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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
"That which you have wasted will not be there for future generations"

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'Northern Climes, August 2004'

Most of the anglers that I know are, to a greater or lesser degree, ornithologists. They value the pleasure the presence of our feathered friends bring to a day on river or loch, and few areas of Scotland have a greater abundance of birdlife than Orkney and Shetland. These wonderful islands also have some of the finest wild brown trout fishing to be found anywhere in the world.

It is sad, therefore, to read ever-increasing reports of the collapse of breeding populations of species such as Arctic terns, skuas, guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmers. In July, Eric Meek of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) writing in ‘The Orcadian’ said, “The summer of 2004 seems destined to go down in history as the worst in living memory for our seabirds.”

Apparently, all the large Arctic tern colonies in the North Isles have already failed and by the end of June the only ongoing Arctic tern colony of any size was on Swona, where there were more than 1,000 adults and eggs were just hatching. According to Mr Meek, “More that half the birds have now left without rearing chicks, some chicks have died and there are a lot of abandoned eggs.”

The story is the same throughout the islands: “The Papay colony never had fewer than 1,000 birds, even in the bad years, but, this year, the hill was silent. The birds simply didn’t show up.” The Kittiwake colony at Marwick Head is down from 3,800 pairs to 1,300 whilst at The Noup numbers have fallen from 17,500 to 4,700. Mr Meek commented, “Everything that depends on fish for food seems to be doing badly. It is very sad. It is difficult to know if the birds are breeding elsewhere but they are certainly not in Shetland, they are doing even worse than us.”

I am not a scientist, nor a trained ornithologist, but I believe that the reason for this disaster is directly related to fish farming. Industrial fishing for sandeels, a primary food source for seabirds, has devastated sandeel stocks in the North Sea. They, and other species such as pout and capelin, are hovered up, mainly by Danish fishing vessels, and used to provide protein in farm salmon food. It takes 3 tonnes of these fish to produce 1 tonne of fake salmon and approximately 500,000 tonnes are taken for this purpose each year.

Thus, seabirds starve to death from lack of food. Instinctively, they don’t breed because they know that there will be nothing to feed to their chicks. Destroying the base of the food chain not only devastates seabirds, but also other species that depend upon these small fish for their survival, such as cod and haddock. White fish stocks are also in decline. Industrial fishing to satisfy the demands of the fish farmers is a disgraceful act of environmental madness motivated by sheer greed.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s even greater quantities of sandeels were taken, some years as many as 900,000 tonnes and this also effects the survival rates of wild salmon and sea-trout. The Salmon & Trout Association (Scotland), under the chairmanship of Lord Marnoch, addressed these issues vigorously and commissioned an independent study that suggested that industrial fishing for sandeels and declining wild salmonid stocks were indeed linked.

Smolts time their migration to sea to coincide with the greatest numbers of sand eels. Smolts have to feed quickly to gain size before something else eats them. If there are no sandeels present for them to eat, they die. The problem is further compounded by the life cycle of the sandeels themselves. They live for an average of five years, but do not reach sexual maturity until year three. 90% of the industrial fishing effort is accounted for by sandeels in the year class’s one and two, before they have had a chance to reach sexual maturity and to spawn.

This sorry state of affairs has been noted in this column many times over the past dozen years and the Scottish Executive and those who conduct negotiations in the EU over the common fisheries policy are well aware of the lunacy of industrial fishing. However, UK negotiators, rather than working to end industrial fishing, use it as a ‘bargaining counter’: if the Danes don’t complain about UK white fish quotas then the UK will not pursue an end to industrial fishing. The result is that nearly everybody is a looser - seabirds, white fish, salmonids and humans – apart, of course, that is, from the Dutch and Norwegian multinational companies that control the worlds fish farms.

Rod McGill