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'Northern Climes, September 2005'

G.Salaris, arriving at a river near you soon?

An announcement from fish farm giant Marine Harvest has the potential to cause enormous and irreversible damage to Scotland’s wild salmonids. But it appears to have passed almost unnoticed by the organisations that represent angler’s interests in Scotland: Salmon & Trout Association and Scottish Anglers’ National Association.

Harvard Grontvedt, managing director of Marine Harvest (Scotland) Limited, announced in June that his company was considering closing down its Scottish broodstock farms at Grimshader in Lewis, Loch Sheilavaig in South Uist, Waternish in Skye and Ardnish at Lochailort.

Mr Grontvedt said: “These are challenging times for the salmon farming industry and we have to constantly look at ways of becoming more efficient. It is more economical to buy in our eggs than to produce them ourselves. These changes are part of the efficiency programme we announced in May, following the merger of Marine Harvest and Stolt.”

It now seems likely, therefore, that the company might begin to bring in eggs from Norway to be ongrown in Scotland. The only voice so far raised in alarm has been that of Highland Council vice-convener Michael Foxley: “This is very disappointing if this means that eggs will be taken in from places such as Norway, with all the questions about disease and the genetic effects should any of these escape,” he said.

The salmon-killer disease, G.salaris, was first identified in Norway in the 1980’s and is now endemic in that country. The disease has wiped out salmonid stocks in more than 40 Norwegian rivers. Whole systems have been poisoned in an attempt to eradicate the disease, but to no avail. Nobody can deny the fact that it could come to Scotland, possibly through infected eggs.

The disease is present in waters in Sweden and Finland, where it does not impact on Baltic salmonids. Norwegian fish farmers introduced Baltic stock to their farms, assuming that Atlantic salmon would also be G.salaris resistant. They were tragically wrong and many of Norway’s magnificent salmon rivers have paid the price.

G.salaris is a flat-worm parasite and it has since been transferred throughout Europe; to Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, France and Spain. It is thought that this as a result of the movement of fish and fish eggs, particularly rainbow trout which seem to be more immune to the disease.

If G.salaris were to arrive in Scotland the result would be devastating. Whilst it might be possible to control the spread of the disease in Norwegian streams, there would be little chance of doing so in Scotland’s major salmon rivers, Tweed, Tay, Dee and Spey, because of their enormous catchments and many tributaries.

No doubt the Scottish Executive will be able to explain why this could never happen here - strict controls, certified disease-free eggs, inspections and safeguards already in place – the usual Yes Minister-speak. But neither is there any doubt in my mind that should Marine Harvest decide to and be allowed to import Norwegian eggs, then G.salaris might soon be arriving at a river near you.

All the so-called precautions, rules and regulations and strict controls failed to stop infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) appearing in fish farm cages Loch Nevis in the West Highlands in May 1998. Why should anyone believe that similar rules can stop G.salaris from arriving as well?

My belief is that ISA was introduced to Scotland by the Norwegian company Norske Hydro, who, at that time, operated a hatchery on the banks of the River Beauly at Eskadale. Some of the fish that were confirmed with ISA in Loch Nevis were of Norwegian origin and came from the Eskadale hatchery.

The Scottish Office (now Scottish Executive) refused to make public the source of the ISA diseased fish, claiming ‘commercial confidentiality’ on behalf of the fish farmers. However, two weeks before the announcement that ISA had been confirmed in Loch Nevis, the Eskadale hatchery was closed. ISA has continued to plague fish farmers throughout the world, from Chile to Canada, from Faeroe to Scotland.

Then, of course, there is the question of escapes. Michael Foxley surprised me by his comment “should there be any escapes.” Our coastal waters and rivers and lochs are now awash with escaped fake salmon and rainbow trout; 700,000 farm salmon alone during last January’s storms; rainbow trout currently infesting Loch Etive and the River Awe, and Loch Lochy and the River Lochy in the Great Glen.

Over the past four years millions of deformed farm salmon have escaped into the wild. And still the Scottish Executive refuses to take the matter seriously. In spite of the fact that fish farmers are required by law to immediately report escapes, the Scottish Executive and Fisheries Research Services are invariably the last to know, often being alerted to an incident by concerned anglers.

The total annual Scottish catch of salmon by all methods in recent years has averaged in the order of between 50,000 and 60,000, very few of which come from the West Highlands and Islands where all the fish farms are located. Upwards of 60 million fake fish are produced each year. When they escapee they swamp local rives and compete with wild fish for finite spawning space and food.

They interbreed with wild fish, thus degrading the genetic integrity of wild salmon, making them successively less able to survive in the wild. In Norway, it is estimated that 50% of the salmon in their rivers are of farm origin. A 10-year study in Ireland of the Burrishole system concluded that within a few generations wild fish were degenerating because of interbreeding with escaped farm salmon.

The solution, as Dr Richard Shelton once famously said about the link between fish farm sea lice and the decline in West Highland salmonids, “is as plain as the nose on your face”. Get these cages out of our coastal waters and freshwater lochs now, before it is too late. If we don’t, then, eventually, our wild salmon will be replaced with fish farm freaks – that is if G.salaris doesn’t get them first.

Rod McGill