Question: In 2004, salmon farming critic Alexandra Morton penned a paper in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences in which she reported that sea lice were 8.8 tomes more abundant on wild Pink salmon found near salmon farms. Ninety percent of the juvenile salmon were infected with more than 1.6 lice per gram of host mass which she says is a proposed lethal limit when lice reach mobile stages. In 2007, a team of scientists associated with Ms Morton predicted that unless immediate action was taken 99% of Pink salmon would be extinct within four years.
In this issue of reLAKSation, I write about the explosion of Pink salmon recorded in Norway in 2021 and it is an explosion with an eightfold increase. Pink salmon can now be found across most of the Norwegian coastline. The obvious question is that with a massively greater sized salmon farming industry in Norway than in Canada where Ms Morton made her observations, how can Pink salmon not only survive against what the Norwegian Committee on Salmon Management call one of the greatest threats to Atlantic salmon i.e. sea lice, but proliferate in such numbers?
In the Pink: The Norwegian Institute for Nature Research have just published a new report on the status of Pink salmon. A total of 208,000 Pink salmon were caught in Norwegian waters in 2021. This is an eightfold increase from 2019 when just 25,000 Pink salmon were caught. This followed on from the 12,000 caught in 2017. In addition to the increasing numbers, the geographic spread of the fish increased, with Pinks now found across most of Norway. It seems the invasion of the Pink Pacific salmon from the Russian areas where they were first stocked continues, but now with a greatly increased pace.
According to Fisheries Management Scotland, just 171 Pink salmon were recorded in Scotland in 2021. This compared with just 19 in 2019 and 131 in 2017. On their website, FMS refer to a topic sheet (109) produced by Marine Scotland about reporting Pink salmon to the authorities. However, what caught my interest about this topic sheet was the fact the MSS say that 139 Pink salmon were recorded in 2017 and a further 20 in 2019. What is it about FMS and MSS that they are unable to agree on the number of fish caught in Scottish waters?
It is worth mentioning that the reason there are so few reports of Pinks in Scotland compared to Norway is that there is no commercial fishing and therefore no nets. At the same time, recognition of Pinks that have not matured can be difficult anglers might think that they have caught a grilse unless they know exactly where to look. We do know that Pinks have been visiting Scottish rivers since the 1960s, albeit in small numbers but the real onslaught has yet to come.
Whilst the numbers of Pink Salmon caught off Scotland pales into insignificance compared to the fish caught in Norway, the message is clear that Pink salmon are coming to Scotland and undoubtedly in increasing numbers. It may be a few years yet, but large numbers of Pinks will be on their way.
The Scottish Government recognised the threat from these fish their document relating to the High-Level Pressures affecting wild salmon. Pink salmon were mentioned in the section about invasive species. The document states:
“Pink salmon: experiments by MSS in 2018 using eggs deposited in Scottish rivers indicate that the young fish can survive initially, but will emerge and leave the river in winter rather than spring (which is the normal season in the native range) and are unlikely then to survive. MS intends to issue new pink salmon guidance, via a topic sheet, by mid-June“. The explosion of fish numbers in Norway might suggest otherwise.
As mentioned previously, the topic sheet is available, including the different numbers to those cited by FMS. The topic sheet reports that a number of Pink Salmon were captured and sampled by Marine Scotland and a joint opinion piece paper was published by MSS, SNH and FMS in March 2018 and they kindly provide the link. However, the paper is behind a paywall and anyone wanting to obtain a pdf copy must pay $49 for the privilege. Clearly, despite the threat of an invasion of Pink salmon, MSS aren’t so willing to freely share the information they have.
The Topic Sheet also refers to an advice sheet that FMS, not MSS, have produced. This is available on the FMS website along with a reporting tool for recording captures and sightings. Clicking on the link allows anglers to provide information about any Pink salmon they encounter. However, underneath the section on Pink salmon, FMS have included one for the capture of escaped farmed salmon. Even the threat of PInk salmon does not seem to deflect FMS from their crusade against salmon farming.
As the Canadians are likely to find out soon, even the most stringent measures taken against salmon farming is not going to bring back wild fish because salmon farming is not the problem.
At least once Atlantic salmon become extinct, Scottish anglers will have the prospect of increasing numbers of Pinks to catch and kill.
Mountain of morts: The Herald newspaper reports that Sir Edward Mountain, MSP has written to the Convenor of the Rural Affairs Committee to request a further review of the salmon farming industry. In his letter he wrote that in the years since the inquiry, he believes that the salmon farming industry has been unable to address many of the issues discussed and especially fish mortality rates which he says are increasing at an alarming rate. He added that the number of fish mortalities alone question whether enough progress is being made by salmon producers to ensure their farming methods are responsible.
It is easy to forget that the original inquiry was prompted by a petition from Salmon & Trout Conservation arguing that wild fish stocks were being damaged by sea lice from salmon farms. In response, the then Convenor, who happened to be Sir Edward, proposed holding the last inquiry in 2018. The Committee then met again in 2020 to follow up on the original inquiry. It was during this meeting, that SEPA told the Committee that sea lice from salmon farms were not responsible for the decline of wild fish numbers.
Yet, it seems that the issue of wild fish and salmon farming simply won’t go away. It must be remembered that whilst Sir Edward highlights mortalities, he is also part owner of one of the most lucrative fishing beats in Scotland. He owns 2.5 miles of double bank fishing on the River Spey worth about £8.3 million and which generates about £240,000 in a typical year. The disappearance of wild salmon from rivers including the Spey will clearly have a significant financial impact on proprietors such as Sir Edward. If anglers fail to catch a fish, they may take their money elsewhere including abroad.
At the same time the Herald published its article, the French Press Agency also published a report in which Scottish anglers lamented the plunge in wild salmon numbers. Ian Gordon who runs fishing trips for tourists said that there are now only 20% of the number of fish that there were in the mid-1980s. At the time, he was fishing a stretch of the Rver Spey near the town of Aberlour. It’s unclear, whether he meant in the beat he was fishing, the River Spey or for all of Scotland. Fish catches for individual fisheries are not published because the Scottish Government appears more interested in protecting the interest of the proprietors than the fish, so we don’t know whether the beat near Aberlour is down to 20% of its peak catch or not. Regular readers may remember that I took on Marine Scotland Science when they tried to merge the catch data from more than one fishery district together. Fortunately, I won the case, otherwise we would have even less data than now to help assess the status of wild salmon and sea trout stocks. In the case of the river Spey, the peak catch occurred in 1978 with 14,633 fish followed closely by 1994 when catches rose again to 13,071 fish. Last year the catch for the Spey was 4,796 fish, so more than 20% but still these catches must be worrying not only for Mr Gordon but also for Sir Edward.
Fisheries Management Scotland have just repeated their call to arms to help protect wild salmon (as long as that doesn’t involve stopping fishing for them) because of the perilous state of stocks. Surely, if the Scottish Parliaments Rural Affairs Committee was going to look at salmon again, they should investigate what’s happening to wild salmon.
Yes, the Scottish Government has its wild salmon strategy, although it is already clear that it will never deliver because it doesn’t address the real issues and is more concerned about protecting the rights of the angling sector than the salmon. It is sometime since the strategy was reported but little has been done since to act to help protect wild salmon, except, in the one area in which SEPA have said isn’t responsible for the declines in wild salmon.
Of course, as someone involved in the wild fish sector, and a MSP as well, he is probably bombarded with requests to encourage the Scottish Government to impose stronger measures against salmon farmers.
Speaking to the French Press Agency, Andrew Graham Stewart, of Wild Fish Conservation (unless the organisation has changed its name again), said that salmon farming has played a massive role in the fall of numbers by spreading sea lice to wild salmon. Obviously, he hasn’t bothered to read the Scottish Parliamentary report in which SEPA said that sea lice are not responsible for the fall in numbers, He said that the damage fish farms are doing to the wild fish and the environment is massive, calling for tighter regulations on salmon farms. Although representing Wild Fish Conservation, he has not called for tighter regulation on angling such as the closure of all Grade 3 rivers to fishing, as would happen in Ireland and Norway for rivers in a poor state of conservation.
Instead, Mr Graham Stewart spends his time writing angling reports for Trout & Salmon magazine. In the October issue he writes about the River Ewe that: – ‘the first week in August produced eight salmon for the B…. party including two to TL (better than 19lb) and three grilse to JB.’
This is despite many years of salmon farming in the adjacent loch.
Should the Rural Affairs Committee to scrutinise the wild fish sector, one of the first questions would be the reliability of the data. It seems that the wild fish sector currently remains unconcerned that there is a significant discrepancy between the numbers of wild fish caught and reported to Fisheries Management Scotland compared to those reported to Marine Scotland Science.
The following table is the difference in numbers between the two sets of data for the River Spey since FMS/ASFB published their first annual review online.
Since 2008, the cumulative difference is more than 4,500 wild salmon for just this one river. In total there are 109 fishery districts reporting to Marine Scotland Science. The total difference is to use Andrew Graham Stewart’s word, massive.
However, as a proprietor as well as a former convenor of the Rural Economy committee I would have thought Edward Mountain might have been even more vocal about concerns relating to his own river than listening to the repeated criticism of salmon farming. It is worth remembering that demands for lower lice levels on farms, even though sea lice from salmon farms are not responsible for the decline in wild fish, places the fish under increased stress due to repeated treatments and this undermines the health of the fish leading to the potential for increased mortality.
Postscript: Since writing about the French Press report, the story has been taken up by other agencies. Euronews has posted the same story but titled it as ‘Fishermen and ecologists call for action to protect Scottish salmon’. The story only includes conversations with Ian Gordon a retired ghillie, and who now runs an angling holiday company and Andrew Graham Stewart of STA/STC/WFC. Which one of the two is the ecologist? It’s a mystery to me.