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'Northern Climes, February 2003'

In the January/February 1998 edition of ‘Fly fishing and Fly Tying’, in this column, I said: “… don’t wait to send your donation in to the ‘Sea Trout Group’ – do it now. The Group is a joint Salmon & Trout Association/Scottish Anglers’ National Association venture, formed to try to save Scottish sea-trout and salmon stocks from the ungentle ministrations of the factory-salmon farmers – and to make Scottish Office politicians and fishery scientists face up to the very real probability of the imminent extinction of distinct populations of wild fish…”

I want to offer a sincere, humble and abject apology to the hundreds of anglers who contributed almost £140,000 to the Group in the belief that their money would be used as a fighting-fund to raise a legal action against the salmon farmers. I was horribly wrong. It can now be revealed that almost a third of the money so donated has been squandered, to no effect, on paying legal fees to several firms of Scottish lawyers.

The Group did mount a challenge against a fish farmer, alleging that sea lice pollution from his farm would kill wild fish. James Semple, a member of the Group, speaking to ‘The Herald’ (26/2/99) said, “We have being going round and round in circles with Sepa and the Scottish office, with nobody taking responsibility [for sea lice] despite the fact some sea trout populations are on the verge of extinction. We are doing this for everyone in Scotland.”

However, and in spite of receiving encouraging opinions from senior counsel in Edinburgh and London, experts in both Scots and EU law, a few days before the case was due to be heard, the Group withdrew its action on advice from lawyers. The Group then had to pay to the court the costs of the fish farmer’s lawyers, a sum in excess of £10,000, curiously included in the Group’s accounts as a “Refund”. Other legal expenses amounted to a further £31,000.

The Group has achieved nothing, and the whole shameful exercise is festooned with all the signs of mismanagement and bungling incompetence on a massive scale. No account of the Group’s proceedings or minutes of its meetings has been published. How the members of the Group were appointed is a mystery. A request to see a copy of the Group’s Constitution is unanswered a month after that request was made.

I find it remarkable that the Group could not obtain informed advice from its members, or from legally qualified members of either SANA or S&TA? The Chairman of S&TA, Colin Innes, and a member of the Group, is a partner in a senior Edinburgh law firm. Why, therefore, did the Group pay out £500 for legal advice on such a simple matter as to whether or not it should seek charitable status? Was it really necessary for the Group to spend £150 a throw (bottled water @ £24.00) on holding meetings at Edinburgh’s Caledonian Club?

As late as last January the Group was still paying out legal fees for advice that should have been available ‘in house’. When fish farmers Aquascot were discovered placing cages in Myre Bay in Orkney whilst its application to do so was the subject of an appeal to Scottish Ministers,  (Northern Climes Jan/Feb 2002), the Orkney Island Council, against the advice of its own lawyers, gave the firm retrospective approval. The Group was advised not to pursue this matter. The advice cost them £2000.

I have no doubt whatsoever that those involved honestly believed that they were acting properly, and acting in good faith. But the sad truth of the matter seems to be that they were singularly and sadly ill equipped to do so. The honourable thing for them to do now is to resign, immediately, en masse, before they commit any further blunders and imperil the £98,000 of anglers’ hard-earned cash that still remains in the fund.

In defence, the Group will ask you to believe that they had no option other than to drop their legal action, in order to protect the progress the Public Petition submitted to the Scottish Parliament by Allan Berry calling for a public inquiry into fish farming. This is not so. Colin Innes of S&TA clearly stated that Allen Berry’s petition would in no way affect the Sea Trout Groups action. Indeed, had the Group so wished, their case could have been continued to await the outcome of the petition?

So where do we go from here? What should happen to the £98,000? As the Sea Trout Group is constituted at present (do they have a constitution?) they are clearly incapable of using the money for its intend purpose: to raise a legal action against the fish farmers. There is a suggestion that some of the fund could be used to help Mark Vincent, the owner of the Loch Maree Hotel, to pursue an action against the fish farmer currently operating in Loch Ewe. But Mr. Vincent is a member of the Group. Would that be proper?

Another problem is the fact that Jane Wright, the last SANA President, and Professor David Mackay, current SANA President and former North Region Director of Seap, both firmly believe that consultation and learning to “live” with the fish farmers, rather confrontation with them, is the only way forward? Given this fact, is it likely that David Mackay will be anxious to pursue a legal action against the fish farmers?

Should the Group call it a day and return the money to those who donated it? They claim to have offered to do so, but many who donated money to the fund have no recollection of ever having received such an invitation. Should the Group offer support to the newly formed ‘Salmon Farm Protest Group’, which is taking direct action against the improprieties of fish farming?

I believe that The Sea Trout Group account should be frozen. That no further expenditure should be allowed. That an independent administrator should be appointed to manage the fund until SANA and S&TA resolve these matters. This has been a disgraceful episode in the history of both organizations. If they want to preserve their credibility, then they are going to have to come up with a full explanation of how this disaster occurred - and give an assurance that, in future, money solicited from anglers will be used for the purpose for which it has been given.

ROD MCGILL

List of Sea-trout Group Members:

Mrs Jane Wright, Helensburgh (Rtd.)
Keith Dunbar, Summer Isles Foods, Achiltbuie
James Semple, Glasgow
Jeremy Inglis, Oban
Andrew Wallace, Edinbrugh
Hon David Nall-Cain, Wooler, Northumberland
David Henderson, The Peir, Loch Leven (S&TA Scotland Director)
Ian Calcott, Airth
Mark Vincent, West Owersby, Lincolnshire
Ian Mutter, Edinbrugh (Treasurer)
Anthony Steel, Lockerbie (Chairman)
Michael Gass, Wilmslow, Cheshire
Patrick Fotheringham, Edinburgh (Rtd.)
Paul Knight, London (Director, S&NA)
Graham Crombie. Edinburgh
Mrs Fiona Willis, Dollar, Clackmananshire
Colin Innes, Edinburgh (Chairman S&TA Scotland)
Professor David Mackay, Huntley (SANA President)