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reLAKSation no 1120

AGS: Earlier this year, Andrew Graham Stewart, Scottish Director of Wild Fish (formerly the Salmon & Trout Association) announced his retirement and at the time I wrote that I would dedicate a commentary to him and discuss his views. Unfortunately, during his time as Scottish Director, Mr Graham Stewart (hence referred to as AGS) has consistently evaded my attempts to engage with him. Seemingly, whilst highly critical of the salmon farming industry, he clearly was not interested in any direct discussion about it and the impacts he claims it has.

However, AGS has left a record as to his views on my own appraisal of the impacts of salmon farming on wild fish. In 2016, AGS wrote about me in one of his fishing reviews in Trout & Salmon magazine. He wrote – “Dr Crapper – so named because of the crap he writes”.

As this was clearly defamatory, Bauer Media, owners of Trout & Salmon agreed to my request to write a piece for the magazine – something the editor had always refused to do. This appeared in the magazine in January 2017, although at the last minute, the editor made changes to my contribution without my agreement. The following month, the editor gave AGS the opportunity to criticise my views but did not allow me to subsequently respond. The following is what I would have written. It is still very much relevant to today as it gives an insight into the blinkered thinking of some of those working in the wild fisheries sector. Words in italics are those written by AGS. The article is titled “Why Dr Jaffa is so wrong”.

The great 19th century prime minister Benjamin Disraeli penned the oft quoted ‘There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics.’ I am not accusing by implication Dr Jaffa of lying in last month’s T&S (Case for the Defence p50) but I would certainly level the charge that he is guilty of the manipulation of statistics to further his cause as salmon farming industry’s cheerleader in chief.

I would absolutely refute AGS’s claim that I am guilty of the manipulation of statistics simply because I have not used any statistics in the article ‘Case for the Defence’. What I have done is take the catch data that his colleagues report to the Scottish Government and presented them graphically in exactly the same way as appears in the Fisheries Management Scotland annual review. What I have done and what no-one else including Marine Scotland Science, seems to do is to graphically present the data for salmon, grilse, salmon & grilse, and sea trout for all 109 fishery districts. This allows direct comparison of all the trends. There are no statistics involved. AGS could have done this same analysis too but seemingly has never done so.

AGS suggests that I am the salmon farming industry’s cheerleader in chief. That is very kind of him, but I do not actually represent the industry. I represent myself and my aim is to sort out the science from AGS’s (and the wild fisheries’) narrative. I would be happy for AGS to point out where I am wrong face to face, but he appears extremely reluctant to do so.

Indeed, one should not take Jaffa’s theories and ‘analysis’ at face value without first appreciating what his prime motive is: fundamentalist support for the salmon-farming industry (with which he is intimately involved) including a tobacco industry style denial of the environmental cost.

And AGS’s prime motive is fundamentalist support for salmon angling and the attempt to deflect attention away from the approximate 5.9 million ready to breed fish that anglers have caught and killed for sport since 1952.

Hence his agenda to show and/or ‘prove’ thorough the dubious use of statistics, that salmon farms in the west Highlands and Islands have had no significantly negative impact on wild salmon and sea trout.

In 2015, Salmon & Trout Conservation, of which AGS is/was the Scottish Director submitted a petition to the Scottish parliament. This petition led to the parliamentary enquires including one by the Rural Economy Committee. In November 2020, the REC Committee held a follow up meeting during which they were told by SEPA, that salmon farming was not responsible for the declines in wild fish numbers. I have yet to hear AGS even acknowledge that statement.

Let us examine some of the specifics of Jaffa’s article. He refers to the 2006 study of Butler and Walker of the collapse of the Loch Maree sea trout fishery and in particular a graph of the Loch Maree Hotel’s catches ‘which declines after the salmon farm” (in Loch Ewe)” started to operate in 1987”, He goes on to say that what the authors failed to mention but is obvious from the graph , is that rod caught sea-trout numbers from Loch Maree had been in decline for at least eight years before the arrival of salmon farming to Loch Ewe. Jaffa’s narrative of catches in the 1980s is misleading and wrong.

As T&S have always published only articles that were negative to salmon farming, they were never going to give me free rein. When my article appeared, all the images I supplied had been removed so the line on the graph showing five-year averages that is pretty obvious to any viewer was not included. AGS does not explain why what I said was misleading or wrong.

In fact, it is abundantly clear from simple examination of the graph in question that Jaffa is being disingenuous. Loch Maree Hotel’s catches (as in any wild fishery) were always subject to peaks and troughs. 1970 was a high point (almost 1,600 sea trout caught) followed by more modest catches between 1971 and 1977 (in the range of 600 to 1000 annually), more prolific catches between 1978 and 1981 (close to 1500 annually), a return to comparatively modest catches between 1982 and 1984 (600 to 800 annually), a better year in 1985 (some 1,100 caught) and more moderate catches in 1986 and 1987 (close to 600 annually).

It is explicit from the graph that catches throughout the 1980s (up until 1987) were entirely in line with the numerical spread of the previous decade. Only after 1987 (and the arrival of the salmon farm in Loch Ewe) did the fishery collapse to unprecedented levels. It has never recovered.

Whilst T&S didn’t include my graph, they have for AGS. This is a simplified graph over a limited time scale which omits data that doesn’t not support AGS’s claims.

Catches from 1970 to mid-1980s had peaked well above catches in the 1960s. Although sea trout catches across the west coast had been in decline since the 1950s, the improvement in Loch Ewe is thought to have been due to more rigorous policing to stop illegal net fishing in the loch. It is clear from the graph showing sea trout catches from 1952, that catches have varied significantly but had been in decline as early as the 1950s.

The reality is that because Loch Maree is now lightly fished, the fishery may or may not have recovered. The data is not available to support either view.

Of critical importance and relevance is the catastrophic demise of larger sea trout in the Ewe system. Scale sampling in 1980 of 1,163 fish (average weight 2.39lb) was carried out by Scotland’s Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory. The most common age was five years, the oldest was 14 years and the overall mean age was six years. A total of 588 fish (50.6 per cent) had spawned at least once, the maximum being 11 times.

Following the fishery collapse at the end of the 1980s, the maximum spawning frequency fell progressively to just two in 1997-2001.

At this point in the article, AGS moves from talking about sea trout to focus on larger sea trout (and later mature sea trout). The publicly available catch data details the number of fish caught and the total weight allowing for an assessment of the average catch to be made. Without access to proprietor data (which Marine Scotland Science will not supply) it is impossible to make any assessment of the actual size of fish caught.

In their book of 1981, Mills & Graesser wrote of Loch Ewe – It is pleasant to record a gradual and progressive improvement in the sea trout stocks over the past 2 or 3 years (obviously they thought that this improvement was not part of a regular ebb and flow of catches) after a very alarming decline which has been pretty general on the mainland and the Outer Islands. There has been quite an increase in the number of sea trout around the 2lb mark caught in the river which augurs well for the future. Quite a number of trout up to seven and a half pounds were taken off the loch in 1977.

Interestingly, in his own book from 2005, AGS writes that before fish farms the quality of the fish was superb and at times incomparable thus in one afternoon/evening session in June about 1980 (so memorable the actual date has been forgotten) Danny Fulton and Iain Kettle landed 11 sea trout for 75lb.

Looking at the official data for June from 1978 to 1982, it can be seen that the number of fish caught for that month varied greatly from 16 sea trout to 257.

The average weight of the fish ranged from 1.21 kg to 1.98 yet according to AGS, eleven fish weighing an average of 3.1kg were caught in just one evening.

What Jaffa and his backers need to answer is what else aside from the presence of salmon farming and its role in sea lice proliferation can explain why virtually all Ewe system sea trout do not survive more than a few months at sea. Jaffa’s underhand response is that sea trout catches have been in long-term decline, not just along the west coast but across all of Scotland. These west coast declines are therefore not out of the ordinary.

Yes, sea trout numbers have declined across most of Scotland but aside from most of the west Highlands and Islands, mature sea trout have not completely disappeared. Jaffa refers to one river in particular – the Nith. He asks why are River Nith sea trout catches in decline when they are more than a hundred miles from the nearest salmon farm?

This is a complete red herring. The Nith, in common with the rest of the non-salmon farming areas of Scotland, has not lost all of its mature sea trout – as this summer’s T&S river report for the Nith confirm with references such as ‘six sea trout to 3lb’ ‘5lb sea trout’ and two sea trout with a combined weight of 11lb 8oz’. Furthermore, the Nith hardly bears comparison to the Ewe system; the former meanders through coal-mining and agricultural land whereas the latter runs of barren mountainous terrain.

Unfortunately, AGS was so caught up in his own narrative that he actually missed the point I had made. I had not specifically asked why sea trout catches had declined from the river Nith when it was located so far from a salmon farm.

Firstly, I had made the point that whilst sea trout catches had declined in the Ewe system, salmon catches had increased.


I also observed that the Nith fishery district exhibited a similar pattern of catches.


AGS is correct, the two river systems are very different but if salmon farming has caused the decline in the Ewe system, then what is causing the decline in the River Nith and could it be that whatever caused the decline in the Nith, also caused the decline in the Ewe?  AGS was so convinced that sea lice are to blame for the changes in the Ewe, that he avoided answering my question at all. In fact, no one from the wild fisheries sector or Marine Scotland Science has so far been willing to answer the question at all.

A far more relevant comparison is the Hope system on the north coast which flows through similarly mountainous terrain. There are two small salmon farms (total permitted biomass of 1395 tonnes) the only farms on this coast – Loch Eriboll to the south-west of the mouth of the Hope. According to the industry’s sea lice figures these farms have been essentially free of lice for almost two years. And, so long as the Hope’s sea trout so not enter Loch Eriboll, they will not even pass the cages, rather, if they go north from the mouth of the river, they are into the edge of the open Atlantic with strong (parasite dispersing) current. Here, they are able to survive and mature- and indeed thrive.

Consequently, the Hope system is still a flourishing sea trout fishery with 11 boats in high demand. Experienced rods say that it is currently fishing as well as it has ever done. This summer it was not exceptional for an individual rod on the loch to catch seven or eight superbly conditioned sea trout per day, averaging 2lb and including fish up to 5lb. Hope is far from an isolated case: nearby Loch Dionard (discharging into the salmon farm free Kyle of Durness) is now probably the finest small sea trout fishery in Scotland with fish up to 9lb.

Compare Hope or Dionard to Loch Maree (or other formerly great sea trout lochs such as Stack which drain directly into sea lochs with salmon farms) where quality mature sea trout have been absent for decades.

I am not sure why AGS sees the Hope fishery district as a better comparison since as he rightly points out, there are salmon farms in Loch Eriboll. He also offers no proof that the sea trout from the River Hope do not enter the loch. For anyone unfamiliar with the geography of the area, the river Hope empties into the loch at its mouth and so it is possible that fish could swim straight out to sea.

I have previously written about Loch Stack which used to offer premium sea trout fishing. AGS assumes that the decline of Loch Stack is associated with the arrival of salmon farming. However, a meeting held by the Scottish Marine Biological Association and the forerunner of Marine Scotland in 1987 detailed the collapse of Loch Stack sea trout whilst the first farm in the area was only registered in August 1985.

The graph clearly shows that sea trout catches had collapsed before the 1980s. Interestingly, AGS writes about Loch Stack in his book – The Salmon Rivers of the North Highlands including a lot of detail about the excessive catches of yesteryear. AGS continues that ‘although sea trout catches had shown a slight decline since the mid-1960s, the advent of fish farms to Loch Laxford in the mid-1980s was a body blow as the average annual figures show.’ I have transferred his figures into graphical form:

The slight decline to which he refers was 576 fish. The body blow from the 1980s was a decline of 526 fish so it is unclear whether the body blow is also a slight decline. What is clear is that from 1995 to 2000, when salmon farms were active, catches of sea trout increased from just 84 to 297.

Jaffa attempts to discredit the hypothesis that salmon farming in Loch Ewe is responsible for the collapse of mature sea trout in Loch Maree by asking why wild salmon there have not suffered such a devastating decline – as both sea trout and salmon smolts “are just as likely to swim past the salmon farm where according to the theory they will pick up sea lice succumbing to the infestation.”

Jaffa appears blissfully unaware that sea trout smolts remain in the sea loch for much longer than salmon smolts so are more vulnerable to infection by sea lice larvae, salmon just make one journey out through the sea loch to complete their life cycle (in some parts of the west Highlands, where salmon smolts may have to run a gauntlet past dozens of farms they are more susceptible to infestation).

As AGS is unable to explain why salmon catches have increased in some areas of the north- west Highlands despite the presence of salmon farming, he prefers to deflect attention towards myself by accusing me of being blissfully unaware of the different life cycles of salmon and sea trout. Of course, this is hardly worthy of a response.

Yet, his comments seem to contradict those of those who have followed him in Wild Fish. Their new report – Breaching the limits begins by stating that “wild Atlantic salmon are experiencing serious population declines across most of their range. There are many contributing factors to this decline, one of the most serious of which is the impact of sea lice emanating from marine fish farms.”

Jaffa has no understanding or experience of the truly magnificent wild fisheries that existed in the west Highlands and Islands prior to the arrival of salmon farming, he has no contact with those still on the front line (the ghillies and local Trust biologists) he has never witnessed post -smolt sea trout smothered in and being eaten alive by hundreds of sea lice (with zero chance of survival) and he has no explanation why virtually all sea trout in the main aquaculture areas never mature.

As AGS has refused to speak to me, he no idea of my understanding or experience or whether I have contact with those on the front line. He also says that I have never witnessed post smolt sea trout smothered in sea lice. Most interestingly, he says that I have no explanation why virtually all sea trout in the main aquaculture areas never mature.

Actually, sea trout from the Aquaculture Zone must mature because otherwise there would be no sea trout in the area at all and the latest catch data highlights that there are.

Rather he relies on, and hides behind the highly selective use of statistics (without putting them into context) allied with spurious comparisons, in order to deny the overwhelming evidence that salmon farming is primarily responsible for the crash in west coast mature sea trout numbers. He defends a grimy industry (inshore open net salmon farming) in a cynical attempt to deflect attention from it being subject to scrutiny and proper regulation. No-one should be fooled.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this commentary, I have not used any statistics to defend the salmon framing industry’s record on wild fish as AGS claims. Equally, I do not need to engage in any cynical attempt to deflect attention away from the need for proper scrutiny and regulation with regard to wild fish. However, as yet, I have not heard of or seen any evidence that supports AGS’s, or anyone else’s claims about the impacts of salmon farming and that includes SEPA, Marine Scotland Science as well as FMS and of course Wild Fish. I would be more than happy to talk directly to any of these organisations, but all seem extremely unwilling.

AGS might think I am wrong, but I have always been willing to stand up to any scrutiny. AGS could have had many opportunities to challenge me face to face but for reasons best known to himself, has avoided doing so. It is wild salmon and sea trout’s loss.