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'Northern Climes, February 2007'

Scotland has long been famous for its salmon. In 1308, King Edward 11 of England, prior to invading his truculent northern neighbour to “crush the rebellion of Robert Bruce”, instructed his Chamberlin in Scotland to provide 3,000 salmon to feed the troops. In 1612, William Lithgow noted that salmon were one of the principal products exported from Scotland. Whilst in 1685, an English visitor commented that every river in Scotland “superabounds” with salmon.

In the mid-1800’s The Tay catchment alone could produced upwards of 100,000 salmon each year, whilst the owners of estates bordering the River Tweed promised their employees that they would not be fed salmon more than thrice a week. In modern times, the North East of England drift net fishery must have killed millions of salmon before its virtual closure in 2003. Thus the King of Fish has been pursued with ruthless fury for centuries, both by the indiscriminate, interceptory netting of salmon at sea and by the netting of the rivers that gave them birth. It is little wonder, therefore, given such enormous, unbridled and unrelenting pressure from netsmen, that from the 1950’s onward it became clear that something was wrong and that wild salmon and sea-trout stocks throughout Scotland were in decline.

It also seems clear, at least it does to me, that those charged with the responsibility of caring for this precious resource - the Scottish Executive (formerly the Scottish Office), district salmon fishery boards and the lairds who actually own Scotland’s salmon streams, failed miserably in their duty to do so. Even today, according to an email I received recently, wild salmon are still netted in the North Esk in the county of Angus, whilst thousands more are taken from the Montrose Basin.

Of course, other factors are involved in the gradual decline in wild salmonid numbers in Scotland, not the least of which is the impact of industrial fishing at the base of the food chain for species such as sandeels; an important food source for salmon and sea-trout and for other marine species and a wide range of seabirds. A decade or so ago, it was fashionable for those with a commercial interest in fisheries to blame the decline in wild salmon on factors over which they had no control, such as the El Niño effect; an oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific which has important consequences for weather around the globe. Today, these same people talk about global warming and suggest that this phenomena is responsible for the decline of salmon and sea-trout, and for the decline in sandeels and other fish stocks in the North Sea.

I honestly believe that the truth lies closer to home and is simply human greed. This is suggested by the impact of salmon farming on wild stocks since its commencement in the late 1960’s. Prior to that, the decline in wild fish numbers was apparent on both the east and west coasts of Scotland. However, when factory salmon farming expanded in the West Highlands and Islands in the 1980’s, wild fish numbers there collapsed; I think because these fish were being killed by sea lice from fish farms. In the east, where there are no salmon farms, the gradual decline continued.

It is useful also to look at the resurgence of wild salmon numbers in east coast rivers following the closure of the North East of England drift net fishery. Thousands more wild fish have returned to east coast rivers, in spite of global warming, whereas in many West Highland streams they are still most noticeable by their absence.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Executive (SE) has announced that it will not renew the lease of Scotland’s penultimate wild salmon netting station when it expires in November 2007. This news has been greeted with joy by those involved in sport angling for the King of Fish; the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards, (ASFB), Scottish Anglers’ National Association, the Atlantic Salmon Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association, and the Rivers and Fisheries Trusts of Scotland.

The netting station, at Strathy Point in North Sutherland, targets fish returning to rivers flowing into the North Sea; including the Naver which is much beloved of such rod-wielding luminaries as HRH Prince of Wales. There is, however, no truth in rumours that the SE succumbed to pressure from the great and good of rod-and-line angling to close the Strathy Station. The SE insist that their decision was taken solely to protect fragile stocks of wild salmon.

But the SE’s concern for wild fish never seems to extend to the West Highlands and Islands and, given that the SE has made it illegal to buy or sell rod and line caught salmon, it is now almost impossible for those eating out to find wild Scottish salmon on a restaurant menu. Which must be a great comfort to the SE’s friends, the fish farmers. Many restaurants do offer Scottish salmon but conveniently forget to mention that is the farmed variety, not the real thing.

It is also strange that West Coast river owners remain silent in the face of the decline of wild salmon in their rivers and lochs. Could it be because most West Highland lairds - with one or two exceptions - were themselves responsible for the catastrophe now overwhelming their wild fish? Fish farming could never have expanded without lairds leasing land-based sites to the industry from which to service their sea cages. Could it be that these lairds valued the fish farmer’s shilling (at approx. £40/50,00 pa) more than they valued the wild salmon and sea-trout in their streams?

THE ROD McGILL AQUACULTURE AWARDS FOR 2006

Man of the Year

Rhona Brankin, Scottish Executive former deputy environment minister, for her support of Scotland’s foreign-owned fish farmers. When Birds Eye, the frozen food producer, launched a television ad campaign promoting the quality of their wild fish products, Rhona Brankin rushed to defend the fish farmers. Ms Brankin complained to the Advertising Standards Authority saying that: “It would be unfortunate if, on the basis of this [Birds Eye] campaign consumers were wrongly turned away from eating healthy farmed salmon.”

Most Ridiculous Statement of the Year

Alte Eide, then chief executive officer of Norwegian-owned multi-national fish farm giant Pan Fish, to Reuters on 23rd June 2006: “Most hostile against salmon farming aren’t the people living [near the farms], it’s NGO’s in New York and people with summer houses in Scotland,” he said.

Litter Lout of the Year

West Minch Salmon Ltd for messing up Glendale in South Uist and breaching planning approvals at their sites at Loch Kearsinish and Loch Marulaig. Both sites were derelict when visited in November 2006. The remains of cages, with grass growing from their walkways, littered the lochs. The shore-based facilities were little better; bits and pieces of equipment, old nets, empty oil barrels, sunken boats and other rubbish. According to Western Isles Council, this should never have happened and both sites should have been cleared more than six months ago.

Brass Neck of the Year

Landcatch Limited’s Inverkerry Fish Farm, Gairloch. An independent audit report noted that a treatment record entry for the use of formalin showed that 70 litres had been used, more than three times the amount permitted by the Sepa discharge consent. When Sepa investigated they said: “From inspection of the records kept at Inverkerry, Sepa officers concluded it was not possible for them to obtain reliable information on the total mass of formaldehyde discharged from the site in any consecutive 24 hour period.” Sepa issued a formal warning to the company. A few days later, however, Neil Manchester, Landcatch operations manager, said “What we gave to Sepa contained everything they needed to make a judgment,” Fishy Story of the Year Kames Marine Fish Farm, Kilmelford, Argyll. When thousands of farm halibut were released from cages last year, animal rights activists were blamed for the incident; although a police investigation into the affair remains ongoing. Several hundreds of these escaped and reputedly healthy halibut were found dead on a nearby beach. When asked how these fish had died, the government’s fisheries research services, who investigated the incident, said that they had been told by the fish farmer that: “the fish died and were found in the shallows. Apparently, the fish swam towards the shore and were stranded when the tide receded.”

Ethical Marketing Award

Marks & Spencer, for their ‘Lochmuir’ salmon campaign. M&S, one of UK’s leading supermarket groups, runs an ethical marketing campaign that urges shoppers to “look behind the label” to persuade them that M&S is the most ethical place to shop. However, this did not stop M&S from inventing a fake Scottish loch to help them sell to their customers factory farmed salmon produced by a Norwegian-owned company. Andrew Mallinson, an M&S fish expert explained that the brand name, ‘Lochmuir’, was chosen by a panel of consumers because “It had the most Scottish resonance. It emphasises that the fish is Scottish.”

‘Yes Minister’ Award for 2006

The Scottish Executive’s Environmental Report for the Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Location/Relocation of Fish Farms Draft Programme Proposals. The Draft/Consultation Report, dated May 2006 at conclusion 8 noted: “The final scale of the environmental benefit derived from the preferred relocation programme will ultimately be dependent upon the quality of the criteria based assessment of each relocation application. The procedure for applying and weighing a set of agreed assessment criteria (arising directly from the programme principles) must be further developed and clarified.”

International Escape of the Year

300,000 farmed salmon from cages operated by Nelson-based New Zealand King Salmon. The company managed to loose, not just some cages, but a whole farm, about the size of a rugby field. According to NZ King Salmon ceo Paul Steere, a high tide and strong currents caused the farm to break loose from its moorings. As a result, the Tory Channel had to be closed to shipping as a safety measure as four tugs struggled to get the escaped salmon farm under control. |International intervention of the Year to Governor Claudio Leiva, Palena, Chile. The governor of Palena in Chile’s X Region ordered the Navy to remove all salmon breeding cages placed illegally by the Pacific Star Salmon Company at Estero Palvitad near Chaiten. Officials, under the terms of the Regulation of Aquaculture Concessions, have an obligation to order the removal of illegal cages by force, if necessary. Governor Claudio Leiva said, “I have signed the decree, therefore, the Navy is making sure that these cages are promptly removed.”

Rod McGill