There’s a catch: The Scottish Government have just announced the catch statistics for salmon and sea trout and Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland are not happy. They say that salmon catches are in the doldrums with the depressing numbers reflecting poor returns in late summer and autumn.  As what happens at sea is beyond their control, they say that it is therefore paramount to maximise the number of juvenile salmon that reach the open sea.

S&TC highlight two ways that more juvenile salmon can be helped to reach the sea. The first they politely call minimising predation which they say that the Scottish Government can facilitate. What we think they mean is that the seal population has increased over recent years, partly by gorging on migrating salmon. We have spoken to several people from the wild sector who all agree that in the past when control of seal numbers was not a politically correct issue, more salmon returned to the rivers. We are not sure if the conservation organisation, S&TC is suggesting that the Scottish Government should approve a cull of seal numbers or whether they mean something else.

The second issue for S&TC is that they want the Scottish Government to crack down on poor sea lice control at salmon farms, which they say has decimated salmon returns in most of the west Highlands and Islands.

S&TC are also concerned about the sea trout catch. They say that whilst there has been a decline in sea trout numbers in much of Scotland, only in the salmon farming areas of the west Highlands & Islands has there been an almost total collapse. They say that remedying this is very much in the Scottish Government’s gift. They say that young sea trout are being eaten alive, which is why the Scottish Government must act to tighten the regulation of salmon farming in order to protect wild fish from infestation.

In addition, the S&TC are truly shocked as well as being an indictment of Government policy that the River Ewe and Loch Maree, historically the most famous sea trout fishery in Europe producing prodigious catches, reported a catch of just 13 fish in 2016. S&TC say that back in 1987, the last year prior to the devastating influence of salmon farming, was over 1700. We have seen a virtual wipe out.

S&TC recently started to campaign to remove the salmon farm in Loch Ewe to restore the sea trout numbers in the Ewe System.

We, at Callander McDowell, are no longer surprised by Salmon & Trout Conservation’s use of emotive language in their press statements. It is part of their strategy to deflect attention away from themselves and instead towards the salmon farming industry, which they continue to make the scapegoat for the demise of the wild fish sector. This is also why they changed their name from the Salmon & Trout Association to Salmon & Trout Conservation to cast themselves as being near sainthood in relation to the protection of wild salmon and sea trout. However, we are not fooled. Although often described as a conservation organisation, S&TC have yet to come out against the killing of all wild fish for sport, especially given the concerns about wild salmon and sea trout expressed in repeated press releases. This latest press release is no different.

If S&TC want to maximise the number of juvenile fish, both salmon and sea trout, reaching the open sea, then why not start by calling for a complete ban on the killing of wild fish for sport. S&TC, say that salmon catches have been decimated in the aquaculture zone, whilst for sea trout, it has been a virtual wipe out. This is why they want to maximise the number of juvenile fish migrating out to sea. The Scottish Government recently complicated the way they present the catch data but as far as we can make out, anglers caught and killed 273 salmon and grilse and 1,002 sea trout and finnock from west coast rivers in 2016. That amounts to 1,275 fish which were prevented from breeding and producing eggs and new life to these ‘decimated’ waters. In terms of the total Scottish catch, these numbers are small, but as west coast catches are less than 20% of the total anyway, they are significant. If S&TC want to maximise the number of fish along the west coast, they should surely make sure every returning fish can breed instead of standing by whilst anglers kill the fish they catch.

S&TC especially highlight the poor catch of sea trout from Loch Maree, which was 13 fish in 2016. However, S&TC do omit to mention the 66 finnock also caught and they also fail to mention that five of these finnock, weighing only about 1lb each were retained, the polite way of saying that they were killed. Of course, this is from a fishery that, according to S&TC, has already been ‘a virtual wipe out’. Surely, the way to maximise the number of fish returning is to ensure that every fish that does return can produce a new generation. S&TC say that what happens at sea is beyond their control but stopping angled fish being killed certainly is. It does seem that they expect everyone but themselves to act to protect wild fish.

The second action that S&TC could take is to encourage the restocking of salmon along the depleted west coast. Restocking now seems to be a dirty word since it was deemed to be a waste of time by some within angling circles. However, restocking still does occur on some rivers in Scotland and it is one way of helping increase the number of returning fish. Certainly, the River Carron Restoration Project as well as the work on the Lochy seem to indicate that restocking does help. The evidence to the contrary seems to have been masked by aversions to investing in the future of the rivers. Simply put, why invest in something that should happen naturally for free. That may have been true many years ago, but times have changed and whilst once marine mortality meant that 20% of fish returned, now only 5% return. Stocking is one way the number of juveniles can be increased and this is something in which S&TC should be leading the way.

Unfortunately, the S&TC have chosen to blame salmon farming instead, even though the percentage of the catch from the aquaculture zone is less than 20% of the total Scottish catch. The problem is that no-one, whether in the UK or Norway, has demonstrated that salmon farming is responsible for the observed declines in the number of fish caught. The link is therefore only circumstantial. S&TC argue that even though the evidence is circumstantial, it is enough to warrant that the salmon farm be moved out of Loch Ewe so that Loch Maree can regain its status as the leading sea trout fishery in Scotland.

We, at Callander McDowell disagree. S&TC commissioned a report about the demise of the Loch Maree sea trout fishery and asked whether salmon farming was culpable. Close examination of the report does not support the claim and this is something we will be pursuing further.

Meanwhile, we hope that Salmon & Trout Conservation will start to live up to their name and start conserving stocks rather than stopping those who prefer to kill them.

 

Wild about fish: Intrafish report that the Marine Stewardship Council has set out its strategy for the years ahead. The organisation has been prompted to look at its aspirations for the years ahead by the occasion of its twentieth anniversary.

Rupert Howes, Chief Executive of MSC told Intrafish that the MSC was a bold idea developed by the WWF and Unilever to address the challenges of unsustainable fishing. They wanted to create a market based mechanism that would connect seafood producers and consumers through a credible third party certification and labelling programme. This programme would recognise existing good practice but critically incentivise and drive real and lasting change where needed to ensure healthy oceans and seafood supplies for the future. Twenty years on this bold innovation has become a proven concept.

We, at Callander McDowell are not sure we would agree. For a start, we are not convinced that the MSC has connected seafood producers and consumers. Most consumers do not seem slightly interested in whether the fish they buy is sustainably certified or not, although we are sure the MSC would disagree.

However, we think that there a bigger issue at the core of the MSC programme. It is hard to believe that it is twenty years since the MSC was formed. We remember it well because we were aware of the initial discussion about the scheme. In fact, we wrote to both the WWF and Unilever to suggest that there was already an effective management tool in place to reduce fishing pressure and ensure that those fish were caught were caught sustainability. That management tool was aquaculture. Simply put, for every fish that was farmed, one less fish needed to be caught from the oceans. Of course, neither the WWF or Unilever were interested. This was not what they had in mind.

Twenty years on, we would suggest that we were right. Aquaculture has become a very effective management tool for the MSC because without the scale of farming that occurs today, the world’s oceans would be under increased pressure from over-fishing and it is likely that the MSC would have been unable to cope.

We believe that the MSC’s reliance on the availability of farmed fish is likely to become something of an issue. Although Intrafish did not mention it in their article, the MSC have taken to advertising their aspiration. A full page of the Brussels show paper was given over to an advert from the MSC and this was repeated on the side of their booth at the show.

The text states – “We’ve been helping keep our oceans wild for 20 years because wild is important. Wild is exciting.”

Later it states:

“Thanks to everyone (they include a list) who loves wild traceable sustainable seafood for today and future generations.”

For us, such statements are an issue. This is no longer about just sustainable seafood; the MSC appear to be promoting wild seafood and thus distinguishing it from farmed. This is just wrong. It is hard enough to get the message across to eat fish so making a division where one does not occur is a big mistake. It simply adds to the confusion in the marketplace.

This reminds us of the conflict that was artificially created between wild and farmed salmon from outside the seafood sector. That conflict ended because consumer choice prevailed and undoubtedly the same will happen again.

We are sure we will return to this subject again as the MSC strategy becomes more apparent.

 

Celebrity or chef: How quickly the Brussels Seafood Show passed by. It was all something of a whirl for us at Callander McDowell and before we knew it we were on a train heading back to the UK. It was good to see so many familiar faces again and even a few new ones. The show was certainly busy as highlighted by the fact that we met some people who couldn’t find a hotel room anywhere in Belgium at all.

One thing the show achieved was to highlight farmed salmon’s increasing popularity, however, this popularity comes at a price. This is the disdain of many chefs, who see salmon’s popularity as a sign that salmon should be avoided.

This was illustrated back in the UK on the day that the Brussels show began to wind down. Celebrity seafood chef, Rick Stein was a guest on BBC Radio 2 breakfast show. The conversation turned to curries.

The presenter said that the jury is out as far as he is concerned when it comes to fish curries. Rick replied that it depends on the fish really and it depends on the vibrancy of the curry because when he was doing his series on India he came across a recipe whilst on a beach. This was part of his quest to find the perfect curry and therefore for Rick as a seafood chef, it had to be a fish curry. Rick said that ‘it was made with really, really fresh snapper and it was just so lovely and fragrant. The problem – I think – is that in many Indian restaurants in the UK is that it is always salmon and you think that I’m not interested in that’.

He just sounded very dismissive of salmon and no doubt this was conveyed to the many listeners of this popular breakfast show.

We do not question that Rick Stein’s experience of eating fish curry on an Indian beach is one that is strong in his memory and something that he would like to recreate. However, the public weren’t there to share his experience and many are happy to go to their local restaurant to eat salmon curry even if it is not quite the same thing. He forgets that as a celebrity chef he can probably source whatever he wants when he wants it. The rest of us cannot source really, really fresh snapper and even if we could, we are not sure if it is a fish we should be eating. The MCS doesn’t even include snapper in its consumer fish guide.

We are often surprised by the readiness of some sections of the industry to want to partner top chefs to give their products some form of exclusivity, however the reality can be very different as Rick Stein has shown with his comments about salmon. In our view, salmon curry wins hands down over snapper as it is ideal for holding the strong curry flavour. Unfortunately, Rick’s view that most curry houses make fish curry from salmon doesn’t seem to be borne out by our experience or by a recent trawl of menus posted on the internet. Our local curry restaurant in Manchester uses Pomfret in their fish curry and thus is more authentic than the Goan Fish Curry found on Rick’s menu, which is made with hake.