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'Northern Climes, February 2006'

Lord Nickson, Scottish Salmon Strategy Task Force, 1997, Recommendation No 61:

“Clear planning policy guidance is required for fish farms. An independent regulatory body should be established with powers to control the siting of fish farms, inspect fish farms and enforce the adoption of measures to reduce the impact of fish farming upon wild salmon and sea trout populations and the marine and freshwater environment.”

Is anybody else sceptical about the true worth of the public consultation process surrounding the current Aquaculture & Fisheries Bill? Does anyone really believe that it is going to persuade the fish farmers to mend their ways and help protect our remaining West Highland and Islands wild salmonid stocks from fish farm disease and pollution?

The Consultation Paper and Draft Regulatory Impact Assessment was published in December 2005 and I have carefully studied all of its 86 pages. Annex D to the document was a Respondent Information Form and Consultation Questionnaire (51 questions), to be completed and returned to ‘Fisheries Bill Team’ in Edinburgh; or you could wade through the process online at www.scotland.gov.uk/Consultations .

Public meetings were held in Lerwick, Stornoway, Inverness, Aberdeen, Stirling, Dundee, Ayr and Peebles during January and early February, with tea and biscuits, when participants were divided into working groups guided by members of the Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill Team. Comments and suggestions from the ‘floor’ were studiously entered by an assistant on a flip chart, to be collated and made available for information to Scottish Ministers and MSPs.

I attended one of those meetings. Did I come away feeling confident that all of the concerns that I have expressed in this column for more than a decade were at last going to be addressed? That finally, the fish farmers were going to be brought to heel and held accountable in law for the impact that their activities have had and are having on our wild salmon and sea-trout populations and on our marine and freshwater environment?

Before sitting down to write this piece, I searched my bookshelves and files and extracted from them some of the reports, studies, documents and consultation papers relating to aquaculture that have come my way in recent years. I built them into a pile on my desk and measured their height: 1’ 6” - and those were just the ones that I had retained. For information, I have named some of them below:

  • The genetic impact of farmed Atlantic salmon on wild populations (August 1989)
  • Report on the Welfare of Farmed Fish, Farm Animal Welfare Council (Sept 1996)
  • Hydro-electric development in Scotland and its effect on fish (1996)
  • Report of the Scottish Salmon Strategy Task Force, Lord Nickson (Feb 1997)
  • Farming Salmon: A Briefing Book, Consultative Group on Biological Diversity (1997)
  • Marine Cage Fish Farming in Scotland, Regulation and Monitoring – SEPA (1997)
  • Locational Guidelines for the Authorisation of Marine Fish Farms in Scottish Waters (1997)
  • Sustainable Development Strategy for the Scottish Salmon Farming Industry (1998)
  • Economic Importance of Salmon Fishing and Netting in Scotland (1998)
  • Environmental Strategy, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (June 1998)
  • The Economic Impact of Scottish Salmon Farming, The Scottish Office (March 1999)
  • Final Report of the Joint Government/Industry Working Group on ISA (Jan 2000)
  • Tripartite Working Group, Wild and Farmed Salmoids – ensuring a better future (June 2000)
  • The One That Got Away, Friends of the Earth Scotland (June 2001)
  • The Economic Impact of Marine Harvest in the Highlands of Scotland (April 2002
  • Assessing and Managing the Impacts of Marine Salmon Farms on Wild Atlantic Salmon in Western Scotland: Identifying
  • Priority Rivers for Conservation (2003)
  • A Strategic Framework for Scottish Aquaculture, Scottish Executive (2003)
  • Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment Consultation paper (May 2005)
  • Summary of Responses to Extending Planning Controls to Marine Fish Farming (June 2005)

I think that it might also useful to consider the validity of the present ‘consultation’ process in the light of the vast sums of money being spent on scientific research, for the benefit of fish farmers. Here are just a few examples of some of these studies and how much they cost:

  • 2002/2005 Aquaculture General – Disease: Scientific basis for control zones: £918,237
  • 2002/2005 Salmonids – Disease: IPN Epidemiology: £487,520
  • 2003/2007 Salmonids – Disease: IPN Testing and Transmission: £943,500
  • 2003/2007 Salmonids – Disease: Ecology and Epidemiology of the sea louse: £466,000
  • 2004/2008 Aquaculture General – Disease: Environmental conditions that promote fish health and welfare through improved protection against disease: £524,375
  • 2002/2005 Marine Finfish – Disease: Limiting the disease impact from new species: £558,209

Given the existing wealth of research, why is the Scottish Executive so desperate to reinvent the wheel by means of yet another piece of, no doubt, toothless legislation. What further evidence do they need to convince them, beyond all reasonable doubt, that fish farm disease and pollution kills wild salmonids and pollutes our waters? Orri Vigfusson of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund never spoke a truer word when he said, a few years back, that we were studying our wild fish to death.

Alarm bells began ringing in my mind at the end of the meeting I attended. The fish farmers immediately engaged in a hearty bout of back-slapping and hand-shaking with the members of the Scottish Executive Aquaculture Bill Team who had been conducting the proceedings. Clearly, ‘all pals together’. Some of my colleagues who were at other meetings reported a similar level of bonhomie between the industry and those who are supposed to regulate it.

As such, I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the ‘consultation’ process and, indeed, the proposed Bill itself, is nothing other than a piece of pure public relations on the part of the Scottish Executive (SE). At the end of the day, Aquaculture Bill or not, I think that the SE will make sure that it’s business as usual for their fishing farming friends.

In his introduction to the 1997 Report of the Scottish Salmon Strategy Salmon Task Force, Chairman Lord Nickson, KBE, DL, commented, “We hope that the Report will become the foundation for the management, conservation and sustainable exploitation of Scotland’s salmon fisheries for many years to come.” As we say in Scotland, ‘Aye, right’.

Rod McGill