The Salmon Farm Monitor
'Northern Climes, March 2007'
The Loch Maree Hotel in Wester Ross has finally closed its doors. In its heyday, the hotel employed some 30 people, including 11 full-time gillies. The contribution the hotel made to the local economy was significant and of great value in an area where other means of employment are few and far between. But as fish farming expanded in Loch Ewe from the 1980’s onwards, and sea-trout and salmon stocks declined because of the impact of fish farm sea lice on wild fish as they passed by their cages, anglers began to desert the loch. Fishing is still available on the loch, but the days when angling guests at the Loch Maree Hotel used to take upwards of 1,500 sea-trout each season are gone.
Will the glory days return? I honestly believe that they might, but only if the fish farm cages are removed. As reported in the May edition of this magazine, there is growing evidence that sea-trout numbers are increasing in Orkney, another location where sea-trout stocks have been blighted by fish farm sea lice: fish farming activity has dropped by 50% in Orkney in recent years and, yes, wild sea-trout are returning.
The same could happen in Shetland, Lewis, Harris and North Uist, and in lochs Stack, More, Eilt, Shiel and Loch Maree and all the other West Highland and Islands waters that have suffered so dreadfully because of the impact of fish farming. The time for ‘talking’ to the fish farmers has long since passed. Get these farms out of the water, now, and our wild salmon and sea-trout will attend to the rest.
Your correspondent nearly chocked on his porridge the other morning when he read UK press reports claiming that newly-devised, cutting-edge DNA research was going to help distinguish wild from farmed salmon. The Norwegians have been doing exactly that for at least two years - not only identifying farmed salmon, but also identifying the exact farm from which the farmed fish escaped.
But here in Scotland, DNA techniques were being applied to fisheries matters more than a decade ago, lead by Professor Christopher Todd at St Andrews University: 1997, CD Todd, AM Walker, K Wolff, SJ Northcott, AF Walker, MG Ritchie, R Hoskins, RJ Abbott, N Hazon; “Genetic differentiation of populations of the copepod sea louse Lepeophtheirus salmonis (Kroyer) ectoparasitic on wild and farmed salmonids around the coats of Scotland: evidence from RAPD markers”; Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 210:251-274
I reported on this at the time, and the then Scottish Office reaction to it. Here was a piece of research that was on the brink of being able to show, scientifically, that a specific sea louse on a wild salmon or sea-trout came from as specific fish farm. Something had to be done, quickly, otherwise the fish farmers could find themselves being sued to hell and back for killing wild salmonids.
If I remember correctly, and I think that I do, the Scottish Office immediately killed the programme, saying that there were more productive research avenues that could be followed. End of story. Yet again, with one bound, the fish farmers were free to continue spreading their sea lice to wild fish, thanks to their friends in high places.
Sid Patten of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) complained recently that “ill-informed critics of salmon farming” had tried to damage the progress of his industry. Nothing could be further from the truth: the fish farmers are more than capable of doing that by themselves without any help from their critics.
This is self-evident from Mr Patten’s interpretation of a report (March 2007) prepared for the RSPCA’s Freedom Food body by the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD). Mr Patten suggests that the report confirms that the public perceive all salmon as being farmed to the highest welfare standards.
This allegedly independent survey was conducted by telephone, asking 1,000 people for their views on farmed animal welfare matters. The geographical locations of the individuals contacted was not noted in the report, but the locations of the four focus groups established to support the survey was, and none were based in Scotland.
Having read the report, it is clear that the primary objective was to inform IGD members - supermarkets and other food retailers - of the best way to capitalise on the public’s growing concerns about how animals are farmed, and, by so doing, increase sales and profits. Why the RSPCA should be such a survey is beyond me, but as far as farmed salmon are concerned they are mentioned only once in the 66 page report.
Page 20 of the report uses a visual aid to show dairy cattle as having the best living conditions, followed by salmon. This conclusion, however, seems to based on a single comment made by a “female with a young family” in one of the IGD’s focus groups in Chorleywood. She said: “Well, with fish, they’re just swimming around the tank, like at the pet shop. That’s no different to swimming around in the sea.”
When I asked Freedom Food how many salmon farmers had signed up to their certification scheme, the told me that there were “11 and a half times the number of salmon in the scheme than in 2005”. But when I asked them exactly how many salmon farmers had signed up they were unable to provide details, because of a ‘glitch’ in their computer record system.
On my best estimate there may be six salmon farmers involved in RSPCA’s Freedom Foods scheme and the total annual production from these farms is probably less than 10,000 tonnes. But the total annual production from all Scottish farms is in the order of 130,000 tonnes - the bulk of which is produced by the Norwegian-owned company Marine Harvest who are members of Sid Patten’s SSPO - but not of the RSPCA’s Freedom Food programme.