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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
"That which you have wasted will not be there for future generations"

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'Northern Climes, June 2006'

All of a sudden the press is full of glowing reports about the return of wild fish to West Highland rivers and lochs. In May it was the turn of Lochaber: Laurance Larmour, Director of the Lochaber District Salmon Fishery Board is quoted in several Scottish newspapers and in aquaculture industry websites, FishUpdate and IntraFish, saying:

“We are convinced that last year’s most encouraging runs of wild fish into our rivers is largely due to the excellent co-operation we have had from our colleagues in the fish farming industry to minimise numbers of sea lice. We hope that anglers will recognise the sterling efforts the industry is making in this direction….Whilst there is no room for complacency, we are optimistic that, by working closely with the local salmon farmers, stocks of wild fish will see continued improvement in the years to come.”

According to the report, in 2005 the River Lochy system, including the River Roy and River Spean, had its most productive season for 15 years. One angler is reported as having caught 40 salmon in two days in the upper, spawning, areas of the Roy (he was having time off from deer stalking and spinning the river). It is also alleged that the River Ailort and its headwater loch, Loch Eilt, reported its best season for “decades.”

Several sources have confirmed to me that that the River Lochy has achieved a dramatic recovery in salmon numbers, 1,281 salmon (90% grilse) in 2005 against a low point in 1998 when only 58 fish were recorded. Fish farm sea lice can be controlled effectively in the first year of the farm production cycle, which might account for the increase, but the average lice levels on sampled wild smolts migrating to sea during the second year of the cycle is still high enough to kill the little fish. This problem has yet to be addressed.

I have also found it almost impossible to obtain facts and figures to support the claims being made. I asked various sources for catch returns for the Lochy System for the past 15 years; if I could see the figures that show sea lice levels “at their lowest for 20 years”; details of the greatly improved catches on the other rivers and lochs mentioned, Coe, Cona, Scaddle, Ailort and Loch Eilt. At the time of writing of answer came there none.

From Loch Fyne in Argyllshire comes more ‘great news’ also widely reported in the industry trade papers: “The Argyll Fisheries Trust has now developed a five year Strategic Plan for the restoration of Atlantic salmon in the Upper Loch Fyne rivers. The cost of the plan is estimated at over £200,000. It says the plan has been made possible as a result of the excellent and continuing co-operation with the local fish farming industry.”

The report noted: “Fish runs had decreased substantially since 1990 to the extent that fishing [rod and line] virtually ceased… but since 2000 there has been a small but discernable improvement coinciding with increased dialogue and collaboration between local wild fish and fish farming interests… Crucially there is only one operator of fish farms in Loch Fyne, Pan Fish, and it has succeeded in bringing sea lice numbers in Loch Fyne under control.”

Loch Fyne was one of the earliest of the West Highland lochs to be blighted by disease and pollution from salmon farms. The principal salmon stream was the Fyne - until 1989 the Fyne was capable of producing between 200 and 250 salmon each season - it has been closed for fishing for a decade; as have been the other small streams that drain into Loch Fyne: Crdrae Burn, Leacann Water, Douglas Water, Array, Shira, Kinglas and Kilail near Otter Ferry.

Perhaps someone could correct me, please, if I am getting it wrong, but the way I read all this so-called ‘good news’ is that we anglers should be grateful to the fish farmers for stopping killing so many of our wild fish and that we should welcome them with open arms as ‘colleagues’ and ‘friends’; that after creating mayhem throughout the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland that we should all join hands and sing ‘for they are jolly good fellows’?

This disaster would never have happened if Scotland’s wild fish interests had intervened 26 years ago after the Loch Maree Hotel meeting when fish farm sea lice were first fingered as being responsible for the demise of our wild salmon and sea-trout. Instead, the bodies responsible for looking after the interests of wild fish and of those who fish for them decided that the best way forward was collaboration with the dirty business of fish farming.

One of the most depressing emails that I have ever received landed on my desk on 18th May, from Lawson Devery, Scottish Field Officer of the Salmon & Trout Association: “I have copied below an email from Andrew Wallace of the District Salmon Fisheries Board on the pressure the aquaculture industry is bringing to bear on the [Aquacultue] Bill. Please support us in contacting your local MSPs to go with the bill as it stands.”

Mr Wallace said, “Please can I urge you to get as many people mobilised as quickly as possible to counter what appears might be some very effective lobbying by industry members. The burden of this falls particularly on the angling lobby and I would urge S&TA, SANA and the Sea-Trout Group to get their members to act on this quickly. Letters, emails or ideally meetings with MSPs now will help to ensure that the Bill retains the key provisions we have been demanding for so long.”

Too little, too late, guys. Game, set and match to the fish farmers? We’ll see about that…

Rod McGill