Decline and fall: At the fiftieth anniversary dinner of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, Prince Charles told those attending that during the 1980s one in four smolts leaving their rivers would make it back whereas now (2017) the number is one in twenty. He said that we don’t know why this is happening but until we do, stocks will continue to decline. He added that we cannot lose ninety-five percent of our salmon on their epic journey to and from our rivers. We need to know what is happening to them on their way.
The problem has been that any attempt to find out what happens to salmon whilst at sea is being permanently hampered by the view that such research is beyond the capability of those in the wild fish sector who are undertaking the research and even if the cause is discovered, there will be no likelihood that any remedial action can be instigated. Perhaps, any consideration of what is happening to salmon at sea is formed by an expectation that climate change is the overarching factor influencing salmon survival and there is little that can be done by the wild fish sector. Instead, the view is that the focus would be better aimed at those areas that can be influenced and thus any commissioned research investigates what happens to salmon in freshwater or near to shore. The hope is that even small changes that might be made may ensure more smolts go to sea and thus a few extra might return.
However, like at sea, there are pressures on wild salmon in freshwater that researchers believe can be managed and others that might, for a variety of reasons, prove impossible to manage. For example, if it is shown that seals eat many more young salmon than was believed, it is unlikely that the wild fish sector would be able to influence government to impose greater controls on seal numbers.
The list of factors that potentially impact on wild salmon and that can be managed is thus very small. At present, two seem to dominate wild fish discussion. One is riparian tree planting to limit river temperature rises and the other is aquaculture.
As I have discussed many times, salmon farming receives far too much attention as a cause of salmon declines despite only the slimmest circumstantial evidence. In Scotland, even if it did significantly impact wild salmon stocks, it would only affect 10% of the total Scottish salmon population. If salmon farming was banned as some would like, the number of wild salmon returning to Scottish rivers would still be one in twenty if not even less. Yet, of the high-level pressures affecting salmon, it is only aquaculture interactions that has been subject to a working group and only aquaculture for which Fisheries Management Scotland has received funding for a specially created position of Aquaculture Interactions Manager.
Meanwhile, the problem for wild salmon is not salmon farming, but what is happening out at sea. I recognise that climate change will have an impact, but I am not so convinced that these changes began back in the 1980s. The long-term increase in mortality at sea is more likely to be due to something else.
A new review paper from scientists in Nova Scotia together with others from New Brunswick, Galway and Glasgow has concluded that the underlying problem for wild salmon is illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries exploitation that has occurred since 1985 in areas outside the Exclusive Economic Zones. They say that the problem of IUU ocean fisheries is acute and is responsible for the collapse of numerous stocks of desired species worldwide and is probably linked to the decline and impending collapse of the North Atlantic salmon population.
The researchers, led by Michael Dadswell, have systemically discounted every other possible cause including aquaculture other than IUU fishing. The paper is extensive and runs to 44 pages and covers far too many issues to discuss here. The paper is available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23308249.2021.1937044 for anyone wanting to explore their findings in full.
For me the overriding message is that far from being something that is beyond the capability of control, with the right will, IUU fishing could be prevented or at least minimised. At the same time, it is also clear that IUU fishing has been allowed to happen because all the wild fish experts are too busy looking in the wrong direction. They now need to accept much of the blame for the collapse in wild salmon numbers.
Pressures: The Scottish Government have compiled a list of high-level pressures affecting wild salmon. The one pressure that attracts all the attention is salmon farming even though it is probably the one pressure that has least impact on wild fish. How often is there any discussion of the other pressures in the public arena?
Fisheries Management Scotland posted a BBC news story on their website concerning water levels in the River Spey. The local fishery board commissioned a study that concluded hydroelectric schemes have had a devastating impact on the river which is dubbed the fastest flowing river in Scotland. The study claims that too much water is being diverted away from the River Spey for use in the generating industry, resulting in reduced water flow and lower water levels. However, this is not a new problem as water has been diverted for hydro-electric use since the 1940s. Although I am not aware of specific examples, I do know that the generating companies have recompensed local fisheries boards in one way or another over many years.
There are also long-term plans in place to mitigate against many dams and barriers including those used for hydroelectric, but this is a major project over many years and not an instant fix. Maybe, Fisheries Management Scotland should be using their barrier/abstraction manager to raise public awareness of the problems rather than leave it as a lesser-known pressure. However, I forgot, FMS don’t have a barrier/abstraction manager. Their only ‘pressures’ manager is employed to help mitigate against the perceived impacts of salmon farming.
The wild fish sector has prioritised salmon farming as their number one issue for many years and even those organisations that now acknowledge that salmon farming is just one of several pressures affecting wild salmon, continue to work against the salmon farming industry.
Recently Foundation Scotland announced that they had awarded £70k to local wild fish projects on behalf of the SSPO as first round awards of the Wild Salmonid Support Fund. The press statement included comment from Dr Alan Wells, CEO of FMS who said:
We welcome this investment in practical projects to benefit wild salmon and sea trout and the habitats on which they depend. Along with our call for robust regulation in Scotland to protect wild fish, projects of this nature are an important part of our overall strategy to protect and enhance Scotland’s wild salmon and sea trout.
Yet, it would seem that FMS are not sufficiently welcoming of this funding that they would post the press release on their website, no doubt in fear of being accused by others of collaborating with the enemy. At the same time as welcoming funding from the industry, there is a call for increased regulation, by which the meaning is regulation of the salmon farming industry and not for example of the wild fish sector, even though anglers are still responsible for the deaths of many more wild fish than can be attributed to the salmon farming industry.
The report from the River Spey shows that the focus must now move away from salmon farming and towards the many other pressures that affect wild salmon that rarely even get a mention.
Big and brave: Peter Gutwein, the Premier of Tasmania, has hit back at his fellow Tasmanians who he says are spreading false information by placing anti-salmon billboards throughout the State. He has strongly urged that the posters on the billboards be removed. In response, Mr Gutwein stated that Tasmanian salmon farming companies have been global pioneers and that the Tasmanian Government supports the industry in its continued journey to be a world leader, in operations, environmental management, fish health, biosecurity and sustainability.
According to Fish Farming Expert, the billboards which state ‘Eating Salmon? Killing Tasmania’ were hired by ‘Neighbours of Fish Farming’ (NOFF), but more about them later.
Meanwhile, Tasmanian salmon farming supporter Steve Harrison, who has posted a number of videos on You Tube debunking many of the claims made by local critics, has pointed out that there are just five critics who make up the voice against salmon farming, the most well-known of whom is Booker Prize for Fiction author, Richard Flanagan who recently published a book about salmon farming titled ‘Toxic’.
Just like in Tasmania, the criticism against salmon farming in Scotland comes from a vocal minority. The main thrust still comes from the angling sector and despite a willingness to admit that there may be other factors at play, still maintain salmon farming is the biggest problem for wild salmon and sea trout. Alongside the angling sector, there are those who claim that they represent the local communities, but they don’t. They are simply NIMBYs who moved to the Scottish west coast and found that real life didn’t match their perceptions of a wild remote coastline. Perhaps if they had done their research before moving, they might not have been so surprised that local people also have to live and work in the area. Salmon farming has been around long enough to have been in existence long before any of the NIMBYs arrived.
It seems that the NIMBY message dominates Tasmanian opposition. As mentioned, the billboards were hired by the Neighbours of Fish Farming (NOFF) who claim to be a community organisation. They want salmon farms removed from the sea and made land-based in order to decrease the industry’s impact on neighbouring households and communities i.e., NIMBYism. At least they are honest and not trying to make the case that salmon farming is damaging the environment but that they simply don’t want it to be where they live.
Returning to Scotland, there are also some activists who do not seem to have a remit from anyone but themselves. Meanwhile, they promote themselves as organisations whereas they just have a membership of one.
Finally, there are the keyboard warriors who hide behind social media accounts and simply retweet other people’s postings yet seem to have nothing to contribute to the debate except plenty of venom which they direct at anyone who counters their perceived narrative. Their problem is that they are happy to hide behind their keyboard and say what they like but are not brave enough to emerge and criticise others to their face. I would point out that this attribute also extends to many of the others mentioned above. If they never hear the facts face to face, they can continue to deny they exist. Most of the keyboard warriors simply retweet other comments and if they do it enough times, they then consider themselves to be experts.
I no longer look at social media, although others seem happy to do so and send their observations to me. I would like to highlight one particular individual as an example. As far as I can gather, this individual is from the north of England and has moved up to the west coast to run a bed and breakfast business. In doing so, he has become an expert on salmon farming and is happy to criticise anyone who offers any other view to his own.
During his anti-salmon farming retweets, he must have come across reference to reLAKSation, although I have no idea if he reads it. However, he was keen to learn more about Callander McDowell and so instigated his own research, which meant he googled the name. One of the links he found came from a business information site called Zoominfo. This informed him that Callander McDowell had a turnover of $5million and employed 23 people. The company also operated out of a post office box in North Manchester. Despite this huge turnover, this critic could find no reference to the company in Companies House or any other business site. He therefore concluded that Callander McDowell must be a shady operation that potentially works outside the law. I understand that that he has tweeted about repeatedly, demanding clarification. Sadly, like many involved in criticising the salmon farming industry, they all too easily believe what they read on the web and take it as gospel truth, when the reality is very different. They don’t understand enough about salmon farming to recognise the difference between the two.
His latest tweet about Callander McDowell and myself states (as written):
Callander McDowell, AKA Martin Jaffa, the Co. that refuses I identify it’s size nature and composition. Hmm Trying to present yourself as something you aren’t? and he’s a doctor (of what). Was it an on line course it did it come in a cracker (Enlighten us please?) Dr of bullsh*t
Unfortunately, in my opinion, this individual appears to lack the necessary inquisitive streak to dig any deeper because if he had he would have found an extensive list of complaints about Zoominfo and its information. They work to a very simply model in which they list any business they encounter in their search to compile lists they can sell. If they don’t have any information about the company, they simply make it up in the hope that the company will question the listing. They refuse to remove the listing but will amend the information if the company provides the correct details. This way, they end up with a more accurate business listing. The truth is that the information discovered by this individual is typical of the information that critics like him peddle about the salmon farming industry.
I am more than happy to discuss the issues relating to salmon farming, but I don’t need to explain myself to critics especially those who are not prepared to be open about their own motives and background.