Something is very wrong: We, at Callander McDowell, have yet to get around to commenting on the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee report on the environmental impacts of salmon farming. However, there is something very wrong when one week the Committee should urge controls on salmon farming in order to protect stocks of wild salmon and then a week later, the same Committee should consider annulling salmon conservation regulations that are there to protect wild salmon.

The message from the angling sector is very clear. Salmon stocks need to be protected so anglers can kill them for sport. They say it is just one fish, but one fish caught by a lot of anglers is a lot of fish.

Millions of coarse fish anglers go fishing every week and happily return every fish they catch without a second thought. In fact, there was outrage when some anglers of Polish origin started to kill carp to eat. Yet, clubs of salmon anglers have demanded that categorising rivers as a grade 3 will hasten the end of their clubs and their ability to protect the fish in their rivers.

It seems to us at Callander McDowell that even stricter conservation is needed, not less and if anglers who want to kill fish threaten to stop fishing because they can’t kill the fish, then we think this will be a good thing. It is better education that is needed, not weaker rules.

We are not suggesting anglers are solely responsible for the declines, but they are part of the solution.

 

Digging a deep hole: We have previously discussed a statement made to the ECCLR committee by Professor Eric Verspoor during the evidence session with the Scottish Association of Marine Science following publication of their £45,500 report. However, a letter was later sent to the committee which has just come to our attention.

Professor Verspoor had told the committee that ‘In Scotland, a location that I am familiar with but whose identity is not in the public domain has had historically high numbers of salmon even though those salmon have to go past a very large salmon farming operation. It would be difficult to say that sea lice are having a negative impact, given that the numbers of salmon in that location are at historical highs. However, there is a large number of confounding factors. For example, the river is stocked; does that account for the historical highs?’

This statement was extremely puzzling, not least because of the comment that the identity of this river was not in the public domain. Every river in Scotland is in the public domain and some are more public than others. The River Carron is one such river and it has had widespread coverage on angling and countryside programmes because of the way catches have bucked the national trend. It is even more puzzling that Professor Verspoor wouldn’t name the Carron because it is also well-known that the Rivers and Lochs Institute of the University of Highlands and Islands of which Professor Verspoor is director, took over the running of the River Carron Restoration project until funds ran out.

Although the River Carron experienced record high catches during the project, especially before Professor Verspoor got involved, the project was not widely lauded by the angling sector simply because they have claimed that restocking projects not only do not work but cause more damage than good. The River Carron Restoration project appears to have undermined such claims.

We, at Callander McDowell, had written to Professor Verspoor to ask him to confirm the river in question was the Carron but he has so far failed to reply. However, Professor Verspoor has written to the committee and his letter has been posted on the committee’s website. If his initial comments were puzzling, then his letter is even more so.

He has written that he has ‘been contacted by the Director – Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, regarding his concern that his comment on a river population on the West Coast of Scotland might be used to support the view that stocking of West Coast rivers is the solution to any farm impacts’.

Professor Verspoor says that he is writing to the committee at S&TC’s request to ensure that the committee does not assume the river’s high catches are due to restocking. In our view, sometimes drawing attention to a minor point previously made, simply draws even more attention to it.

S&TC clearly want the committee to know that the high catches from the River Carron are, in their view, unlikely to be due to the hard work invested in restocking the river since 2002.  Professor Verspoor does say that it is unlikely that the high catches are due to farm escapes or because of the catch and release policy imposed on the river. Instead, he suggests that it remains to be established as to why the river has experienced historic highs but clearly if it is not the result of stocking, then it must be due to the increased return of wild spawned salmon. He says that this cannot be ruled out.

This leaves Salmon & Trout Conservation in a difficult situation. They are clearly ruling out restocking as the reason why catches on the Carron have been at historic highs leaving natural recruitment as the only explanation. Yet, their Petition, which has led to the Scottish Parliamentary enquiry begins by saying wild fish on the west coast are in trouble. If this is true, then how has the River Carron bucked the trend and experienced such increased natural recruitment that has led to historic highs. Why has no other river on the west coast exhibited a similar response? It is even more unbelievable given that the Carron empties into one of the largest aquaculture hubs in Scotland. S&TC claim that salmon farms are killing wild fish, yet at the same time, the Carron has shown the greatest improvement in catches of any west coast river. In our view, S&TC need to get their story straight.

After yet another critical article appeared in the Sunday Times, we were interested to read a letter in the paper written by a retired ghillie who had been working on the River Dee. He asks what all the fuss is about wild salmon. He says it has all happened before. Between 1820 and 1900, high river temperatures during the winter months meant egg survival was much reduced. He says that the only hope for salmon today is the hatchery, which is the only way to increases the numbers of young fish in the river.

This is exactly what has been happening in the River Carron.

 

REC Enquiry: The papers for the committee’s enquiry include a submission from Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland. They question the comments made by Professor James Bron of the University of Stirling the previous week in which he said that in Scotland sea lice are mostly under control and the data shows that there has been no rise in sea lice numbers. S&TCS say that cannot understand on what basis, Professor Bron has made this statement, claiming that data obtained under FOI shows differently. They also quote the ECCLR Committee saying that the efforts of the industry have proven largely insufficient to address sea lice issues.

Professor Bron has not stood by and taken this criticism. He has written back to the Committee to point out that S&TCS are incorrect in their assertions and that the statements made to the committee are based on the findings of a recently published study from Marine Scotland. Professor Bron goes on to challenge some of the other claims made by S&TCS. Both letters can be read at http://www.parliament.scot/S5_Rural/Meeting%20Papers/20180314_REC_Committee_-_Updated_Public_Papers.pdf

The point we would make is that most of the case against salmon farming has played out in the media. S&TCS have issued many press releases, some of which have appeared as stories in the mainstream press. At most, the journalists seek a single quote from the industry representatives who are never given an opportunity to challenge the claims made by S&TCS (and others). The stories always appear one sided and it is therefore not surprising the ECCLR Committee reached the conclusion they did.

The exchange between S&TCS and Professor Bron shows how these claims can be challenged and corrected, given the opportunity. It would have been interesting to see Professor Bron share a platform with S&TCS but unfortunately, Parliamentary Committees appear to prefer to obtain evidence by sector rather than by issue. Sea lice are the main reason why the REC enquiry is underway as they are the central theme to the Petition. An evidence session devoted to sea lice would be the preferred choice, but it seems that we have to make do with a written exchange instead.

 

Frustration: One of the difficulties in watching Committee proceedings whether in person or via Scottish Parliament TV, is the inability to respond when the answers given are either incorrect or misleading. For us, the biggest frustration is the fact that Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland have not yet provided any direct proof that sea lice from salmon farms are responsible for the declines in wild fish numbers. Instead, there is a blind acceptance that the two are linked. There may well be some impact, but we would like to see some actual proof, not the result of a mathematical model.

According to Fish Farming Expert, Jon Gibb from the River Lochy told the Committee about the Marine Scotland Science SARF project which is now drawing to a close. Here is a unique opportunity for the REC Committee to hear proof or not of the connection between lice and wild fish. We appreciate that MSS will be still writing up their papers, but all is required is four separate numbers to see the level of impact. These would be the number of treated and untreated smolts released on the west coast and then the number of treated/untreated fish recaptured

Marine Scotland Science have repeatedly said that this experiment is the only way to determine the impact of sea lice on wild fish, so the results should settle the debate once and for all. We should point out that we disagree with their assertion and that detailed analysis of catch data also can show these impacts. However, one way to settle this question is that the REC Committee should call Marine Scotland Science to give evidence about their three-year £600,000 venture.

 

Fisheries Management Scotland: We were surprised to hear Martin’s name mentioned during the last evidence session. Fisheries Management Scotland were asked about our claim that a salinity anomaly was ultimately responsible for the sea lice epizootic that occurred during the late 1980s. Alan Wells of FMS told the Committee that he wasn’t aware of what was written in his book. Martin did write to FMS last year to ask for a chat to discuss his findings. FMS said that they were too busy.

We are struck by how much some of the wild fish sector are happy to talk about how salmon farming has destroyed wild fish stocks but seemingly less willing to talk about any suggestion that salmon farming is not the main issue.

 

Thirty-Five Trillion:  According to best estimate, last year scientists calculated that there are 3,500,000,000,000 fish living in the world’s oceans. We can’t be 100% sure but are relatively certain that every single one of these fish expels its waste into the water. It is just part of the natural ecological cycle that occurs in the marine environment.

Farmed salmon are part of this cycle too. Yes, farmed salmon are contained within a small area (said to be the size of a football pitch) but the seas will absorb this waste.

Richard Luxmoore of the Natural Trust for Scotland told the Committee that one moderately sized salmon farm dumped the same amount of sewage as a town twice the size of Oban. We, at Callander McDowell were surprised about his use of terminology and his assertion. Fish waste is not sewage it is natural waste that occurs in the sea. Human waste plus all the added material flushed away including sanitary products, wipes, paper, let alone a huge mix of dissolved medical products are not at all the same as the waste produced by a salmon farm. The image that Dr Luxmoore presents is very different.

We presume that as Dr Luxmoore is so concerned about the waste which ends up in the sea, all the waste and sewage emanating from NTS properties are not linked into the mains system so never end up in the sea, in whatever treated or untreated form. There is a lot of waste from both human and agriculture that ends up in the sea, that should never be there. At least salmon naturally live in the sea.

 

Apologies – the marketplace: We were planning to write about the new recommendations from the Marine Conservation Society as to what fish we should be eating and also about improving the reputation of farmed salmon, but discussion of the various Scottish Parliamentary enquiries has used up too many words, so we will leave it until the next issue. Sorry.