The Salmon Farm Monitor
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, March 2005'

Escapes happen. Particularly from the salmon farms that now adorn most sea lochs in the Scottish West Highlands and Islands. During last January’s storms fish farmers in the Outer Hebrides lost upwards of three quarters of a million fish from their cages. The impact of these escapees on native salmon populations threatens the survival of our wild fish.

Wild salmon have lived and thrived in Scottish waters since the end of the last Ice Age. Today, they are at their lowest level since accurate records began in 1952. Over the past twenty years alone, wild salmon numbers have fallen by 45% whilst the production of farm fish has increased 55-fold. As more and more farm fish escape, fewer wild salmon survive.

Farm salmon may look similar to their wild cousins, but there the resemblance ends. When a wild salmon is 18 months old it weighs a few ounces and is about 6 inches long. It still lives in the river where it was born, having survived predation from other fish and fish-eating birds. Eventually, after approximately a further six months, it migrates to the sea.

In salt water, the small salmon has to eat as much as possible as quickly as possible to avoid been eaten by something larger than itself. Having done so, the little fish begins an amazing journey to reach the rich feeding grounds around Greenland and Iceland. Wild salmon know, instinctively, when and how to return to their river of origin to spawn. Exactly how they navigate across the ocean is not understood, perhaps they are guided by the stars, but the salmon will find its home river, and the exact place in that river where it was born.

By comparison, an 18 month old farm salmon has already been killed, filleted, sliced and is on a supermarket shelf. The farm fish is produced by artificial insemination and reared in a hatchery. Once it reaches smolt size, it is transferred to a freshwater cage where it feeds constantly and is inoculated against a raft of diseases. It is fed a diet high in fat and oil to make it grow rapidly when it is transferred to seawater cages. There, in close proximity to thousands of other artificially-reared fish, it lives out its brief life until slaughter.

Unless, that is, it escapes. If it does, it will try to emulate wild fish and find a river in which to breed. Male farm salmon are more aggressive in mating than wild salmon, and, thus, they out-compete wild fish. Where farm salmon successfully interbreed with wild fish, they reduce the genetic integrity of wild fish. This is happening in Scotland and that is why escapee farm salmon pose such a threat to our wild fish.

The January gales, when so many farmed fish escaped, were exceptional, but not entirely unknown; as anyone who has lived in the far north will confirm. One of the most serious incidents happened in farm cages in Loch Seaforth where, initially, it was reported that all of the 20 cages on the site, each containing approximately 50,000 fish, had been damaged. The fish farmer subsequently insisted that only 10 of his cages had been damaged and that 60% of the stock had been ‘saved’, using gill nets to recover the escaped fish.

However, an eye witness of the Loch Seaforth escape has a different recollection of what happened. He claims that the day after the escape Loch Seaforth resembled a scene from biblical times; the water appearing to ‘boil’ as tens of thousands of farm fish splashed on the surface. He says that by the time the fish farmer arrived the following day with gill nets the farm salmon had gone.

The January gales also seem to have been strangely selective in choosing which salmon farms to ‘hit’. For instance, the Scottish Executive (14/2/05) had “not been informed of any escapes from fish farms in Orkney or Shetland, during the recent storms.” Nevertheless, reports in the ‘Orcadian’ and ‘The Shetland Times’ indicate that the islands were devastated by the force of the tempest, and both islands have fish farms in abundance.

But in the Hebrides, the storm appears to have vented its full fury specifically on farms in South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist, where, according to an industry-insider, 120,000 fish (in the 2lb/3lb weight range) escaped from their cages. Farms in this area are under a Temporary Control Zone and Surveillance Zone order, imposed by the Fisheries Research Services because of the suspected presence of the salmon killer disease, Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA) The order controls “the movement into and out of the farm of all fish.”

Prior to the storm, hundreds of tonnes of Uist farm salmon had been slaughtered and buried in a quickly constructed dump on the machair. Exactly how many farm salmon escaped and which farms they escaped from, and whether or not these fish were infected with ISA is not clear. What does seem clear, however, is that we will never know because the fish have unfortunately escaped – and will, if infected, transfer the ISA disease to wild stocks.

The Scottish Executive (SE) has a duty to protect our wild salmonids, but so far the SE has done nothing to curtail escapes. As such, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a ‘hidden agenda’ behind their masterly inactivity. To conclude that a decision has been taken to sacrifice our West Highlands and Islands wild fish on the altar of the perceived economic and social benefits that fish farming is supposed to bring.

The appointment of fish biologist Dr Colin Bull to head a £3 million pound project to improve conditions for salmon in eight key Scottish rivers exemplifies the SE’s abandonment of any pretence to control fish farm escapes; all the target rivers, bar one, the Bladnoch in south West Scotland, are on the east coast – miles away from any salmon farms.

The work being done to preserve and protect wild salmon in Scotland’s major rivers is commendable and there is every reason to be confident that their salmon will survive. But will wild salmon survive in the magnificent lands of the West Highlands and the Hebrides and Northern Isles? That remains in the gift of the Scottish Executive. Those who love and revere Scotland’s King of Fish, salmon salar, ‘the leaper’, can only hope that they give us that gift.

Rod McGill