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'Northern Climes, October 2005'

Do fish farm sea lice damage wild fish?

Remarkable though it might seem to anglers who know and love the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the Scottish Executive (SE) still refuses to accept that the collapse in wild salmonid stocks in that area is directly linked to the expansion of fish farming, and that sea lice from these farms kill wild salmon and sea-trout.

A spokesman for First Minister Jack McConnell said recently, “It is selective in the extreme to assert that wild stocks have declined directly as a result of aquaculture operations – many river stocks were in decline long before aquaculture was established on the West Coast – and leading scientific opinion tells us that there are many external factors (historical, cyclical and current) impacting on wild stock levels.”

I would like to draw this statement to the attention of those who advocate collaboration with the fish farmers; the Scottish Anglers’ National Association and Salmon & Trout Association, (and their ‘love-child’, the Sea Trout Group), District Fisheries Boards, West Coast Fisheries Trusts, compliant politicians and other groups who believe that through reasoned debate the aquaculture industry can be persuaded to clean up its act.

Given that the SE doesn’t recognise that sea lice are a primary cause of the decline in west coast wild fish, what possible point can there be in entering into so-called meaningful discussions to solve the sea lice damage problem when one of the major parties to these discussions says there is no problem? Why would anyone want to waste their time doing so?

Those who follow these matters might also have noticed a significant difference in the opinions expressed on behalf of Jack McConnell: the removal of any mention of east coast salmonid stocks. In the past, to support claims that fish farms were not linked to the decline in west coast wild stocks, the Minister’s advisors always used to assert that wild fish numbers were also in decline on the east coast, where there were no fish farms.

Why so coy now? Could it be because wild salmon numbers in east coast rivers, where there are no (bar one) fish farms, have significantly recovered whilst in the west and in the islands, where there are several hundred fish farms, wild salmon are still sliding towards extinction? Thus it would be ridiculous for the SE to try to maintain the east coast/west coast fiction that fish farms are not directly implicated in the collapse of wild salmon and sea-trout.

Amazingly absent from the list of bodies noted above is the one organisation that should be leading the fight to save our West Highland and Islands wild salmon and sea-trout: Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

SNH claims “Our task is to secure the conservation and enhancement of Scotland's unique and precious natural heritage - the wildlife, the habitats and the landscapes which have evolved in Scotland through the long partnership between people and nature.” But SNH doesn’t seem to consider west coast salmonids to be part of “Scotland’s unique and precious natural heritage,” at least I have seen no evidence to suggest that they do.

Why has the body charged with the responsibility of caring for our irreplaceable heritage remained resolutely silent about the continuing destruction of a precious part of that treasure?

The only possible reason I can think of is that the SE, who control SNH funding, have told them not to interfere. Whilst SNH spends hundreds of thousands of tax-payer pounds on the reintroduction of beavers, extinct for 400 hundred years in Scotland, they ignore the plight of wild fish that have thrived here since the end of the last Ice Age.

Surely Jack McConnell and SNH must be aware of the raft of scientific of evidence, not only from Scotland but also from around the world, Canada, Norway, Ireland, which shows that fish farm sea lice do indeed kill wild salmonids? Professor David Mackay, when North Region Director of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency is on record as saying that the damage fish farm lice cause wild fish should be accepted as being “beyond all reasonable doubt.”

Dr Richard Shelton, formerly principal officer at the SE freshwater fisheries laboratory in Pitlochry famously asserted that the link between the decline in West Coast salmonids and fish farm lice was “as plain as the nose on your face.”

The SE also refuse to accept that the fish farmers receive millions of pounds of public money to support their activities: “It is wholly inaccurate to assert that the aquaculture industry receives millions of pounds of public money….”

But Highlands and Islands Enterprise (and its predecessor body, The Highlands and Islands Development Board), local enterprise companies and local authorities, have been funding aquaculture for almost two decades; £4 million pounds to Link Aquaculture to fast-track development; £10 million pounds from Shetland Island oil reserve fund paid directly to fund fish farmers; £1 million pounds for advertising; the £27 million pound bid to the EU for future financial support for Scottish aquaculture.

The SE refuses to conduct an independent inquiry into the number of jobs it says the industry supports, which varies almost day by day depending upon who is speaking and the state of the industry; one morning in might be 7,500 jobs, the next, upwards of 10,000.

The same is true in connection with the alleged value of salmon farming to the Scottish economy; sometimes £250 million, sometimes £500 million, and I once read that the figure was £850 million per annum. The reality of the situation is that the SE doesn’t have a clue about how many jobs aquaculture supports, or its true value, at least that is how it seems to me. All that seems to matters to them is to prevent any kind of independent, public inquiry into these murky depths.

Rod McGill