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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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'Northern Climes, August 2007'

Sid Patten, Chief Executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation has been fire-fighting recently. Following news that more than 100,000 farmed salmon have escaped from cages in the Western Isles, a complaint has been made to the EU by the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards (ASFB). The ASFB claim that the fish farmers and the UK government are in breach of EU habitat directives that require member states to protect their wild fish.

Mr Patten has rushed to the fish farmers defence and issued a statement that is, quite frankly, starkly unbelievable. He said, “The industry is making huge efforts to improve containment standards of fish, which, after all, represent our most valuable asset. Clearly, given some of the recent comments on this issue, it is a very emotive subject in some quarters. But predictions must be made on robust science, not supposition.”

He concludes: “There appears to be consensus that the decline of wild fish is multi-factorial, with issues such as climate change having an impact. We are eager to work with our wild fish colleagues to determine the extent of all potential impacts.”

Given that more than 4 million farmed salmon have escaped in recent years, and the continuing level of escapes, the “huge efforts” supposedly being made by the industry are not working and the impact that these escapes will have on wild salmon is not “supposition” it is scientific fact, as is evidenced by the result of the 10-year Burrishole study in Ireland.

Of course, the industry will claim that the Burrishole study is not relevant to Scotland because Irish rivers are different from Scottish rivers. Just how they justify that statement is unclear. Do they mean, for instance, that Irish salmon streams run uphill? Neither is there any “consensus” about the “multi-factorial” causes of the collapse in West Highland and Islands wild salmon and sea-trout numbers. It has been caused, and is being caused by disease and pollution from salmon farms.

Disease and pollution from these farms, and the huge number of farmed salmon that escape from their cages, is driving our wild fish to the point of extinction. And this is happening with the connivance of the very people who are charged with the duty of protecting our wildlife and natural habitat: national and local government, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

The danger to wild salmon from farm salmon escapees is well documented. As far back as 1994, seven North Atlantic countries with fish farming industries (Canada, US, Norway, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and the Faroes) signed the Oslo Agreement which included an undertaking to ‘minimise possible effects to wild salmon stocks from salmon aquaculture, and to minimise escapes of farmed salmon’.

The measures proposed to achieve this end were sound and practical; including alternative production methods, such as closed or contained floating facilities; tagging and marking fish to determine the source of escapes and to assess the interactions of escaped farmed salmon on wild stocks; the establishment of protection areas where salmon farming was restricted or prohibited.

The Olso Agreement specifically addressed the matter cage design: “The design of aquaculture units should be appropriate for their assigned site so as to optimise the containment of fish. The risk of escape of fish from aquaculture units as a result of storm or ice damage should be minimised by using appropriate technology for the prevailing conditions.” But, more than a decade later, nothing has been done and, since then, I estimate that upwards of 8 million farm salmon could have escaped from cages in Scotland into the wild.

The fish farmers and those who support this dirty business will disagree with these figures, but they are based on information promulgated by the fish farmers themselves. They claim that only 1% of their fish escape. Given that they will be putting 70 million smolts (young salmon) to sea this year, this indicates that they are expecting 700,000 to escape into West Highland and Islands waters. The total catch of wild salmon in this area is now less than 8,000. The sudden arrival of 700,000 fake fish will completely overwhelm native populations.

There is still time to save what remains of wild fish populations in the West Highlands and Islands. All that has to be done is to remove these farms from the migratory routes of wild salmon and sea-trout and bring the industry ashore where it can be continued in closed-containment, land-based facilities. Our wild fish would no longer be exposed to fish farm disease and could get on with doing what God intended for them, to breed and multiply.

This is happening in Orkney where there has been a down-turn in salmon farm activity; the numbers of wild sea-trout returning to their native spawning grounds has increased dramatically. But in spite of the fact that the Scottish Government are in denial about the mayhem fish farming has caused and is causing, help for our wild fish has come from an entirely unexpected direction, and from a leading figure in the fish farming industry itself, John Fredriksen.

Mr Fredriksen is one of the richest men in the world, and a salmon angler. He also just happens to be the largest shareholder in the world’s largest fish farm business, Marine Harvest; a company that has been identified by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency as one of Scotland’s top ten polluters, and from whose cages tens of thousands of farmed salmon have escaped over the years into the wild.

In a recent interview with the Norwegian newspaper Altaposten, John Fredriksen commented that he was “concerned about the future of wild salmon”. He is quoted as saying, “The fish farming industry should be allowed to operate in fjords, but not where wild salmon are present in local rivers.”

If anybody happens to see Sid, could they please tell him that he is living on another planet if he believes that his member’s farms are not the principal cause of the catastrophe that has engulfed our West Highland and Islands wild salmonids. And, just for the record, could he please tell us exactly who are the “colleagues” in the wild fish sector that he claims agree with him?

Rod McGill