Motion to M&S: Is it possible that we will see a motion put before the Scottish Parliament to demand that British retailer Marks and Spencer releases information about the environmental and welfare standards of the farmed salmon they sell? The answer is probably not, but a motion has been brought before the Parliament demanding similar information about the French quality label, ‘Label Rouge’. Those reading this might wonder what connection exists between a British retailer and a French food quality label.

The answer can be found in a motion brought by the Scottish Green Party calling on Label Rouge to release its environmental and welfare standards before the Scottish salmon industry celebrates its 25th anniversary of the award of the label to farmed Scottish salmon. The motion states that the Parliament ‘understands that a 2011 report by the University of Victoria gave ‘Label Rouge’ a red rating for its environmental impacts’. The connection with Marks & Spencer is that the same report also gave the retailer a similar red rating. However, we wonder whether those who brought the motion have even seen this report. After all, stating ‘a University of Victoria report’ is very vague. They don’t even say in which country the University of Victoria is located but it certainly is not in Scotland.

The full title of this 2011 report is actually ‘How Green is Your Eco-Label’ with a sub-title of ‘Comparing the Environmental Benefits of Marine Aquaculture Standards’. It is therefore not surprising that both Label Rouge and Marks & Spencer were give a red rating since neither are eco-label’s nor marine aquaculture standards. However, what is clear from reading the report’s Executive Summary is that neither Label Rouge nor Marks & Spencer are even red rated in terms of their environmental performance scores, as the Green Party motion suggests. The red rating comes from a comparison with the ratings given by either the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch programme or the Blue Ocean Institute seafood guide. We have previously highlighted that the US based MBA Seafood Watch programme favours US wild salmon to imported farmed salmon and this is reflected in their ratings. Any eco-label promoting farmed salmon is never going to score well in this comparison, let alone Label Rouge. The Green Party motion is flawed if it depends on this report as motivation for bringing the matter to the Scottish Parliament.

Label Rouge is not an eco-label or a marine aquaculture standard. It is a collective mark controlled by the French Ministry of Agriculture that is reserved for agricultural products. It covers a whole range of different foods including chicken, beans, honey, herbs, cheese, vegetables, charcuterie and fish.

Article L.641-1 of the French Rural Code stipulates that “Label Rouge certifies that foodstuffs or non-food and non-processed agricultural products have specific characteristics which establish a higher level of quality resulting in particular from their particular production conditions. Or manufacturing and conforming to a specification, which distinguish them from the usual foodstuffs and similar products marketed “. In order to obtain and maintain the Label Rouge, all players in a sector must comply with a specification.

The Label Rouge programme focuses on high-quality products, mainly meat, with poultry as the flagship product. It emphasises quality attributes such as taste and food safety and free-range production practices. The average consumer can note a positive difference in taste between Label Rouge and conventional food – in fact, regular taste-testing is a certification requirement to prove that these products are ‘vividly distinguishable’ from conventional foods, according to the programme.

It’s not clear what the Scottish Green Party hopes to achieve with this motion because Label Rouge is the concern of the French Government not the Scottish Parliament. According to Fish Farming Expert, Scott Landsburgh of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation has written to the Green Party to point out that Label Rouge is a French accreditation that is managed by French Government agencies. It is also why the documentation is in French. Mr Landsburgh repeated the points we have made that Label Rouge does not include environmental standards as these are covered by other certification schemes. Label Rouge is all about taste.

Even GAAIA, who initiated this whole matter, appear to recognise that Label Rouge is a matter for the French Government as they have written to the French Minister of Agriculture to express their concerns. They told the French Government that he is not alone in raising such concerns about Label Rouge and refers them to a 2007 document produced by WWF which benchmarked certification programmes for aquaculture. Of course, as Label Rouge is not a certification programme for aquaculture, it did not fare well in this report.

The report also looked at the Norwegian Seafood Council and Norway Royal salmon, neither of which are certification programmes saying that neither give any indication of environmental standards. This is not surprising given that they are both brand marks. This is rather stretching the link between brands and eco-labels. We wonder how long it might be before Volvo, for example, are censured for not having the right environmental credentials, simply because their trucks are used to deliver farmed salmon!

Fish Farming Expert spoke to Mark Ruskell of the Green Party who defended his motion saying that it is important that quality and assurance schemes reflect the issues that concern consumers. We are certain that none of the constituents that he represents are consumers of Label Rouge salmon, unless they buy it in France so we doubt that any have expressed such concerns to him.

He also said that the language is misleading when Label Rouge only publish their strict criteria in French but why shouldn’t they. This is a French label and if overseas producers want to abide by the Label Rouge rules then they must do so using the local language. He went onto say that similar quality marks such as Scotch Beef incorporate environmental and welfare standards that are freely available to the public. We, at Callander McDowell do not claim to be experts of terrestrial farming standards but we are aware that Scotch Beef is actually a Protected Geographic Indication rather than a quality mark per se. PGI is a way of protecting local production and to ensure that those buying Scotch Beef actually buy Scotch beef rather than that from some other country. The PGI does not have any relevance to environmental and welfare issues although separate organisations do ensure that the beef produced is to the highest standard.

Whilst, the aims of the Green Party are unknown, it is much clearer what has prompted their actions because the motion states that it is the result of concerns raised by the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture. According to Fish Farming Expert, Scott Landsburgh told the Greens that they had obviously been advised by the campaigner representing GAAIA and that he had misinformed them about Label Rouge.

GAAIA’s blog includes a copy of the article from Fish Farming Expert which they headline ‘SSPO admit Label Rouge is not a standard designed to assess environmental or welfare criteria’. The use of the word admit is clearly misleading as it implies that the SSPO acknowledge that this is wrong when all that was reported, was a simple explanation of fact.

GAAIA then write that the SSPO’s public admission that the Label Rouge standard ‘is not a standard designed to asses environmental or animal welfare criteria’ may come as a surprise to many people who have been duped into believing that Label Rouge is the industry’s gold standard. They provide a link to the SSPO web page that details about Label Rouge. Nowhere does it suggest that Label Rouge is the Industry’s gold standard. It simply refers to the stringent standards including farming techniques, feed processing and distribution. It is just GAAIA who think that people have been duped. Certainly, we would be surprised if anyone from the target market for Label Rouge salmon in France would feel duped about anything to do with Label Rouge.

This organisation then says that ‘the SSPO’s comments are particularly embarrassing for Acoura the ‘independent certifying body’ for Label Rouge who still boast on their website that ‘Assured Label Rouge Scottish farmed salmon goes through an extremely stringent assessment process. Each audit checks whether the salmon has been reared in accordance with best practice and with respect for fish welfare, the environment and sustainability.’ The choice of the word ‘boast’ suggests something that doesn’t exist.

Also, why this would be embarrassing for Acoura is unclear. The statement is found at the end of a number of other statements about Label Rouge and is simply pointing out that in addition to the assessment of stringent rules for Label Rouge, the salmon are reared with respect for other criteria.

The Greens seem happy to rely on GAAIA as the source of their motion. Whilst the Greens call for publication of the Label Rouge standards as prompted by GAAIA, we would ask that perhaps GAAIA should be just as transparent. There is very little information about GAAIA in the public domain. There is certainly no indication of the membership, no contact details except one email address. In addition, there is no information about how this organisation is ‘funded’.

The salmon industry has had long experience of negative campaigns funded by those with their own agenda. We hope the Greens know who is really driving this motion. Given the number of views of GAAIA’s videos clearly, it is not being driven by public interest in Scotland.

 

Changing issues: In the last issue of reLAKSation, we discussed the views of a ‘top River Tay angler’. He had told the Courier newspaper that predators such as seals, dolphins and goosanders were the main problem causing diminishing stocks of wild salmon on the east coast while on the west coast, it was fish farms located at or near the mouth of virtually every estuary.

The west coast is also home to dolphins, seals and goosanders. The Scotsman newspaper recently reported that this year, 2,303 common dolphins were recorded along the west coast. This is a massive increase on the 463 individuals recorded in 2002.  Similarly, sea numbers recorded by Scottish Natural Heritage have increased by 70% on the west coast. If dolphins, seals and goosanders are responsible for declining numbers on the east coast, then why do anglers not consider them to be a problem on the west coast? Is it because anglers have repeatedly been told that salmon farms are to blame.

For example, the website of the angler’s organisation, Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland (S&TCS) doesn’t mention predation on their home page but they do highlight the problem of salmon farms as a cause of declining stocks.

Their website states:

Fish farming is destroying west Highland and Hebridean wild salmon and sea trout stocks and iconic sea trout fisheries like Loch Maree are no more.

Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland cannot be clearer. According to the website, fish farming is responsible for the destruction of wild salmon and sea trout along Scotland’s west coast. Unfortunately, S&TCS are unwilling to meet with us so we are unable to engage in any discussion with them. This is a pity because we have been trying to seek their views on our analyses of rod catch data, especially as to why in Loch Ewe/Loch Maree, sea trout catches have collapsed but at the same time catches of salmon have increased.

Whilst not prepared to meet, S&TCS’s director is happy to respond in the press. He says in explanation of increasing rod catches that if Ewe system salmon smolts can migrate swiftly through Loch Ewe at a time of low lice production on the Loch Ewe farm without attracting too many (or fatal levels of) lice then they are comparatively safe and lice are unlikely to add to their marine mortality.

As we have found that rod catches have shown an increase since 1952 including the last thirty years during which the farm in Loch Ewe has been operating, then clearly few salmon smolts must be picking up lice as they swim through Loch Ewe.

The S&TCS director implies that catches from Loch Ewe may not be typical and smolts migrating out of rivers at the head of a long sea loch that must run past a gauntlet of numerous farms are much more likely to pick up a fatal number of lice. Our analyses found that Loch Ewe is not unique at all and that, in fact, nearly half of the west coast fishery districts exhibited a similar response to catches in Loch Ewe. This is that sea trout catches have declined whilst catches of salmon have increased.

Our analyses did not include a study of how many fish have been caught by anglers against the number of farms that young fish would have to swim past. This may be something to look at in future but we are aware of examples where catches have increased in areas where there are multiple farms.

One example is the Garynahine Estate in the Outer Hebrides. In 2012, the Herald newspaper reported the largest catch ever on the Estate with records going back to 1800. In 2011, angers fishing on the Estate caught 258 salmon and grilse at a time when the five-year average had been 116. The following year, anglers landed an astounding 555 fish.

Fish returning to Blackwater River that flows through the Garynahine Estate must swim through Loch Roag, which is home to six salmon farms. The following year, the number of fish caught fell to 252. Last year the number was 203. Catches do vary from year to year but the average is 247 despite the presence of these multiple salmon farms in the locality.

At the time, it was interesting to note that whilst the Herald newspaper reported this record catch, no mention was made in any of the angling press. Perhaps, such a good news story would not help in their fight against salmon farming!

Another catchment with multiple farms is the River Lochy which empties into Loch Linnhe.  The home page of the website www.riverlochy.com states:

The River Lochy offers the salmon angler some of the most spectacular and scenic salmon fishing in the UK. Condensed into just 10 miles, it meanders its way through the Great Glen with the backdrop of Ben Nevis and the surrounding peaks. Although its setting can only be described as peaceful & tranquil the fishing itself is more adrenaline filled with a “real” possibility of catching a fish of a lifetime!  Over the last few years the river has produced more than its fair share of BIG spring fish with a typical average weight of 17lbs (7-8kilos). The Lochy has seen a remarkable revival over the last 20 years.  From a mere 32 fish in 1998 (for the whole catchment) to an average now of around 450 salmon and grilse.   With its majestic backdrop, mouth-watering pools and glides, it still is, without doubt, “The Queen of Scottish Salmon Rivers”.

Before the angling fraternity jump down our throat, we should point out that the Lochy is not a river that has shown increasing catches throughout the sixty years that data has been collected. The overall trend has been downward. Salmon catches peaked during the 1970’s, especially of the larger fish. Since then catches have fallen to a low throughout the 1990’s. The angling sector will attribute this to the rise of salmon farming. It is however, important to note that whilst catches peaked in the 1970s, the number of fish caught during the 1950s and early 1960s were similar to the low catches throughout the 1990s that are blamed on the presence of salmon farms. Clearly, there were no farms in the 1950’s so the low catches must have been due to something else!

One of the problems we have encountered in discussing the interactions of wild fish and salmon farming is that everyone seems to have a different view. We were recently contacted by one prominent angler who had an explanation of why some salmon catches have increased against a background of declining sea trout catches.

We were told that prior to the advent of salmon farming, the west coast of Scotland was primarily a sea trout fishery. No-one went to the west coast to fish for salmon. Those wishing to fish for salmon did so on the east coast rivers. However, once salmon farming had destroyed the sea trout fishing, some anglers thought that they would try fishing for salmon locally rather than head for east coast rivers. Over the years more anglers have fished the west coast for salmon which is why salmon catches have increased.

Of course, there is a flaw in this view and that is the catch data records show that wild salmon has been caught from west coast rivers for many years prior to the rival of salmon farming. Earlier records show that salmon have been caught along the west coast for even longer than the recent data. It seems that whatever interpretation is given of the catch data, the angling sector come up with another reason to question its validity.

When this angler was confronted with the catch data, the response was that the records from fifty and sixty years ago, were inaccurate and therefore cannot be trusted. We have heard the same from one of the wild fish organisations. One example is that anglers didn’t bother to record small fish and often threw them back before catch and release became fashionable and therefore the catch wasn’t recorded. Data may also be inaccurate when anglers don’t record a fish because of limits on the number of fish that can be retained for the pot. We are not pointing the finger at anyone except to suggest that any inaccuracy in the data can only be the result of under-recording so that more fish have been caught than appears in the data. If this is the case, we expect that the numbers involved are relatively small and are probably consistent across most of the timescale so can be discounted.

Returning to the question about why some salmon catches have increased whilst sea trout have declined, the S&TCS director says, Loch Ewe sea trout remain in the coastal area and thus are constantly vulnerable to lice emanating from local salmon farming activity; consequently, they are prone to attracting fatal levels of lice and their life chances (and growth) are severely compromised. The result has been the collapse of the Ewe system’s (including Loch Maree) mature or large sea trout population.

This is one interpretation of the data but our extended analysis shows that sea trout catches are falling across all of Scotland and not just along the west coast. Even Marine Scotland Science agree that sea trout declines are a problem across Scotland. The obvious question is that if salmon farming is the cause of the decline on the west coast then what is causing the decline elsewhere? Our analysis shows that the rate of decline is the same for both east and west coast so perhaps one issue is responsible for the decline in all sea trout populations.

Rather than address that question, the S&TCS director prefers to point out the ‘Achilles heel’ to our argument. He says that only in the west Highlands and Islands have mature sea trout all but disappeared. In addition, he says that apart from sea lice from salmon farms, what else can explain why in areas such and Skye and Wester Ross virtually all sea trout do not survive more than a few months at sea.

Many of the west coast rivers are small and do not support the same infrastructure as that of the better-known salmon rivers. Information can therefore be hard to come by, especially by those who are not part of the wild fisheries establishment. However, www.skyesalmon.co.uk provides some information about the Isle of Skye’s most celebrated spate river – The River Snizort.

The website states:

Although we saw more rain in 2016 than the preceding four seasons, we still had some long dry spells when we least needed them and the last three weeks, when the river was popping with fish, were mostly dry. But we shouldn’t complain as 101 salmon was a 45% increase on 2015. What happened to our sea trout is a bit of a mystery. We don’t believe it was poor health as the fish we did book (sic) were in very good condition with very little damage evident from sea lice. Also our Skye biologist carried out a netting survey in the loch and caught some really big specimens (up to three and a half pounds) which were of course returned unharmed.

We leave it to our readers to draw their own conclusions.

Postscript: The latest issue of Trout & Salmon magazine was published this week. The fishing report for Wester Ross on Scotland’s west coast mentioned the season’s opening day ceremony at Poolewe on February 11th. One of the speakers was the S&TCS director mentioned in our commentary. He told the gathering about planned campaigns including their fight for the removal of the salmon farm in Loch Ewe in order to give sea trout stocks a chance to recover. To this end, they had produced a short film about the collapse of the Loch Maree sea trout fishery.

This week, we also heard rumours that S&TCS are to hold a meeting at the Scottish Parliament in the next few days to draw attention to the damage caused by salmon farms to wild fish populations. Apparently, they are planning to show their short film to invited politicians.

It’s not surprising that they are so unwilling to talk to us. After all, the findings of our study question their claims. We do however wonder what they are planning to do to help sea trout stocks recover in all those areas where there are no salmon farms!