reLAKSation no 1085

Not Grim at all: Colin Macleod, who is described as an acclaimed singer and songwriter, as well as a crofter and ghillie living on the Isle of Lewis, has devoted all of his two-page commentary in the latest issue of Trout & Salmon magazine to the fishery belonging to the Grimersta Estate in the Outer Hebrides.

He writes that he has seen a ray of light in these dark times of record low salmon catches across Scotland. In June, the Grimersta Estate recorded a total catch of 197 salmon, one of the best returns since the early 1900s and more importantly, Mr Macleod says the fish are still coming.

As Mr Macleod spends the rest of his commentary waxing lyrically about the electric atmosphere that surrounds the fishery, it’s probably best to turn to the magazine’s fishing reports for more detail. This relates that this is the fishery’s best catch since June 1973 and the third best since records for the fishery began in 1900. The report doesn’t mention how many fish were caught in June 1973, but the official recorded salmon catch according to the Scottish Government was 253 fish for the whole of Loch Roag fishery district. July 1973 proved even more productive, with 568 fish landed. Perhaps, this should not be of any surprise since in 1924, the fishing at Grimersta was described as ‘unrivalled in the British Isles’ (according to the book – The Salmon Rivers of the North Highlands and the Outer Hebrides). With anglers staying on the estate reporting catches of up to 17 fish each and with catches up to the 27th of July totalling 376 fish, it is worth considering whether the fishery still merits this description.

Whilst the Scottish Government’s official catch does not supply information about individual rivers, the fishery does record its annual salmon from 2013 (https://www.grimersta.com/) The annual catches are shown in the following table:

Apparently, 2020 was the best year since 2012, but that year’s data is not available for comparison. However, the official annual catch data for the whole fishery district does reflect such higher catches totalling 1603 fish in 2012. This compares to 1165 fish in 2020. Data stretching much further back is also available for the Grimersta fishery as shown in the following table:

(From The Salmon Rivers of the North Highlands and the Outer Hebrides)

This table shows that the number of salmon caught has fallen since the 1980s and there are clearly some commentators who are more than willing to tell you why this is. However, this data is effectively presented as a ten-year average so before I explore what some commentators think, it is worth examining the official catch data for the Loch Roag fishery district from when it first became available in the 1950s.

The graph shows the catches of salmon and grilse from Loch Roag from 1952 to 2021:

Although catches have been quite healthy, including the latest record catches for June, the overall trend has seen catches fall over the last seventy years. Yet close inspection of the graph would suggest catches fall into two distinct periods. Certainly, the appearance of the graph would suggest that catches have fallen from the 1950s to the 1980s and this is actually supported by the ten-year data in the previous table.

Yet from the 1980s onward, contrary to the data in the table, catches have improved and show an upward trend.

This upward trend has been marred by a fall in catches since 2010 but this mirrors catches across all of Scotland including those from the great east coast rivers, as shown in the official statistics.

This makes the news from Grimersta even more remarkable and as Colin Macleod rightly points out, a ray of light in this dark time for salmon, but what trumps everything, is that the Grimersta fishery is doing so well despite the presence of not just one salmon farm, but of six salmon farms located throughout Loch Roag.

The historic data about Grimersta is provided by the book titled ‘The Salmon Rivers of the North Highlands and the Outer Hebrides’ which is written by Andrew Graham Stewart, now director of Wild Fish Conservation (formerly Salmon & Trout Conservation, and formerly known as Salmon & Trout Association) and major critic of the salmon farming industry. The book describes Mr Graham Stewart as the North Highlands correspondent for Trout and Salmon magazine responsible for monthly reports on the area’ salmon rivers. It also says that he is one of Britain’s most respected and knowledgeable writers on salmon angling matters. However, in my opinion, this knowledge does not extend to matters about salmon farming, which is perhaps why he refuses to discuss the issues with anyone who does have such knowledge. I would be more than happy to apologise to him if I am wrong, but of course that would involve meeting me face to face, which he won’t do. This has always been a puzzle to me since anyone who cares about the future of wild salmon, would surely want to explore every option to help safeguard the future of wild salmon including discussing the issues with everyone, no matter their specific views.

Anyway, I mention Mr Graham Stewart because he refers to the local salmon farms in his book. He writes that salmon runs dwindled from the mid-1970s (even though the official data for the loch would indicate otherwise). He continues – ‘A prime factor was the development of fish farms in Loch Roag, which rapidly became one of the most intensively farmed sea lochs in Europe.’   He continues that the fishery’s nadir was reached in 1998 when catches dropped below 200, however, at the same time the count for the whole fishery district was 512 fish. The following years catch were 545 then 940. So, if the nadir was due to the presence of salmon farms, how can Mr Graham Stewart explain the subsequent catch of 940 fish, increasing to 1603 fish by 2012 despite the continued presence of the farms (although it should be mentioned that the last farm to be opened was as late as April 2011). In fact, Mr Graham Stewart cannot explain why catches have increased and in a rare comment contrary to his usual views, he writes: ‘However, this century has seen a marked recovery including a catch of 628 in 2002. The improving catches owe much to a concentrated programme, on a number of fronts, to maximise the number of smolts going to sea.’ Mr Graham Stewart doesn’t say what form this concentrated programme takes, but according to his usual narrative more smolts going to sea should surely mean more smolts would be exposed to fatal levels of sea lice. Yet catches do not reflect this.

In addition, Mr Graham Stewart’s narrative that Grimersta catches only declined once the farms arrived in the adjacent loch doesn’t hold water. Catches from rivers around Loch Roag were clearly in decline from 1952 to around 1980, yet the first farm didn’t arrive in the loch until January 1989. The other sites opened in the loch in 1992, 1998, 2005, 2007, and 2011 and yet salmon catches have improved throughout this expansion of farming in the loch.

The Grimersta fishery clearly demonstrates that the narrative that salmon farming impacts wild fish numbers is just wrong.

This is backed up by the catches from another fishery elsewhere in the Loch Roag system – the Blackwater. This river is also featured in Mr Graham Stewart’s book. He points out that whilst the river mouth is little over a mile from the predominant Grimersta, the two fisheries are very different in character. The Grimersta is a loch-based fishery whilst the Blackwater is a river fishery. The historic catches as detailed by Mr Graham Stewart are:

Rather surprisingly, his discourse about the Blackwater makes no reference about the impact of salmon farming on the salmon catches even though catches had fallen during the 1980s. Instead, Mr Graham Stewart references a failed attempt to turn the fishery into a time share and hence reduced catches due to reduced fishing effort. The book mentions that the catches had started to improve again due to some local habitat restoration. However, the book was published some years before 2012 when The Herald newspaper reported a record catch of 555 fish at a time when the five-year average was just 116. The Herald newspaper was the only media to report this record as strangely none of the angling press covered the story.

It is not surprising that the Grimersta fishery also had a record catch that year, contributing to the catch of 1603 fish already mentioned. The Blackwater fishery at Garynahine did well because a lack of rain meant that the fish were unable to move up into the river and remained in the sea pool where they proved easy pickings.

The same sea pool featured in another, not so happy story in 2018 when many tens of wild salmon died became trapped and unable to progress up the river. According to the wild fish lobby, the fish had picked up large quantities of lice whilst passing the nearest farm on their short journey to the river mouth. These lice developed out of control leading to these fatalities.

At the time, I offered an alternative explanation of the lice being a secondary infestation due to warmer water and low oxygen exacerbated by the continued fish activity until a couple of days prior to the onset of the fish deaths. My claims were later refuted by a local who had volunteered to help rescue any remaining fish. I was informed that the water in the sea pool is refreshed twice daily on each tide and that whilst the rest of Britain basked in high temperatures, the Outer Hebrides remained decidedly cool.

I wasn’t in the Outer Hebrides in July and August 2018 so I cannot be certain as to what happened to these fish, but Andrew Graham Stewart was of no doubt. He wrote on the Salmon & Trout Conservation website that:

“The only reasonable explanation for the wild fish deaths is that the sea lice, numbering up to 700 on each wild fish, had reached such high levels in the loch because the huge number of lice-infested host fish on the salmon farms had released an epidemic of sea lice larvae into the loch.”

He continues:

“There can be absolutely no doubt that the source of the infestations was local salmon farms.”

As I mentioned earlier and according to Andrew Graham Stewart, the mouths of the Blackwater and the Grimersta are just over a mile apart. Salmon returning to either fishery are likely to swim past at least three of the six farms located in the loch and thus according to Mr Graham Stewart will be exposed to an epidemic of sea lice larvae.

Four years on, it is interesting to read the fishing report for July and August posted by Grimersta fishing (https://www.grimersta.com/Reports2018.htm). These state that July began with hot and dry weather with water levels low, yet fish continued to enter into the ‘Kelt Pool’ and ‘Loch One’. As the month progressed, the weather remained dry but increasingly windy and overcast allowing the water to cool down. Large shoals built up at the river mouth, which are described as ‘quite a spectacle’ but most did not enter the river. Loch One provided good sport throughout the month with a total catch of 75 fish despite the low water. The rain finally came at the end of the month.

August began with a healthier water level and steady catches. Conditions through the month were very variable with almost no wind. Fish were seen in good numbers but were rarely tempted to the rod. The month ended with a catch of 94 fish.

What these reports do not mention at all are any fish infested with sea lice. There is also no mention of stressed fish or fish near death, let alone actually dying. It is possible that the fishery has not reported any issues in order not to deter any prospective anglers but given that the adjacent fishery received widespread coverage, it would be surprising they have not mentioned even a small impact.

The only conclusion is that the deaths in the Blackwater were unique to the Blackwater, and something happened there to sufficiently stress the fish to cause a significant secondary infestation of sea lice. In addition, salmon farming has been present in the loch for 33 years and yet this is the only example of mass mortality in wild fish, yet there has been more than one example of record catches, including the one reported for Grimersta this June.

Mr Graham Stewart’s book raises a couple of other issues which are worth consideration. The first relates to the Morsgail system which also empties into part of Loch Roag. This fishery is not commercially fished, and the book suggests that an average annual catch is about 16 salmon and 60 sea trout. This is an estimate as apparently there are no catch records for the late 1970s and early 1980s despite an obligation to report these to the Scottish authorities. Mr Graham Stewart says that the low number of fish caught is a reflection of a lack of management and the serious impact of fish farming which has had repercussions for the majority of salmonid systems on Lewis. Given that salmon catches have increased over the period when salmon farms were introduced, then perhaps, there should be more fish farming activity in other areas!

Mr Graham Stewart also mentions sea trout although his book is about salmon rivers. He writes that salmon numbers are recovering (given the ongoing campaigns against salmon farming, perhaps Mr Graham Stewart should be reminded of this statement. He goes on to say that there is little optimism over the future for sea trout and that whilst sea trout were not angler’s primary target, there used to be tremendous runs and catches exceeded 1,000 per annum. According to Mr Graham Stewart, there were always peaks and troughs of catches (2705 in 1888) stocks remained healthy until the local fish farming industry mushroomed in the 1980s.

He repeats this message about the Blackwater River. He says that the river has lost virtually all its sea trout. He adds that in the nineteenth century these fish were extraordinarily abundant however ‘today sea lice levels on sea trout in Loch Roag (one of the most intensively farmed sea lochs in Europe) are described as horrendous with fish identified as carrying over 150 lice – a level of infestation that he says is invariably fatal.

Mr Graham Stewart may know a thing or two about how to catch a salmon using a rod and line, but his knowledge of sea lice is sorely lacking. It is only necessary to look at the sea trout catch data for Loch Roag to see that he is badly misinformed.

Following the example of Butler and Walker (2006), I have helpfully indicated when salmon farming came to Loch Roag. Perhaps, Mr Graham Stewart or anyone else for that matter can explain how salmon farming is responsible for a decline of sea trout numbers?

Returning to Trout & Salmon magazine, Mr Graham Stewart’s report of the fishing in Wester Ross and specifically the River Ewe refers to sea lice. He reports that there have been good numbers of very clean, virtually lice free sea trout in superb condition. The majority are in the 1lb 8oz class, which means last year’s finnock have been able to grow in (salmon farm-free) Loch Ewe without picking up (fatal) lice infestations.

It is interesting to see that despite the closure of the Loch Ewe farm, the sea trout still have lice. Mr Graham Stewart doesn’t mention how these fish have lice nor how many sea trout with lice have been caught but I would suggest that if there was a significant number, he would find fish with high infestations, irrespective of whether a farm is present or not. (The explanation of why this is, requires a whole commentary and will be covered in a future issue of reLAKSation).

He also says that the fish are typically 1lb 8oz which equates to about 680g. He has previously written extensively that the salmon farm has wiped out large mature sea trout of over 5lb (2267g). An analysis of average weights of sea trout caught before the arrival of the farm (1952-1987) found that the average weight of sea trout was just 970g. There may have been a small number of larger fish, but these were few and far between. In addition, average weights dropped from the 1960s onwards, long before the arrival of the farm.

Marine Scotland Science’s Summary of Science about sea lice states that:

‘The body of scientific information indicates that there is a risk that sea lice from aquaculture facilities negatively affect populations of salmon and sea trout on the west coast of Scotland.’ However, this scientific evidence does not appear to actually relate to what is happening to fish stocks on the west coast. The scientific evidence is too generalised and clearly in-depth analysis of specific fisheries can tell a very different story.  According to the science, a fishery, such as Grimersta, which is adjacent to six different farms should now be devoid of any salmon, yet this June produced a record catch. Something is very wrong with the offered science-based narrative. It may be no coincidence but many ghillie’s and river managers also despair about the science presented to them as a way of protecting the future of wild salmon.

Finally, Salmon & Trout Conservation have changed their name to Wild Fish Conservation to reflect their interest in protecting all fish. It is unclear how their, yet to be announced forthcoming campaign will protect any wild fish. WFC have recently appointed a salmon farm campaign manager who will be visiting as many restaurants as possible in order to persuade their owners to stop serving farmed salmon. It seems that WFC have very little imagination as their past campaigns have been aimed at persuading consumers to stop buying farmed salmon. Their campaign failed miserably as will this new activity. WFC should surely be trying to understand why salmon are in decline rather than engage in this sad campaign, which is akin to a child throwing their toys out of the pram.