reLAKSation no 1045

Deflection: I first started my journey looking at wild/farmed salmon interactions in October 2010. As my investigations began to throw up major questions, I was keen to learn why the wild fish sector might think that my observations, which did not appear to support the many claims made against the salmon farming industry, were incorrect. I was especially keen to hear the views of the government scientists leading much of the research. I wrote to Marine Scotland Science at the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Pitlochry to ask if I could pop in for an informal chat. My request was denied with the response that they would be happy to talk to me once I had a peer reviewed paper published on the subject.

I have since written extensively about wild farmed salmon interactions including the book Loch Maree’s Missing Sea Trout and I have encountered a similar reluctance throughout the wild fish sector to discuss my observations. Those who have spoken to me have repeated the same message that my work has not been subject to peer review and will not be considered until it is.

This week, Salmon and Trout Conservation have gained extensive press coverage after commenting on a recently published Marine Scotland Science report about alleged genetic introgression of wild salmon from farmed salmon stock. On page 3 of the 73-page report, Marine Scotland Science state:

‘These reports are not subject to formal external peer-review.’

I would ask the question that if my reports are considered unacceptable because they are not peer-reviewed, then why should I consider this report to be any different? The only difference is this MSS study is funded by the Scottish taxpayer whereas, I fund my own research.

The MSS report is an assessment of farmed salmon escapes on the genetic integrity of wild salmon populations, but I struggle to see how this assessment is reflected in the content. The study actually investigated 2,964 fish across Scotland, but the report does not reveal how many of these fish are not considered to be Scottish wild fish. Instead, the study looks at how much alleged introgression occurs at each of 252 sample sites. This study is an investigation of sites, not salmon population. Most of the population occurs outside the salmon farming area and thus the number of sites does not reflect the size of the salmon stock at all.

More importantly, this report is claimed to be a study of farmed escapes, but it does not take into account that during the 1980s many local river managers approached salmon farming companies to buy small fish to restock several west coast rivers and catchments. The wild salmon sector does not like to admit that deliberate restocking with farmed salmon widely took place, but it did. Thus, any perceived introgression may not necessarily have come from unintentional releases from salmon farms. It is just so much easier to blame salmon farming than anything else and this is exactly what this report from Marine Scotland Science does.

The problem with reports such as this from Marine Scotland Science is that the implication is that any genetic change is automatically bad for the wild population. However Darwinian evolution shows that should any characteristic appear in the fish that does not benefit their survival, then it will be bred out in subsequent generations. Wild fish genetics are constantly changing regardless of any impact of interaction with farmed fish. There is constant genetic mixing, which is why the £1 million FASMOP project from 2012 is now never mentioned. The findings did not identify the different genetic strains which were expected from every river.

It is also important to note the genetic markers are not evolutionary material. Us humans can have our DNA examined to identify our early origins. Just because someone is identified as being 40% Viking does not make their genetic profile any different to that of anyone else. It is just a marker.

The claimed negative aspects of introgression were developed long ago when predictions that escapes from farms would occur almost daily, leading to the wild gene pool being swamped. Such predictions have failed to materialise, but the alleged negative impacts are still highlighted as being an issue.

This continued focus on the alleged impacts of salmon farming means that there is less focus on the other pressures that are supposed to impact on wild salmon and sea trout. I have asked Marine Scotland Science how much of their budget has been spent on researching the impacts of each of the twelve pressures that they have identified however it seems that they do not keep any records of how they divide up their budget. From the published work, it seems that most effort is directed at either salmon farming or river temperatures and little else. I could be mistaken and would be delighted if Marine Scotland could provide a proper breakdown of their research efforts.

This week, a Ferret investigation has revealed that Scotland’s rivers, lochs, canals, and burns are in the worst state on record, with more than four hundred damaged by water pollution. Among the many rivers rated as either bad or poor by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) are some of Scotland’s most well-known. They include long stretches of the Almond, Carron, Dee, Don, Esk, Kelvin, Nairn, Nith, Spey, Tay, Tummel, and the Water of Leith. These include some of the most important salmon rivers in Scotland and none are in salmon farming areas.

Campaigners said the pollution was unacceptable and demanded an environmental watchdog with teeth. Guy Linley Adams of Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland said that the new data showed SEPA should be tacking the source of the pollution head on. Perhaps, if Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland stopped their blinkered crusade against salmon farming, then SEPA could divert their attention away from salmon farming issues such as developing pointless models to protect wild salmon from sea lice even though SEPA have admitted that the declines in the number of west coast salmon is not due to the presence of salmon farming. It is only due to the repeated and constant whingeing and moaning from across all the wild fish sector that organisations such as SEPA and MSS spend excessive time dealing with salmon farming, which has only minor impacts on wild fish stocks instead of investigating the real reasons why wild salmon and sea trout are in so much trouble.

It is easy to see the why these organisations get sucked into addressing salmon farming issues. The Ferret also reported this week that over forty fish farms have been classed as unsatisfactory. This equates to around 10% of Scottish salmon farms which means that 90% are satisfactory. Of course, the usual critics pounce on the forty farms that are classified as unsatisfactory even though this classification can be awarded for just one out of many factors including failure to report compliance data within specified time limits. I believe that only two sites were classified at the worst level, which is hardly earth shattering. This has not stopped the usual critics shouting out their indignance yet again. Given these claims are repeated time after time, it is not surprising that Government and related organisation start to believe this nonsense, and place far too much emphasis on this one sector.

From 1994, Marine Scotland Science have recorded salmon and sea trout rod catches as either retained or released. Retained means the fish were killed and taken for the pot, released means the fish were returned to the water alive although it is still unclear how many subsequently die due to the stress of being fished or poor handling. In the following years, the number of fish released has gradually increased until it is now at around 90% of all fish caught. Many of the fish were released voluntarily to help safeguard stocks.

Since 2015, catch and release has been one of the most important strategies in Scotland for safeguarding wild fish. Marine Scotland Science now assess each catchment to help decide whether fish must be released or not. However, some local river managers have also taken the decision to impose catch and release regardless of official regulations.

One such river is the Dee which runs for 140 km down to the North Sea at Aberdeen. Due to concerns about the state of the wild salmon stock in the river, a decision was taken at least twenty years ago to impose catch and release on all anglers fishing the river. The graph below. From the Fisheries Management Scotland Annual Review, is of salmon catches from the River Dee and although there was a bit of a resurgence around 2010, due to a reduction in coastal netting, the overall trend has been downwards. It seems that catch and release has made no difference to helping protect River Dee salmon stocks. I suspect that an analysis of every river system in relation to catch and release will show a similar failure to halt any decline. Yet, catch and release is promoted as the best way to protect the fish.

The Scottish Government’s wild salmon strategy is currently under discussion. The group should have reported long ago, and the delay has been blamed on Covid. The working group is made up of representatives from the wild fish sector including those involved in angling and managing rivers. I am not hopeful that any new proposals will be forthcoming to help safeguard wild fish. I may be wrong, but it is likely to be more of the same with the main focus being on planting more trees to help shade warming rivers. This might stop further declines if rivers warm but will do nothing to help fish now.

The wild fish sector often states that to help salmon, there are things that can be done and things that cannot, and the best way forward is to address those issues that can be managed now. The one that they always quote is salmon farming, as they wrongly believe that is responsible for declines. I have regularly pointed out that at most, salmon farming would impact only 10% of the Scottish salmon stock, which means that any declines of the remaining 90% of the stock cannot be due to the influence of salmon farming. When will the wild fish sector begin to realise that if they want to help safeguard wild salmon, they need to start being more open minded as to why wild salmon are fast disappearing from Scottish rivers?

 

Stockings Some time before the pandemic hit, I was invited by Marine Scotland Science to visit the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory as they wished to explain their new policy in stocking to me. They had decided that stocking was unproductive and could potentially damage the existing salmon stock. Stocking of eggs or unfed fry would be allowed although only for conservation purposes and not to restock the river to improve the fishing.

Personally, I had no problem with stocking as I had seen the success of the River Carron restoration programme where salmon catches had been significantly boosted through the efforts of local fisheries biologist Dr Bob Kindness.

When I pointed this out to the MSS scientists, they explained that the increased catches could have been the result of natural recruitment and would have happened irrespective of the restocking programme. However, this made no sense to me as MSS also appear to support the view that sea lice from salmon farms are responsible for the decline of wild fish stocks. The river Carron empties into the sea near one of the largest aquaculture hubs on the west coast. How could salmon catches recover so significantly if the migrating fish are exposed to salmon farms.

Bob Kindness’ work has never been recognised by the wild fish sector because he made the cardinal sin of accepting help from a local salmon farming company. In the wild fish sectors eye’s, anything Dr Kindness did was tainted.

Over the last three years, Bob has been collecting samples from all the fish caught in the river as well as from the brood stock he used. The University of Highlands and Islands have now analysed the DNA to see whether the stocked juvenile fish were surviving to return as adults.

In a report released this week by the River Carron Conservation Association, the UHI research has demonstrated that the type of stocking programme run by Bob Kindness can not only contribute significantly to the fishery but can be done in a way that is sympathetic to the natural ecosystem whilst avoiding risks to health and genetic integrity of the local wild salmon population. This contradicts the view that the risks to wild salmon populations will always outweigh the benefits. The plan is for UHI to undertake an even larger analysis of retained samples, which will help determine the best age of salmon to be stocked.

The findings of this report come as no surprise to me. The work of wild salmon hatcheries mirrors the hatcheries raising farmed salmon and this association means that the wild salmon sector has developed a negative view of restocking. However, common sense says that the best way to boost the numbers of fish in any river is to restock but to do so in a manner that ensures survival. Stocking on a shoestring budget with eggs and unfed fry is not the way forward but sadly, the wild sector has come to believe that if fish are fed in a hatchery they become used to human presence and thus the wild sector do not believe the fish are then truly wild. The fact that they make every effort to ensure human interaction as they attempt to land and then handle fish to obtain the best photo seems to have escaped their attention.

What should be of concern to all those who care about safeguarding wild salmon for the future is that what could be the best possible strategy is being undermined by prejudice and misguided advice.