Hearing about herring: The Times newspaper reports that a ‘huge and active’ herring spawning ground has been found off the coast of Gairloch in northwest Scotland. The hatchery is about three-square kilometres in size and one of the divers that found it described the area as being like in a hailstorm with the hail being herring eggs.

Herring had disappeared from the west coast by the 1980’s due to over-fishing and this find has been described as ‘fantastic’ by a local skipper, yet we, at Callander McDowell, think it would be better described as a miracle. After all, this discovery of new life is nothing short of a miracle given the apparent state of the seas around Gairloch, which is in the heart of the west coast ‘Aquaculture Zone’. Last month, the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee said that the salmon farming industry is likely to be causing irrecoverable damage to the environment. Richard Luxmoore of the National Trust for Scotland said that just one moderately-large sized salmon farm produces more waste than all the towns on the west coast. With so many farms operating along the west coast, the sea bed must be such a disaster zone that the regeneration of any new sea life would be out of the question. In addition, to all this waste, the ECCLR also heard about high levels of chemical use that also impacts on marine life. Thus, this new herring nursery must be considered not just fantastic but a miracle.

Of course, there is the possibility that the alleged damage to the marine environment described to the Environment Committee members might have been somewhat exaggerated. As it seems that a number of the members haven’t even seen a salmon farm, they were unable to judge the scale of damage for themselves. Perhaps, the return of the herring is not so much of a miracle but just part of the natural regeneration that occurs in healthy seas. The salmon industry needs clean pristine seas so would be crazy to allow the sort of damage that some critics say is widespread, to actually occur. We think that the Environment Committee were misinformed, and the herring nursery is yet another example that shows the state of west coast waters is not as claimed.

 

Evidentially not: It has now been nearly a month since the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee (ECCLR) issued its report into the environmental impact of salmon farming.  As it is Easter weekend, and perhaps, our readers might have a little more time, we would like to review some of the comments made in the report. However, we are restricting these to the section about sea lice, as this is the most contentious issue within the report. The report can be found at http://www.parliament.scot/S5_Environment/Inquiries/20180305_GD_to_Rec_salmon_farming.pdf

 

The section on sea lice is divided into a number of subsections but we are going to focus on just two. 1. Evidence relating to sea lice and the impact on wild fish and 2. The view of the committee.

In our opinion, the evidence that has been extracted and highlighted by the committee does not reflect current industry knowledge but then, as we have previously pointed out, neither did the SAMS report, at least in relation to sea lice. The section of the SAMS report about sea lice was authored by an expert in genetics, not an expert in sea lice. In our opinion, the committee have selected evidence that is not favourable to the salmon farming industry whilst ignoring evidence that is. However, what is unfathomable to us is that the evidence they use is not cut and dried and is subject to debate. A case in point is the evidence submitted by Fisheries Management Scotland regarding the interpretation of data regarding sea lice and wild fish. The committee say that FMS highlight an average 20% loss (1 in 5) of returning adult salmon due to sea lice and they appear to take this as fact, when in reality, it is far from it.

The 20% mortality arises from one interpretation of a paper by Dr Dave Jackson of the Marine Institute who ran a large-scale, long-term smolt release programme in which one group of fish were treated with an anti-lice product whilst the control were not. The treated fish were protected for sufficient time to swim out to sea past any infective salmon farms. The results of this study found that the mortality due to sea lice was just 1% of the total number of fish released.

This low figure horrified other researchers because it did not support their claims that sea lice were damaging to wild salmon populations. They therefore applied a different statistical approach to Dr Jackson’s work and arrived at a figure of between 12-29% mortality with an average of 20%.

Dr Jackson says that currently around 95% of wild salmon die at sea and sea lice account for another 1%. The other view is that of the 5% that return, the difference of 1% found by Dr Jackson accounts for the difference between 4 and 5 fish, which equates to 20%. The viability of this view is simply tested by considering that according to Dr Jackson, 95 fish out of every 100 suffer from marine mortality whilst another 1 fish dies from sea lice. This makes a total of 96 out of 100 or 96%.

The FMS view is that 95 fish out of 100 dies from marine mortality but that 20 out of the 100 dies from sea lice. This makes a total of 115 fish out of every 100. This is simply impossible.

The Environment Committee report continues by highlighting evidence from the National Trust for Scotland, who had expressed concern that there was no mention in the SAMS report about the population effects on sea trout populations. NTS say this is more remarkable given the collapse of sea trout in Loch Maree. This omission is more surprising because sea trout are often used as a proxy for salmon because of their different lifestyle and thus are easier to catch if infested with lice. However, we won’t dwell on this here except to say that a detailed account of the Loch Maree sea trout fishery appears in ‘Loch Maree’s Missing Sea Trout’ (now available on Amazon). Unfortunately, most people in the wild fish sector won’t even consider reading this book because it does not support their own point of view.

The next piece of evidence comes from Lochaber Fisheries Trust, who say that lice burdens on wild sea trout are found on fish caught closest to salmon farms. LFT, like other west coast fisheries trusts carry out regularly sampling of young sea trout to monitor sea lice infestation. Over a period of five years, this data was integrated into a wider study conducted by Rivers and Fisheries Trusts of Scotland (RAFTS). They ensured that samples were taken from a range of sites both near to and far from local salmon farms. Rather surprisingly, the graphs used did not display the data in terms of proximity to a salmon farm, however, we have done so. It would appear that lice levels can remain high far from any farm including well outside the limits supposedly established as being infective. Similar levels have also been found on the east coast where there is no salmon farming.

The final evidence recorded by the committee is from Salmon & Trout Conservation, formerly known as the Salmon & Trout Association. They mention that nearly all rivers and fishery districts in the aquaculture zone are classed as Grade 3 and therefore have not reached their conservation limits. The implication is that this is the result of salmon farming. What they fail to mention is that last year, 23% of rivers and fishery districts in the same area were classified as Grade 1 and another 35% were Grade 2.  This is despite the presence of salmon farms in the vicinity. Only 42% of rivers were classified as Grade 3.

The committee report also mentions that S&TCS refer to a recent review that they had commissioned from the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research, which they claim provides evidence of a general and pervasive negative effect of salmon lice on salmonid fish in areas where salmon farming is located. Of course, S&TCS would not have commissioned such a report if there was even a tiny chance that it would arrive at a different conclusion. Interestingly, the conclusions of the NINA report are not universally accepted. Aquablogg.no points out that whilst the two NINA researchers, Eva Thorstad and Bengt Finstad have written in the S&TCS report that wild salmon stocks in aquaculture areas suffer a decline of between 12-29% spawning fish, Dr Finstad co-authored another two papers in 2017 which state that there are gaps in the knowledge meaning it is not possible to measure the effect of salmon lice on wild fish.

The committee did not pick up on the part of the NINA report that referred to the overall level of mortality of wild fish in Norway due to sea lice. If the mortality rate is adjusted to Scottish production, and it were correct, it would equate to about 7,500 fish. This is about the same number of wild fish as killed by anglers in Scotland in 2016.

We, at Callander McDowell, were rather surprised that the evidence section of the Committee report did not refer to the submission from Professor Randolph Richards. Professor Richards has had a long-time involvement with fish health as both a veterinarian and more recently as Director of the Institute of Aquaculture at Stirling. He was awarded a CBE for his services to Veterinary Medicine. It is therefore puzzling as to why the committee chose to ignore his submission in which he said ‘there is no clear evidence from research carried out in Scotland that significant harm has occurred to wild salmon populations from seal lice in farmed fish’. He also points out that there have been population declines in stocks from east coast rivers and in stocks in English and Welsh rivers where there is no salmon farming.

The Committee also chose to overlook our submission, but this was not of any surprise. We are used to a blank response as most of the wild fish sector hope that if they don’t acknowledge our views, we will eventually turn our attention to something else.

We would mention just one aspect to our submission and that is the inclusion of a graph showing catch data for sea trout collected by Marine Scotland from within the area of the Aquaculture Zone. This shows that catches have been in decline from 1952 onward (when data was first recorded). Our simple question is if something was causing this decline before salmon farming became established, why could this still not be the cause of subsequent declines? We would have hoped that the committee would have asked the various critics of the salmon industry for their explanation of what is happening in the graph, but such difficult questions were avoided.

Finally, we would like to refer to the section relating to the Views of the Committee. Most of their comments relate to management of sea lice on farms rather than the impact of sea lice on wild salmonids. They suggest that there is a need for more data collection and research and there are still gaps in knowledge within Scotland. We are not so sure. There is more research underway than was mentioned in the SAMS report. For example, Marine Scotland are undertaking a ten -year programme of research to investigate any potential risk to wild salmon from sea lice in the Scottish coastal environment. This is intended to complement another research project which is drawing to a close. This £600,000 SARF-funded project measures the survival of smolts treated with anti-lice chemicals, and compares them to untreated controls. The project intended to trap up to 2000 smolts from the River Lochy and another 2000 from the Conon System (east coast), tag the fish and then treat half with Substance EX during April 2015 and 2016. When the fish returned during September to December 2016 and 2017, the two rivers would be fished, and the relevant data collected.

Whilst, the project still has some time to run, this period is intended for writing up etc, but clearly, by now Marine Scotland must have some idea as to the impacts of lice on the smolts they released and although too late for the ECCLR Committee, they should be able to provide the REC Committee with a flavour of their findings. After all, if this enquiry is not the time to present this data, when is?

The committee refers to the submission from Lochaber Fisheries Trust saying that wild fish are not monitored in Scotland, yet the Lochaber Fisheries Trust submission mentions that they sampled 83 sea trout near Fort William in 2017. In fact, most of the fisheries trusts have been sampling young sea trout over many years. This was the basis of the RAFTS study previously mentioned and also that of some of the work carried out by Marine Scotland. Most of the sampling is of sea trout because as the anglers regularly point out, migrating salmon smolts head straight out to sea and out of reach.

According to the committee’s report, Lochaber Fisheries Trust also mentioned that no large-scale studies on the effects of lice on the overall health of salmon and trout populations has been completed. This is incorrect. Our own study is exactly that. Unfortunately, the wild fish sector and Marine Scotland have consistently tried to undermine this work, presumably because it questions whether sea lice are to blame. Unfortunately, like the wild fish lobby, the Environment Committee showed no interest in hearing our view. It’s not surprising, salmon farming is still blamed for all the problems of wild fish populations.

 

Ebb and flow: iLAKS reports that salmon prices will continue to peak throughout Easter with 3 kg fish at around NOK 75/kg (£6.79/kg). However, some exporters believe that the price cannot be sustained as customers are few and far between. Of course, demand for salmon is usually higher at Easter but once the holiday is over, customers lose interest as they return to their daily routines.

Yet, even though salmon is often preferred over the holidays, consumer demand in the run up to Easter has been low as prices remain much higher than shoppers would like to pay. Earlier this year, the price looked as if it might fall to much lower levels and there was some discussion that supermarket prices would fall too. We were somewhat cautious in this belief because we know salmon prices can change rapidly.

iLAKS have been to Spain and found that the store El Cortes Ingles has been pricing salmon steaks at €12.95/kg and this has stimulated demand locally. By comparison, they found that salmon fillets in Aldi is priced at €17.79/kg which is down €3/kg since last year.

Meanwhile, we, at Callander McDowell, have been to France for our regular trawl of prices in the run up to Easter. As at Christmas, high prices have kept consumers at bay. It is just not high prices, but availability has been poor. Whereas once we might have expected to see many whole salmon on a fish counter, we are now lucky to see one or two. The same applies to chilled salmon packs. They are few and far between.

Yet, if consumers are prepared to look hard enough, there are deals to be had. The best price on whole salmon was €6.99/kg however, for this price, the store was not prepared to cut the fish up. Shoppers had to take it whole.

A couple of stores were promoting salmon fillet at €11.20/kg but that was about the best that France could offer this Easter.

Much better deals were to be had in the UK with whole salmon available as cheap as £5/kg NOK 55.23/kg and the fishmonger was willing to prepare the fish as the customer required. The best deal on fillet was £7.50/kg (NOK 82.80/kg) for a whole side. This was half price.

There were a few small deals on smoked salmon in both France and the UK but nothing spectacular.

We would suggest that for yet another year, salmon at Easter was just a damp squib. It does seem that the European salmon party is well and truly over.

 

On message: The Huffington Post reports that Tom Aikens, who was the youngest ever British chef to receive two Michelin stars, has said that it is incredibly important to be a sustainable seafood lover as it is shocking how over the last fifty years, many fisheries have been brought to the brink of collapse. He continued that unsustainable fishing techniques have long wrought havoc on the oceans with poorly managed fisheries and high demand for popular species such as cod and salmon have pushed them towards extinction.

Tom Aikens comments came through his work with WWF’s Earth Hour campaign. He said it is still possible to eat fish but that it must be sustainably sourced. He said that there is no need to cut down on eating fish just to look for alternatives that will taste just as good but have less drain on current resources.

Tom recommends swapping salmon for flounder with scrambled eggs for brunch or he says any flat fish will taste as good with eggs. He also suggests swapping cod and haddock for gurnard, especially in fish and chips. Lastly, he says that for those who enjoy eating sole, then to switch from dover or lemon sole to megrim sole, a more sustainable choice.

It is not just WWF, but the fish industry also likes to align themselves with celebrity chefs. We, at Callander McDowell, wonder why. Most seem to have little understanding of the fish sector and most have minimal recognition in the wider marketplace. On reading Tom’s advice, we were puzzled by his suggestions. He says any flat fish tastes good with eggs and presumably this includes Dover sole but then he suggests eating different soles instead. Yet, Dover sole is on the list of ten best choices issued by the Marine Conservation Society!

We know that Tom serves brunch at this chain of Toms Kitchen restaurants and were interested to see if he had put flounder and eggs on the menu. The answer is no. Instead, its salmon. As Tom is so concerned about sustainable fish species, we had a quick trawl of the menus at his three UK restaurants to see what choice of fish and seafood offered to diners.

Chelsea

Breakfast

Eggs Royale – eggs and Cornish smoked salmon

Dinner

Starters

Salt cod

Cured salmon

Crab cake

Mains

Fish pie inc cod

Mini Fish & chips (no species listed)

Squid

Monkfish tail

Shetland salmon

Mussels

Cod dog

Canary Wharf/ Birmingham

Mains

Cornish smoked haddock

Mussels

Fish & chips (no species listed)

Roast Cornish cod

 

The menus speak for themselves. In our opinion, this seems a clear case of saying one thing and then doing another.