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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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'Northern Climes, December 2005'

Those of us who fish for salmon, trout and sea-trout sometimes forget that other congregations in the great ‘church’ of angling confront similar problems to those which we salmonid anglers face; particularly when it comes to the decline in wild fish species. Two such groups are the Specialist Anglers’ Alliance and Sea Anglers’ Conservation Network. Find out more about their work by typing their names into your web browser.

The later group recently received a fulsome report about how wonderful industrial fishing was and how it did no harm to wild fish stocks; the report appeared to suggest that industrial fishing left more fish in the sea for human consumption than there would have been if there was no industrial fishing.

This report was produced by Dr Richard Alderson who heads a consultancy, Alderson Aquaculture, at Dalgety Bay in Fife and is associated with BioMar; a multi-national company with Scottish headquarters at Grangemouth and a “global supplier to the salmon, trout, seabass & seabream farming industries.”

However, many of the species targeted by the industrial fishery, such as sandeels, Norwegian pout and capelin, are at the base of the food chain. Other species higher up the chain depend upon these small fish for survival; cod, salmon, sea-trout and many seabirds, puffins, terns, guillemots and others.

The North Sea sandeel fishery has now been closed but until it closed upwards of 800,000 tones of sandeels were being taken each year, for at least the past 20 years. These fish were used to produce protein-rich food for farm animals, including farmed salmon and trout.

Dr Alderson said that it was possible exploit the fishery because it was ‘sustainable’. However, sandeels live for 5 years and do not reach sexual maturity until year 3. Approximately 80% of the fish being caught were in the Year 1 and Year 2 class - before they had had the opportunity to reproduce.

The depletion of sandeels by industrial fishing is directly linked to the gradual decline over the same period of wild salmon and sea-trout. When smolts leave their freshwater environment to go to sea, they do so in late April/May when there will be the greatest abundance of sandeels there for them to eat.

If there are no sandeels, or not enough sandeels, then these wild fish starve to death or are eaten by something larger than they are.

Non-industry calculations suggest that it takes more than 3 tonnes of industrial fish to produce 1 tonne of farmed fish. Even if the ratio were 1:1, as Dr Alderson claimed, surely there can be no justification in replacing vital wild fish with manufactured fish, purely for financial gain?

In the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the impact of fish farm sea lice compounds the problems faced by wild fish. Parasitic sea lice breed in billions on farm salmon and attack wild fish as the pass by on their migratory routes. Some distinct populations of wild salmonids in that area are now extinct.

Small fish at the base of the food chain are processed and fed to caged salmon because it is relatively cheap and convenient to do so. The food formula is designed to speed the growth of captive salmon and get them to slaughter weight as quickly, and as cheaply, as possible.

Thus, farm salmon is one of the fattiest food products on the supermarket shelf. The high fat and oil content of the food fed to these fish so dilutes their faeces that caged salmon spend most of their brief lives (18 months) swimming around in their own excrement.

Also, as was shown in the USA/Canadian study published in Science magazine, the concentration of PCB’s and dioxins in industrial fish fed to farm salmon in Scotland was so high that the researchers suggested it was only safe to eat Scottish farm salmon four times a year. Wild fish, because they have wider access to a wider range of food are less contaminated.

Dr Alderson argued that the majority of the industrial fishing effort was in South America, so we should not worry too much about its impact. Such arguments are, in my view, obscene. The economy of many people in these areas, such as Chile, is dependent on fishing. The impact of industrial fishing, driven by the need to provide food for farmed fish, puts livelihoods at risk, as does the massive expansion in fish farming that has taken place there.

Chile is fast becoming the largest producer of farm fish in the world. In the process of doing so, untreated waste from their farms has been linked to the unique appearance of vast toxic algal blooms. One such bloom, two years ago, closed down all fishing in an area round the Island of Chiloe (about the size of Ireland). Riots broke out and the Chilean government had to declare a state of emergency and bring in troops to restore order.

All of these concerns are dismissed by government and aquaculture industry apologists; danger to public health; damage to wild fish; toxic algal blooms that poison shellfish; the collapse of seabird breeding populations; job losses in angling tourism; the degradation of our marine and freshwater environment.

Throughout the world, from South Africa to Iceland, Australia to British Columbia, everywhere that fish farming takes place, concerned individuals and non-government groups have shown that the impact of industrial fishing and the operation of fish farms damages wild fish and the environment.

Global warming might be very bad news for Planet Earth, but it has been a God-sent excuse for government ministers and civil servants who support and protect fish farmers. I honestly believe that much of government has now become little other than a ‘branch office’ of industry, bought and paid for to do its bidding. This is why we need voices like the Specialist Anglers’ Alliance and Sea Anglers’ Conservation Network. Good luck to them in all their endeavours.

Rod McGill