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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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'Northern Climes, November 2003'

Cloud cuckoo land

In the murky armpit of fish farm politics, fake salmon growers have no better friends or allays than those supposedly charged with protecting the environment from fish farm filth and pollution - the Scottish Executive.

Worried by the multiplicity of complaints from the public about the impact fish farming has on wild fish and the marine and freshwater environment, the executive dishes out a standard response that exonerates their chums of all blame for the decline of wild salmon and sea-trout in the Scottish West Highlands and Islands.

The letter, from the environment and rural affairs department in Edinburgh and signed by Mr. Paul Shave, fish health and welfare department, is, I honestly believe, a transparent pack of half-truths and obfuscation that might just as well have been written by the fish farmers themselves.

“Salmon and sea trout stocks had been declining for years before we had a sea cage fish farming industry”. Yes, but they utterly collapsed along the west coast after the expansion of fish farming in the late 1980’s.

“Farm fish sea lice are not driving wild fish to extinction for the simple reason that there are very few sea lice on Scottish fish farms.” How can he possibly know that this is true? Easy, the fish farmers told him so.

“Pollution is not an issue because of the limits placed on fish farms in the form of biomass [weight of fish in cages] consents from sepa (Scottish environment protection agency).” But most fish farmers now produce their own data on the carrying capacity of receiving waters, not sepa.

“The profusion of mussel growth on fish farm cages demonstrates just how benign finfish farming is to shellfish farming.” Poisoned mussels collected from fish farm from cages in Loch Seaforth (Western Isles) hospitalised 43 diners who ate them at a London restaurant a few years ago.

“It [fish farming] provides 6,500 jobs in remote rural areas where there are few alternatives.” Utter nonsense, as has been demonstrated time and time again in this column (see below).

“Fish farming is …..of increasing importance as offshore oil production begins to decline.” The industry is in near melt-down mode. Financial losses are astronomical. Sooner rather than later the multi-national companies that control this dirty business will decamp to other climes, such as Chile, where production costs are far lower than they are in Scotland.

Tragically, by then, however, thanks to the likes of Paul Shave and the Scottish Executive, Scotland’s west coast wild salmonids will have been consigned to history.

Jobs for the boys?

A flurry of fish farm industry denials greeted recent claims in this column that foreign workers, many of them illegal immigrants, were the backbone of Scotland’s fish processing business. But the allegation appears to be founded on fact. In July, when immigration officials raided Amazon Seafoods at Kyle of Lochalsh in the West Highlands, they arrested seven of twenty-five Polish and Czechoslovakian workers at the plant. The remainder was given two weeks to leave the country.

Having lost its immigrant work force, and there being a distinct lack of local people clamouring to take their place, it seemed likely that the Amazon Seafoods plant would have to close. At the same time in Stornoway on the Island of Lewis 39 jobs went at Western Isles Seafood, including the cadre of students and foreign backpackers that the firm said they “relied on to maintain production.” A further 82 jobs went when the Dutch-owned company Marine Harvest closed its fish processing plant on the island.

None of these job losses, or jobs lost through the impact of the ISA (infectious salmon anaemia) outbreak, the introduction of labour-saving feeding platforms, over-production and catastrophic financial losses, seem to have reduced the number of jobs industry apologists claim that it supports in Scotland. The reverse is true. Miraculously, employment has increased from 6,500 to 8,000!

Late news

When Marine Harvest closed their Stornoway fish processing plant (see above) they justified their decision to do so on the grounds that they had to close the plant so that they could deliver a better and more efficient service to their customers. A mainland-sourced product, they claimed then, could be delivered faster to market than product from the Stornoway plant. Allegedly, it had nothing to do with making cost savings because of rock bottom fake salmon prices.

With an unexpected up-turn in farm salmon prices, suddenly it’s all change in Stornoway - the company has announced that the plant is to reopen! Does that suggest that Marine Harvest will be dispatching fish to market that might not get there as fast as they should? The company doesn’t say, but it does highlight yet again the tenuous nature of jobs in fish farming. These jobs are only secure for as long as market prices for farm salmon can support them. Otherwise, tough luck and bye bye workers. After all, business is business, not a charitable institution.

A little Technetium 99 with your salmon, Madam?

Also reported in this column last year, the spectre of Technetium 99, radioactive waste from the Sellafield nuclear power plant in Cumbria, has come back to haunt the salmon farmers. In July, the Food Standards Agency confirmed the presence T99 in farm salmon on sale in Sainsburys, Tesco, Asda, Safeway, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer stores in London.

Further fish-mire hit the fan when American researchers claimed that a Scottish sample taken from a Shetland farmed fish contained far higher levels of cancer-causing PCB’s than fish from Iceland, Canada and the USA. Sepa, The Food Standard’s Agency and the Scottish Executive have assured consumers that the level of these substances in farm salmon does not represent a hazard to those who eat the fish.

Treatment, not cure.

Finally, these naughty old ‘naturally occurring’ toxic algal blooms are back in the news. An EU funded project aims to try to find ways of removing them from shellfish, particularly PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning), considered to be most dangerous. Given that there is not a single recorded instance of toxic algal blooms anywhere in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland prior to the expansion of fish farming in the late 1980’s, perhaps the simplest way of removing toxins would be to remove that which almost certainly encourages them, fish farm disease and pollution?

Rod McGill