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reLAKSation no 1106

Regulator:  Last year, SEPA were appointed as lead regulator of the salmon farming industry in terms of wild fish interactions. When this news was published, I held no particular view, either way, as to whether this was a good or bad thing for the salmon farming industry. As the months have progressed, I have been swayed towards it being not great especially as it has become increasingly apparent that SEPA are equally reluctant as MSS to discuss the science behind the new framework. In my opinion, if there are always doubts about the science, then the framework will never work.

However, I now question whether SEPA are even up to the job. Not only am I concerned that they are too ready to treat a biological system as if it were an inert pollution like air quality but as we enter a new year, I really question why a website that SEPA manage (Scotland’s Aquaculture) that provides simple data about the salmon farming industry has not been updated since December 2021, at least in terms of mortality and biomass. That is a whole year’s worth of data that has not been updated. If a regulator cannot even maintain a relatively simple database, what can we expect of their regulatory ability? I would mention that the sea lice part of the website has been updated but this is probably because of their current focus on the sea lice framework.

I suspect that the Government’s desire to see the salmon farming sector thrive will be ultimately derailed by SEPA’s inefficiency, that is clearly demonstrated on the Scotland’s Aquaculture website


Deliced:  Just before Christmas, the Norwegian ‘Aquablogg’ published an interesting commentary on the current standing of research about sea lice ( It is quite a complex commentary, but I believe that the content is worth repeating in this issue of reLAKSation for a wider audience.

The Aquablogg commentary was prompted by an article in the Norwegian media E24 on November 24th.  This reported that Mari Myksvoll, a sea lice researcher at the Institute of Marine Research (Havforskningsintitutte) had said that she had lost the desire to research sea lice due to harassment from the farming industry. This harassment took the form of being asked questions about the science. Her colleague, Ingrid Johnsen agreed with her and is also thinking about scaling back her work on sea lice too.

According to E24, Mari Myksvoll originally spoke about this alleged harassment at a ‘Researcher’s Night’ debate organised by the Researcher’s Association of Oslo University, in which she was a panelist. During the discussion Mari Myksvoll claimed she was a victim of a witch hunt. This occurred during the recent court case over the Traffic Light System brought by farmers from area PO4. An expert witness, called by the farmers’ barrister, criticised a scientific paper in which she was the first named author. She was upset by the lack of any right to reply as she was not called as a witness. This is despite the fact that paper is in the public domain and therefore is freely open to criticism or praise.

The other panellists in the debate saw parallels with climate deniers and tobacco propogandists leaving no doubt that the message from this ‘Researcher’s Night’ that researchers must be protected from any criticism and when such criticism does occur, it must be crushed.

Aquablogg questions why this matter was raised in the media. Could it be that the researcher is playing the victim’s card, but Aquablogg asks whether it is the researcher or the research that is the victim. Certainly, the salmon farming industry is being made out to be the evil aggressor; one that not only causes problems for wild salmon but also for those researching sea lice.

Aquablogg’s only conclusion is that researchers such as Mari Myksvoll and Ingrid Johnsen might now see that their published findings are beginning to fall apart, and their science is being exposed as being effectively dishonest. Aquablogg says that their possible defence involves transforming themselves from accuser of the salmon farming industry to victim and this claimed victimisation may be simply a quick way to desert the sinking ship. Yet, it should be remembered that these researchers have chosen to participate in this research amid a culture of arrogance, concealment of competence and over-stated skills.

Aquablogg says that it is possible to have sympathy for promising young researchers who are encouraged into the established narrative about salmon farming by an inner circle of scientists who appear to have their own agenda. It takes a strong backbone to dare to oppose long-held assumptions that may bring an end to a future career. However, Aquablogg says that this does not exempt individual researchers from personal responsibility. Institutes that carry out sea lice research appear to have a self-indulgent culture that has developed free from any criticism.

It does not help that the research has placed great burdens on the salmon farming industry both financially and reputation-wise, yet it has cost the researchers nothing to accuse the salmon industry of something it has not done. At the same time, unnecessary measures based on flawed research has cost the industry billions of krone.

The report of the recent meeting reported in E24 which concluded that researchers must be protected from criticism prompted Aquablogg to be reminded of events back in 2016 when Frode Reppe from the Norwegian Seafood Companies criticised researchers and was later sacked from his job for doing so. The then heads of HI and NINA had said that researchers must be trusted no matter because they are peer reviewed. HI and NINA said that they would be happy to cooperate with the salmon farming industry as long as the industry accepted what they said without criticism. This followed on from a statement from the then head of Norske Lakselever Erik Sterud, and the head of the Scientific Council for Salmon Management Torbjorn Forseth, which said that ordinary people should not criticise scientific research. Criticism must come from authorised researchers only because scientists cannot waste their time on nonsense from ordinary people. Only scientists can criticise scientists.

However, Aquablogg says that offending sea lice researchers is nothing new. The problem Aquablogg says is that the quality of most sea lice research violates basic scientific principles. Observations that contradict scientists’ claims are tossed aside and the scientists continue if nothing has happened. They refuse to discuss paradoxes such as why stocks of wild fish are improving whilst models say that they will decline.

Aquablogg ends by suggesting that the most likely explanation for Myksvoll and Johnsen’s decision to quit is they have realised that the game is up. However, if they are satisfied with their research why are they afraid of criticism. If they believe in their work, why are they not staying to fight to show that they are right. Aquablogg surmises that this media coverage of their exits due to criticism indicates that the criticism is likely to be valid.

I have repeated this commentary simply because it resonates with my own experience. It seems that the scientific community who pursue the established sea lice narrative refuse to be questioned as to its validity. I fail to understand why those whose work I have doubted have not been willing to stand up and defend their work and instead have taken themselves to ground. I once did manage to get to speak to one researcher who dismissed my questions about one specific paper by saying the research is historic, yet the said paper is still promoted to this day as unquestioned proof of the impact of sea lice on wild salmon stocks.

With plans to impose a risk assessed framework on the salmon farming industry, there now needs to be an open and frank debate about the science because until there is, there will always be a question as to whether the selected science used to promote this framework is nothing more than an attempt to bolster a failing long-term narrative about the impacts of sea lice on wild fish stocks.


Pinch point: The Atlantic Salmon Trust (AST) have published a short film about the findings of the second year of the Moray Firth Tracking Project ( Seemingly, the trust has found that there are ‘pinch points’ in rivers that are restricted by barriers and other features that slow the water flow. In the film, Steven Mackenzie, a fisheries manager of the upper and lower River Oykel says that ‘everyone presumed the issues were at sea, but clearly we have proved beyond doubt that there are some pressing issues in freshwater.’

This is ground-breaking research!! Who would have thought that barriers etc, impeded smolt migration and hence the number of fish ultimately reaching adulthood. What the AST appear to have forgotten is that many barriers have been in place for years including those years when the salmon catches were at their highest. The AST weren’t attempting to study ‘pinch points’ then so why now?

The reality is that it is not the ‘pinch points’ that are causing the problem. These pinch points were never a problem during the good times, and they are not the problem now. The real problem is at sea but over the years as the number of salmon returning to Scottish rivers has declined, the impact of these ‘pinch points’ has increased. We can remove every ‘pinch point’ in Scotland, but it still doesn’t address the fundamental problem affecting wild salmon and that is at sea.

Whilst scientists in other countries have started to take a look at marine mortality, those in Scotland appear to have buried their head in the sand and preferred to ignore the problem, claiming problems at sea are beyond their capability. So rather than address the real issue, those in the wild salmon sector are fiddling around the edges and thus will never discover why salmon are failing to return to Scottish rivers. Without such knowledge, there can never be any plan to help salmon stocks recover.

Of course, it is not just barriers that are ‘pinch points.’ Predation used to be not so much of an issue but as stocks have declines, the pressure from predation has increased. Salmon farming has always been blamed for declines but as SEPA have clearly stated, salmon farming is not to blame for the decline but as stocks get smaller, there is (a remote) possibility that a few extra fish might die and consequently MSS/SEPA believe an ever-tighter regulation is required. Meanwhile anglers can still catch and kill salmon from nearby lochs. SEPA say that impacts of angling have nothing to do with them, but it is a sheer nonsense to impose controls on one alleged ‘pinch point’ but not on others.

The Wild Fish Strategy implementation plan is due to be published shortly. It is unlikely that the increased pressure from angling (another pinch point) will not be addressed. The recent consultation of catch and release has already demonstrated an unwillingness to increase regulation on exploitation. It will be business as usual for the angling sector, whilst they blame everyone else. There are ways that the angling sector can continue to fish but with increased measures to protect vulnerable salmon stocks.

Firstly, spring salmon are still considered threatened and so few are caught anyway. Spring fish can be easily protected by starting the angling season at the end of April. This would apply across all of Scotland. From April to the end of September, the three river grades would be applied in the following way:

Grade 1 rivers – anglers could kill a predetermined number of salmon for their own consumption.

Grade 2 rivers – mandatory catch and release only

Grade 3 rivers – closed to fishing.

Of course, the angling sector, whilst claiming that they care about salmon conservation, will never agree to such a simple solution. They are generally far more interested in their sport than safeguarding the fish.


Finally: The Northern Times reports that Andrew Graham Stewart is stepping down from his position as Scottish Director of Wild Fish Conservation (formerly Salmon & Trout Association etc).

Mr Graham Stewart has spent the last decade blaming salmon farming for the declines of wild salmon and sea trout, whilst trying to avoid any discussion with those who take a different view. I had always hoped that he might one day be willing to have that conversation, but now it seems highly unlikely.  I would have thought that anyone who claims to be so passionate about protecting wild salmon and sea trout would be ready to talk to anyone and everyone in their quest to find out the best ways to safeguard the future of wild fish. Seemingly not.

I shall take a closer look at Mr Graham Stewart’s view on wild fish in a future issue of reLAKSation