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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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'Northern Climes, May 2007'

One of the saddest sights in Scotland runs like an open wound through the heart of Perthshire: the waterless, rocky bed of the River Garry. Apart from after torrential rain, from Struan northwards the river is devoid of water for most of the year. It is also devoid of fish, including the salmon that used to spawn there and which are adjudged to have been an important component of the Tay’s once famous spring salmon run. Now, there is little flow in the river for 13 miles and salmon have been extinct since water extraction for hydro works were completed in the 1950’s.

As a boy, this is where I first saw a salmon. It was negotiating the Struan Salmon Leap on its journey to ancestral spawning grounds. The memory of that moment has been a cornerstone of my angling life. Although I rarely fish for salmon, it fuelled my determination to do all that I could to preserve and protect this miracle creature.

Help, however, may be at hand for this once perfect little Highland stream and it comes from an unexpected source: the European Parliament though the auspices of the European Water Framework Directive. The Directive requires member countries to remedy damage caused by over-abstraction of water from rivers like the Garry.

But already the ‘battle-lines’ have been drawn. Scottish and Southern Energy plc (SSE), who take the water, has lobbied the Scottish Executive requesting that no cuts in their electricity generation should be made to satisfy the Directive’s requirements. Instead, they have allegedly offered to restore a modest flow to the river by exchanging water to it from the River Spey catchment - to the dismay of river boards there.

Not good enough, says Dr David Summers, fisheries manager of the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board (TDSFB): “We have no doubt that the SSE’s proposal fails to address the fundamental problems. To make a significant difference, the Garry requires at least 60% more flow than that which SSE proposes and a short period of even higher flows in the autumn.”

Dr Summers forecasts that significant ecological, social and economic benefits would arise from a restored River Garry: “Such an improvement could be made for as little as the equivalent of 3.5 to 4 wind turbines’ worth of electricity,. This is not a significant issue in national energy terms, bearing in mind that the River Garry is the worst example of this kind of damage [excessive water abstraction] in the country,” he said.

And who is going to make the decision on whether or not the Garry is restored to its former glory with water enough to sustain and maintain a healthy population of wild salmon? Step forward the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), the ‘lead’ agency in this matter. Given the current plight of wild salmon in the West Highlands and Islands and recurring toxic algal blooms where no such blooms should be, might I be forgiven for being less than optimistic about what SEPA decide to do for the Garry?

To find out more about the TDSFB’s campaign to restore the River Garry, log on to the Board’s website at http://www.tdsfb.org/GarrySummary.htm To support the work of the board, contact Dr David Summers on info@tdsfb.org

Meanwhile, in the Western Isles, these naughty old poisonous toxic algal blooms have been busy again. In June, Scottish officials warned that eating shellfish from two sea lochs, Loch Leurbost and Loch Erisort on the east coast of the Island of Lewis, could make people sick. In the same month, Western Isles Council warned that raised levels of algal toxins in Loch Barraglom and East Loch Roag on the west side of the island could also pose a risk to people eating mussels, scallops, or cockles harvested from these lochs.

Until the expansion of fish farming in the Western Isles in the late 1980’s there had not been a single recorded instance of a toxic algal bloom in any Hebridean water. Since then, they have become a recurring, year-round, fact of life. The Scottish Executive and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency insist that the tens of thousands of tons of untreated waste discharged each year from fish farms into Scottish coastal waters are not implicated in the recurrence of these outbreaks.

It seems, at least it does to this observer, that such a position is untenable, given that it has been estimated that the volume of untreated waste from Scotland’s fish farms is estimated to be similar to untreated waste from a human population of 10 million people. It is also a matter of record that the majority of the most serious and long-lasting outbreaks of toxic algal blooms occur in areas where fish farms operate.

The Norwegian parliament is to be congratulated for voting recently to designate 29 of Norway’s fjords and 52 of its river systems as national sanctuaries to protect the country’s wild salmon. It is sad, therefore, that Norway does not afford the same environmental courtesy to other countries, such as Scotland, where it is involved in factory salmon farming.

Upwards of 80% of all Scottish farmed salmon comes from Norwegian-owned farms in the West Highlands and Islands where every available sea loch now hosts fish farms on the migratory routes of our wild salmon and sea-trout. Sea lice from these farms attack and kill wild salmon and sea-trout as they pass by cages, and it is widely accepted that, because of sea lice infestations, many distinct populations of Scotland’s wild salmonids have been brought to the verge of extinction.

A primary aim of the Scottish Executive’s much-vaunted Tripartite Working Group (TWG) was to remove fish farms from the migratory routes of wild salmon. In return, the fish farmers have been given permission to greatly increase the production capacity of new, much larger farms. Three years ago a senior member of the TWG told your correspondent that the relocation of inappropriately sited fish farms was a top priority for the TWG. Can you guess the number of fish farms that have been relocated since then? Not a single, solitary one. It’s business as usual for the fish farmers.

Rod McGill