The Salmon Farm Monitor
'Northern Climes, August 2003'
In an attempt to demonstrate their more feminine, caring, side Dutch-owned Marine Harvest claims to be investing substantial amounts of money and expertise to help restore wild sea-trout to west Highland rivers. Managing director Dr Graeme Dear insisted that his company was not paying out conscience money. "We have embarked on this restocking programme because we love these animals and we want to see stocks restored," he said.
Is there anybody out there who would fall for this piece of arrant nonsense, anybody who still believes that the fish farmers are genuinely concerned about anything other than making a profit - and fending of all attempts to hold them to account for the damage they have done and continue to do to Scotland's wild fish and to the marine and freshwater environment?
Step forward Professor David Mackay, president of the Scottish Anglers’ National Association (SANA) and former North Region Director of the Scottish Environment Pollution Agency (SEAP). He said: "With this new spirit of co-operation. I believe we are in a better position than we have ever been since the industry started to get on top of the sea lice problem and restore these fisheries."
Neither was the professor alone in rushing to congratulate Marine Harvest. David Henderson, Director of the Salmon & Trout Association (Scotland) also gave Dr Dear the claps he so richly deserved: "This is an excellent example of the industry working with wild fish interests and hopefully a portent of things to come."
Yes indeed, that day when wild fish have been wiped out by disease and pollution from fish farms and rivers are restocked by the perpetrators of this crime with their hatchery-reared 'clones.'
However, this 'touchy-feely' relationship between those who should be fighting to save our wild fish and those who are destroying them, suffered a severe setback on 18th June when members of the Sea Trout Group, who describe themselves as being composed of angling enthusiasts, fished the estuary waters of the River Ewe in Wester Ross, prompted to do so by reports of massive sea lice infestations of wild fish.
During half an hours fishing, Group members caught 11 smolts in the sea, close to the mouth of the river which drains Loch Maree: "The most heavily infected fish carried a staggering 136 lice, whilst the average infection was 75.4 lice. All the fish were emaciated and in many cases had badly eroded fins. Scientists believe that any young sea-trout carrying more than 30 lice will almost certainly die. Ten out of the eleven fish fell into this category."
The nearest fish farms to the mouth of the River Ewe are in Loch Ewe. Who operates these farms? Dr Grame Dear's company, Marine Harvest. And which Sea Trout Group members did the fishing, counted the lice and published their findings? Yup, you guessed, key players included Professor David Mackay of SANA and David Henderson of S&TA.
Once Marine Harvest got wind of what was happening, and the fact that the Sea Trout Group had invited the media to view and film their catch, Graeme Dear rushed out a spoiler press release for environment and angling correspondents, inviting them to visit their salmon farms in Loch Ewe on the same day. "In response to claims that salmon farms are responsible for high sea lice numbers on young sea trout in Wester Ross ... and to see for themselves the very low levels of sea lice."
When the Sea Trout Group results were published, Dr Dear went into what I honestly believe can only be described as fantasy overdrive: "Lice are not randomly distributed through the water course ... lice are taking up residence in the first five meters from the shore ... which is just where the sea trout are ... the reality is that when the farms have zero lice, there's still a population of lice building up and maintaining itself within the wild population ... we need to broaden the thought process. I think it's clear that where the lice are targeting they have a self-sustaining population."
The Sea Trout Group has won a major victory by mounting this action and they are to be congratulated. I hope that this experience will help them to understand that the fish farmers, and their guardians in the Scottish Executive, are never, ever, going to do anything to save west Highland wild fish. This unholy alliance made an agreement to that effect more than a decade ago. Will the Sea Trout Group now take up the challenge and provide the real leadership that is needed to end this nightmare?
Finally, a bit of a stink - The only warning people get that something is seriously wrong on a fish farm is when it is wafted to them on the wind. It was days before Arnisdale residents on the shores of Loch Hourn in the West Highlands discovered that a quarter of a million farm salmon had died in cages in their loch, and they only found out then because of the stench of rotting fish drifting across the water into their homes.
It took Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Scottish Environment Pollution Agency who dishes out pollution consents to fish farmers, months to establish that these fake fish had suffocated. The fish farmer involved, Dutch owned Marine Harvest, eventually pleaded guilty by letter to the offence and was fined £500.
If the pong is nearer home, however, matters are dealt with rather more promptly. When SNH staff in Dingwall to the north of Inverness complained in April about a noxious reek in their work place the offices were immediately evacuated. A SNH spokeswoman reported "The smell is so bad that the staff just couldn’t stand it any more."
SNH did not have far to look for help - SEAP's regional office is right next door. SEAP brought in consultants to help them hunt down the source. Two weeks later the experts decided that the smell was coming from an open roadside ditch adjacent to the SNH offices and described in the local paper as being filled with stagnant water, covered with thick scum and weeds and what appeared to be a thin film of oil.
Who did SEAP finger as culprit? Step forward fish processors Edinburgh Smoked Salmon Ltd - producers of such tasty delicacies as Ardtaraig, Scottish Chieftain and Summer Isles smoked farm salmon. A surface drain from their plant discharged water directly into the ditch.