with whom I discus these matters feel that although the law is being respected, it is less easy to see how the ‘spirit’ of the law is being upheld. If some General in the armed forces is i/c procurement, is it reasonable that, on retirement, he becomes a director of the company from which he was procuring things?

When the Tories lost the 1997 general election I was concerned that Lord Jamie Lindsay, then Scottish Office minister responsible for fish farming, was appointed chairman of the Scottish Salmon Growers Association; latterly Scottish Quality Salmon, now reborn as the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation; particularly when a former Scottish Secretary told me that such was the minister’s enthusiasm for fish farming that he was sometimes allegedly referred to by his colleagues as ‘Norwegian Jamie.’

I always believed that we anglers and those we appoint and elect to govern our affairs, were more propitious in their selection of bed-fellows. But I wonder, now, if this really is the case? When the Sea Trout Group (STG) announced a couple of years back the appointment of Ms Fiona Cameron as a political lobbyist - to raise the profile of issues surrounding the impact of fish farming on wild salmonids - STG, chairman, Anthony Steel remarked: “She has great knowledge and experience of the aquaculture business without being actually involved in it.”

Ms Cameron, prior to taking up this position, was a journalist with the leading aquaculture trade industry newspaper, IntraFish, where she enthusiastically fought the fish farmer’s corner and vigorously defended the industry from accusations about fish farm disease and pollution. Well, she would, after all, that was her job. However, this didn’t seem to bother the STG: “She will be very good at this role, and will greatly improve the chances of minimising the damage that is being done to wild salmon and sea-trout by fish farms,” said Mr Steel.

Whether or not this promise was realised is a matter of conjecture, as is the value the STG obtained from spending an alleged £30,000, money donated by anglers, on carrying out these lobbying duties. The exact amount the appointment cost the STG is not known because the STG, to the best of my knowledge, do not make their accounts available for public scrutiny. But when Ms Cameron’s contract ended, she was fulsomely thanked by the STG for her efforts on their behalf.

Ms Cameron has since re-joined the ranks of the fish farmers as an External Liaison Officer with Pan Fish, the world’s biggest fake salmon producer, and, once again, is vigorously defending the fish farmer’s corner from adverse comment about their practices. In a letter to ‘The Herald’ in March, Ms Cameron described comment from Animal Aid activist Claudia Terry as “disseminating misinformation on the industry,” and of “spreading alarm”.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the STG’s appointment of Ms Cameron in such a sensitive role was ill-judged. It is clear, now, that Ms Cameron is perfectly capable of adjusting her enthusiasms in accordance with who pays her. It is also quite clear that during her time with the STG Ms Cameron must have had access to highly confidential information about the inner-most workings of the STG, and, possibly, to knowledge about the workings of the Scottish Anglers’ National Association (SANA) and the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA) who founded the STG and part-funded the lobbyist’s salary.

Hindsight is a wonderful blessing, and I can’t help wondering if the STG would have gone ahead with the appointment had they known that at the end of the contract their political lobbyist would step into a job with Planet Earth’s largest fish farmer? Conspiracy theorists might also suggest that it was all part of an industry plot to ‘plant’ one of their own in the very heart of the opposition. That, of course, is ridiculous. Nobody would stoop to such tactics.

But were any of these possibilities considered by the STG appointment’s committee? Did they guard against it by including a clause in the appointment contract that disbarred their lobbyist from working in the fish farm industry for, say, two years from the end her contract? Did the STG obtain any written assurance or guarantee that information obtained during the contract period would be held to be confidential when the contract ended?

In truth, it doesn’t really matter because most of the bodies involved in the debate about fish farm disease and pollution and the survival of West Highland and Island wild salmon and sea trout - SANA, S&TA, Atlantic Salmon Trust, Association of Salmon Fishery Boards, et al, have already told the fish farmers that they have no intention of fighting them; that their only intent is, through collaboration with the industry, to minimise the damage fish farms cause wild fish populations. This has always seemed to me to be a weak platform from which to conduct meaningful negotiations.

Whatever, and, more importantly, why should Norwegian fish farmers bother what anybody says about the way in which they operate in Scotland when they have the wholehearted support of the people who really matter: Scottish Executive ministers, MSP’s, government civil servants and their fisheries scientists? From my perspective, with friends like these I don’t think that Scotland’s wild salmon and sea-trout have any need of enemies.

Rod McGill