The Salmon Farm Monitor
'Northern Climes, February 2004'
Salmo salar, the King of Fish, contributes a substantial amount of money to local economies. It provides sustainable employment in many remote communities through sport angling and the quality of Scottish salmon fishing is renowned world-wide.
But since the introduction of fish farming wild salmonid numbers have declined. The greatest impact has been in the west Highlands and Islands. Fish farms lie on the migratory routes wild salmon and sea-trout and parasitic lice from these farms attack and kill wild fish as they pass by. Wild salmon and sea-trout are extinct in some rivers and lochs where they once flourished.
Now, a group of American and Canadian scientists has published a report that shows that Scottish farm salmon is the most contaminated in the world. To avoid increasing exposure to cancer they advise consumers not to eat Scottish farm salmon more than three times a year.
The industry has reacted furiously, claiming that the report is flawed and a ‘conspiracy’ to damage the reputation of Scottish farmed salmon. The Food Standards Agency (FSA), the UK food safety watch-dog, assures consumers that farm salmon is safe to eat, in spite of the levels of contaminants. The Scottish Executive (SE) stresses that farm salmon is safe to eat and that the industry supports thousands of jobs in rural areas.
The response of the industry is predictable: they deny everything that shows fish farming is killing wild fish and polluting the coastal waters that they use as a personal toilet. FSA assurances are harder to understand. Sir John Krebs, FSA chief executive, admits that the matter has not been studied in UK since 1994. How, therefore, can they be so certain that farm salmon is safe? They say that their advice is in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) and the USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advice. But the WHO collected their data back in 1984 and the FDA has to take commercial considerations into account when arriving at their conclusions. The independent American report is based upon pure science.
Most worrying is the attitude of the SE. Rather than addressing the undoubted public health concerns that exist, they have aligned themselves with the industry; refusing all calls for an independent public inquiry into the levels of contaminants in farm fish. They say this is already being studied and that a report is expected later in the year.
But I have read the minutes of the committee the SE says has been charged with this task. I can find no mention there of any investigation into contaminant levels. The committee seems to have been set up to report on the matter of the health benefits to be obtained from eating oily fish. If I am wrong, I will apologise, but I think for the SE to pretend other wise is deceitful.
What is deceitful beyond all doubt, in my view, is the SE claim that the industry supports 6,500 in fragile remote rural areas. This is complete nonsense. The SE doesn’t know the number of jobs in fish farming, or how they are geographically spread. By their own admission they use the figure 6,500 jobs as “an indicator”; based upon flawed information gathered in 1998, prior to the outbreak of a killer salmon disease that devastated the industry, and ignoring job losses in sport angling caused by the decline in wild fish numbers.
On 30th September, I asked First Minister Jack McConnell for an explanation of why millions of pounds of tax-payer cash was being given to foreign-owned fish farmers on such a flimsy bases and if he would announce an independent public inquiry into the matter. One of his officials replied that there was no money available for such as study and neither was it necessary. However, in the wake of the news that Scottish farm salmon was the most contaminated in the world, the SE has announced plans to support fish farming through bank guarantees to the tune of £100 million pounds.
There is no doubt in my mind that fish farming is destroying Scotland’s wild fish and damaging Scotland reputation as a country that produces high quality food from a high quality environment. I vote with my mouth and never eat farm salmon. I hope that you, for the sake of your health and for our wild salmon and sea-trout, will do the same. At least until the Scottish Executive and the Food Standards Agency produce more compelling evidence of its safety and importance to the Scottish economy than they have so far managed to do.