The Salmon Farm Monitor
'Northern Climes, April 2007'
An earthquake in southern Chile in April, measuring 6.2 on the Richter Scale, caused a mini-tsunami which swamped 14 salmon farms in the country’s X1 Region. The farms contained upwards of 14 million fish, unspecified numbers of which escaped. However, neither SalmonChile, the Chilean salmon farmers representative body, nor any members of responsible government departments have released details of the exact number of fish that escaped.
Sounds familiar? For more than two decades, Scotland’s largely foreign-owned salmon farmers did likewise to play-down the impact of escapes on wild fish populations. However, following a landmark decision obtained by the Salmon Farm Protest Group from Freedom of Information Commissioner, the Scottish Executive has been forced to disclose details of fish farm escapes; names of the farmers, site locations and how the escapes happened. Good news for those of us determined to bring public pressure to bear upon an industry that is degrading wild salmon and sea-trout in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland. But will any of the bodies that claim to have the interests of wild salmonids - and the rod and line anglers who fish for them - at heart use the Act to access this information? On all of the evidence that I have, it seems most unlikely that they will. Each and every one of these organisations has, in my opinion, caved-in to the demands of the fish farmers and allowed themselves to be persuaded that the continued expansion of fish farms and the relentless demise of distinct populations of wild salmon and sea-trout is an inevitable fact of life.
For instance, in March, Chris Todd, professor of marine ecology at St Andrews University, said, about the increasing prevalence of small, underfed grilse, “The decline in body weights of grilse is probably due to lack of feeding at sea, which itself is being driven by ocean climate changes.” Rivers and Fisheries Trusts of Scotland chairman, Roger Brooks, commented: “This evidence [Prof. Todd’s study], combined with the poor catches of salmon in the north west and a shortage of sea-trout everywhere, reminds us of the importance of taking note of scientific advice and applying conservation measures in good time.”
No mention of the most important contributory factor to ‘lack of feeding at sea’ - industrial fishing at the base of the food chain for species upon which wild fish, including salmon and sea-trout, depend for survival. It doesn’t take rocket science to work out that removing a million tonnes of these species from the sea each year is going to lead to the collapse of their ability to reproduce sufficiently successfully to withstand such pressures. It may take time and international effort to control global warming, if indeed that can ever be achieved, but we can, and should, act now to stop industrial fishing for these base of the food chain species.
The sad truth is that this is unlikely to happen, because the fish farmers need the oil and protein derived from base of the food chain species to feed to their captive salmon. And anything that the fish farmers want, the Scottish Executive, it seems to me, makes sure the fish farmers get. Bigger fish farms? No problem. Removal of existing fish farms from the migratory routes of wild salmon and sea-trout? Well, that’s certainly something we could look at. Easier planning controls? Lets have a look at that as well. More public money to run your business? We are here to help. More and more powerful drugs to kill sea lice? Why not.
And did you notice the ‘clue’ in Roger Brooks comment: “…a shortage of sea-trout everywhere”? Yes, there have been fewer sea-trout caught in, for instance, the River Spey, approximately 3,000 a year rather than say 4,000, but to simply state “shortage of sea-trout everywhere” seems to be, in my honest view, an attempt to avoid admitting that fish farm sea lice have brought specific north west sea-trout populations to the edge of extinction. Why is everybody so terrified of upsetting the fish farmers? Could it have anything to do with the fact that most of the Rivers and Fisheries Trusts of Scotland seem to collaborate with the fish farmers? Do these trusts rely in any way for their existence on funding from the fish farmers, and/or from the government? Are they publicly accountable? Perhaps we could be told?
Finally, the most stark example of how far all of Scotland’s executive bodies responsible for caring for our wild fish seem to have fallen into the arms of the fish farmers was evidenced for me by a report of a recent meeting held in the old Loch Maree Hotel. The purpose of the meeting was to launch a new ‘initiative’ to restore the loch to its former sea-trout fishing glory. Wonderful plans were outlined by the Wester Ross fisheries trust, including a DNA research programme to be carried out by fisheries scientists from Middlesex University.
The meeting was attended by staff from the Scottish executive’s fisheries research services, Scottish Natural Heritage, et al, and by Mark Vincent owner of the Loch Maree Hotel. Mark had been fishing the loch prior to the meeting and, on the table of the old bar, he had placed the body of a finnock that he had caught. The little fish was smothered in lice, about 100 in total. Throughout the meeting nobody mentioned the finnock, or the fact that it was covered in sea lice, or commented about where these sea lice had come from or what could be responsible for their presence. And these are the people who are going to ‘restore’ Loch Maree to its former glory? I don’t think so.