Scroll Top

reLAKSation no 1152

Better?: Fish Farming Expert reports that an independent Scotland ‘would be better for aquaculture’. The Scottish Government’s Rural Affairs Secretary told the Parliament that the aquaculture sector would benefit from Scotland leaving the UK and joining the EU as an independent nation. The focus will be how an independent Scotland would negotiate its own priorities such as improving trade to Europe, thus avoiding the extra barriers and costs that the Scottish salmon industry now faces.

However, we don’t need an independent Scotland for the Scottish Government to make it better for Scottish aquaculture. The salmon industry currently faces a number of challenges which the Scottish Government could easily resolve but seems like a deer caught in the headlights and is frozen in inaction.

I will cite the example of the SEPA sea lice risk framework which is the most pointless waste of time and money and will not do anything to safeguard wild salmon and sea trout. Its roots lay in the two Scottish Parliamentary inquiries which were initiated by an angling sector who were keen to use the salmon farming sector to deflect attention away from their own deficiencies. As I pointed out in the last issue of reLAKSation, the information supplied to the committees about sea lice was not written by sea lice experts, although it was claimed they were. The original intent of those who initiated the inquiries was to control salmon farming in order to protect wild salmon. Perhaps, it would have been preferable if the committees had focused their attention on wild salmon instead. Perhaps, if they had, wild salmon numbers would not be as low as they are today, especially in areas where there is no salmon farming.

The recommendations of the committees led to the formation of the Salmon Interactions Working Group, a gathering dominated by those opposed to salmon farming who refused to hear any new evidence let alone discuss the existing science that sea lice are not the reason why wild salmon are in decline.

SIWG’s recommendations led Scottish Ministers to commission SEPA to develop a sea lice risk framework, which SEPA would like to introduce next year despite a lack of any evidence that it will do anything to help protect wild salmon and sea trout.

SEPA are soon to publish the outcome of a second public consultation on the framework, but it is likely that they will largely ignore anything that has been said, falling back instead onto their previous standard response that they have been charged by Scottish Ministers to launch this framework and that is what they will do. Presumably, if Scottish Ministers tell SEPA to jump off a bridge they will do so too. One would hope that after two consultations, SEPA would return to the Scottish Ministers and highlight that there are some major concerns about evidence, science and implementation and they want further discussions, but it seems unlikely. They appear more willing to jump off that bridge.

My own experience is that SEPA are unwilling to discuss the science, most critically, that no-one has been able to find these infective sea lice larvae that form the basis of the models used in the framework. If they are not present in the water as predicted, then how can they be a risk to wild salmon? SEPA say the science is not their area and that this is the responsibility of scientists at the Marine Directorate. Unfortunately, the Marine Directorate are equally unwilling to discuss the science, unless it is their own science, especially the models that form the basis of the sea lice risk framework. As well as developing their own science, the Marine Directorate are responsible for providing scientific advice to the Scottish Minsiters. It is hardly impartial advice. I would argue that if any scientist is convinced their science is correct then they should be more than willing to defend it in a public forum.

If Scottish Ministers believe that Scottish aquaculture will be better off in an independent Scotland, then they need to demonstrate their commitment to the sector now by allowing proper discussion of the impacts of sea lice to ensure that any proposed regulation, such as the sea lice risk framework is fit for purpose. SEPA have already said that the framework will involve an evidence-based approach but as yet, the only evidence provided is that from a bunch of whingeing anglers who prefer to blame salmon farming for all their problems. As I will discuss later in this commentary, 2023 appears to be the worst angling season on record and for that salmon farming cannot be blamed. SEPA have even admitted to the Scottish Parliament’s REC Committee that sea lice are not responsible for the declines of wild fish, so why is salmon farming to be penalised? What are the anglers doing to safeguard wild fish, very little besides moan at salmon farming and plant a few trees.

Persisting with the imposition of a sea lice risk framework that will never achieve its aims is not the way to convince the sector that they will be better off under those who seek an independent Scotland.


Difference of opinion: Dr Eva Thorstad of the Norwegian Scientific Council for Salmon Management (Vitenskapelig råd for Lakseforvaltning – (VRL)) has stated on X that ‘Salmon lice from fish farms push sea trout towards a crisis. The impact on sea trout is so large that this threat alone has been and will be the determining factor for the development of sea trout in Norway’. Her comment follows the publication of the English summary of VRL’s assessment of Threats to sea trout in Norway. I have commented on the original report previously in which I suggested that the evidence provided by VRL was rather thin on the ground.

Now Wild Fish, who are major critics of salmon farming, have published a commentary about the conclusions of the ‘Third Sea Trout Symposium’ which was held in Cardiff in September. The symposium was organised by Wild Fish in partnership with the Institute of Fisheries Management and the Wild Trout Trust.  The commentary highlights the symposium’s closing statement:

“The evidence is clear: over the last decade, sea trout numbers have plummeted in rivers throughout England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Barriers to migrations, poor water quality, predation, marine exploitation and climate change were identified as the main causes.”

It is worth repeating that Wild Fish, have posted on their website that the Barriers to migrations, poor water quality, predation, marine exploitation, and climate change were identified as the main causes” of the decline of wild sea trout numbers, even in Scotland.

The third sea trout symposium follows on from the previous two. The presentations from both symposia have been published in book form with 34 and 31 papers respectively. The first book contains the paper presented by Butler and Walker concerning the collapse of sea trout stocks in the Ewe system including Loch Maree. This paper has formed the basis of their complaints about salmon farming. Wild Fish even commissioned a review of the Loch Maree fishery by one of the authors, Andy Walker.

It will be interesting to see how Wild Fish can justify their continued complaint against salmon farming when the conclusion of their own symposia does not see sea lice and salmon farming as a main contributing factor in the decline of wild sea trout.

Meanwhile, VRL in Norway paint a very different picture for the threats to sea trout. After sea lice, climate change is the greatest threat followed by habitat alteration, which could be thought to include barriers. They consider water quality issues such as acidification and sewage as low-level threats as is overexploitation.  Interestingly, there is no mention of predation of sea trout by VRL even though it is considered a reason for the decline of sea trout across the British Isles.

Predation is not included in VRL’s threats to wild salmon although it is discussed in the salmon report. This is why those interested in safeguarding the future of wild fish are actively being misled by VRL and their claims. This is because VRL are only interested in threats from human activities and predation is not regarded as an anthropogenic threat. This means for example, seal and fish-eating birds could be eating 90% of the wild fish population but because sea lice are claimed to be the greatest anthropogenic threat, it is sea lice that are highlighted by VRL as the greatest threat to wild salmon and sea trout even if as in this example, they only impacted on 10% of the population. Perhaps, VRL should be describing all threats to wild salmon and sea trout so those engaged in their management can take a more considered view of any necessary management decisions. Its not surprising wild salmon and sea trout are in decline when scientists promote such a blinkered view of wild salmon and sea trout populations.


Speyed: Charlie Whelan, once spokesman for the labour politician and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has retired to Speyside where he can fly fish for salmon and write a column for the local newspaper, the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald. His latest offering is titled ‘Reason for lack of tight lines on the Spey is obvious’, His reference to tight lines means catching a salmon. Like many salmon anglers, Mr Whelan appears to have a strong view on why salmon numbers are in crisis but like many anglers, he may know how to catch a fish (numbers permitting) but this knowledge does not appear to extend beyond the localised experience of the river beat. The reasons for the decline Mr Whelan has cited appear to be as unobvious as they can be.

Mr Whelan refers to the presence of the Spey Dam about which he says the owners are more interested in hiring spin doctors to hide the damage that the dam does rather than admitting it needs to go. Yet, he ignores the fact that in 1978, over thirty years after the dam was built the river Spey recorded the best rod caught salmon catch ever recorded of 14,633 fish. Whilst the removal of the dam will increase the area Spey salmon can spawn, the removal of the dam will not halt the decline of salmon catches in the river or reverse that trend.

The second potential cause for his ire are landowners whose farms could pollute the river. Like the Spey Dam, these farms have been operating during times of bounty and as anglers claim to be the eyes and ears of the river, I am sure that any incidences of pollution are quickly reported.

Finally, Mr Whelan says that the Scottish Government have made matters worse for wild salmon by allowing more and more salmon farms, which help destroy the species. With the nearest salmon farm located over 100 miles from the river Spey, it seems that its removal will have little impact on wild salmon stocks. Clearly Mr Whelan is unaware that the fishery boards and trusts argued back in 2011 that there was a clear distinction between east and west coast catches and that whilst west coasts catches had declined due to the presence of salmon farms, catches from east coast rivers had increased precisely because there were no salmon farms locally. There are still no salmon farms on the east coast so to blame salmon farms for the lack of catches on the Spey is simply nonsense.

The Spey has had a bad year for salmon with Mr Whelan reporting that the Grantown waters recorded a catch of just 25 salmon. I have heard that the total catch is between 2 and 3,000 fish for the year, which would be the worst ever on record. The Spey Dam, agriculture nor salmon farming have anything to do with this situation, especially as it is being mirrored in rivers across all of Scotland.

The crisis for wild salmon will continue whilst the angling community continue to focus on the plight of fishing in their local rivers rather than what is happening to the wider population. It was in 2017, that King Charles highlighted that during the 1980s, 20% of migrating salmon failed to return to Scottish rivers but thirty years on, only 5% were now returning adding that we don’t know why? Six years later are we any the wiser? The answer is no. The Times newspaper has just reported that the King is allowing the river Dee flowing through the Balmoral Estate to be modified with deadwood providing safe spaces for the fish. How this will help the 95-97% of migrating fish that fail to return from their marine migration is just as much of a mystery as blaming salmon farms for the declines of fish in the river Spey.