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reLAKSation no 1165

Why bother? This is the second year that the Marine Directorate has chosen to publish provisional data of salmon and sea trout catches from Scottish rivers. I am not sure why they bother. Other than the overall figure, the rest of the data is meaningless yet at the same time it might be considered somewhat inflammatory. In my opinion, the Marine Directorate should just get on with publishing the full data set. Given the 2023 fishing season finished for most by the end of October with a few rivers fishing for another month, how long does it take for river proprietors to submit their data and for Marine Directorate scientists to collate it? Surely, in these times of the internet, it shouldn’t take until the summer 2024 to publish a list of catches from 109 fishery districts, especially when there are so few fish being caught.

The provisional data includes data on total rod catch and rod catches from east and west Scotland. For me it is a complete puzzle why the data is split into two (meaningless) regions. It is not as if data was divided into two in any of the preceding 69 years, so why have the Marine Directorate decided to do this for these provisional results? I can only think of one connotation that such a divide might be used and that is in the west there are salmon farms, whilst in the east, there are not.

When the data is examined, salmon catches have declined in 2023 by about 23% in the east and by 34% in the west. You can already hear the salmon farm critics screaming out that here is clear evidence that salmon farming has an impact on wild fish stocks. However, this provisional data is so meaningless that no such conclusion can be drawn.

Firstly, anyone delving in to the notes provided with the data will see that the arbitrary divide between east and west is Cape Wrath, which is very much in the west and about 70 miles from the east coast as the crow flies.  That 70 miles of Scotland includes some of the currently most productive rivers yet cannot be considered east coast rivers.

This new ‘west’ region also includes rivers from the Ayr coast and Solway that are not within the salmon farming area. Some of the Solway rivers have seen major declines over the years mainly due to afforestation. I am more than happy to compare catch data from the west coast Aquaculture zone with the rest of Scotland, but I would want to use the data from every fishery district not some arbitrary figure which has no meaning or relevance.

Cape Wrath (in red) and Ayrshire and Solway coasts in blue

I am also cautious about looking at one year’s data in isolation. Every year is different even to the point that it is possible to have a year of good catches whilst the overall trend is very much downwards and equally the reverse can be true.

It is clear that catches from the whole west coast have fallen more than those on the east for this year but as mentioned, I like to look at the detail not the broad-brush strokes. I am especially interested in the Loch Ewe fishery district, not least because the wild sector has focused their attention on the collapse of the Loch Maree sea trout fishery but also because the only farm in the area was closed in November 2020. If salmon farming is the main factor in wild fish declines, then there should be some signs of recovery in Loch Ewe. Unfortunately, the data is not available until the summer to see how the district is faring.

The river Ewe is also of interest because it is one of the few west coast rivers that is featured in the fishing reports in Trout and Salmon magazine.  The reports are written by Andrew Graham Stewart (AGS) former director of Salmon & Trout Conservation and someone who is said to be an authority on fishing.

According to AGS, the river Ewe was slow to get off the mark in 2023, which reflected the desperately low water due to the late spring drought. At the end of May the river was low, but the fish were ‘determined not to run’. AGS explains that the Ewe is not a spate river and thus there is always water allowing fish to forge upstream if they wish. Due to the lack of rain, other rivers in Wester Ross were impossibly low in May and the forecast for June promised no relief. AGS wrote that there was no point putting up a rod in June as flows were reduced to a trickle. The river Ewe fell to almost the lowest level recorded so fishing effort was truly minimal with no fish caught between May 29 and June 24. Fish were caught the following week.

However, July saw copious amounts of water in the river and fishing began in earnest but by the end of July, the fishing went flat. AGS then writes that an air of doom and gloom pervaded the rivers of Wester Ross as summer drew to a close as the grilse runs were sparse. Water levels fell a little but by the end of August the river began to rise again yet AGS writes that an air of pessimism pervaded those on the riverbanks of Wester Ross during late August and September. It was plain to see that salmon and grilse numbers were low across Wester Ross including on the northern sections where numbers have held up better than those in the southern section (where AGS says that there is a greater concentration of salmon farms). On the river Ewe AGS said that by mid-September the fishing was blank. In the final report of the 2023 season AGS wrote that spate after spate swept down the rivers of Wester Ross making them unfishable in October including the Ewe but, on the 16th, the local ghillie managed to catch 9lb salmon.

AGS, who has strong views on salmon farming only mentioned them once. Certainly, there was no implication made that the poor fishing was down to salmon farming. Like rivers across all of Scotland, fish are failing to return from their marine feeding grounds. Whether the decline is 34% in the west or 23% in the east, wild salmon have a problem and there is no point arguing whether the problem is greater in one area or another nor is there any point is arguing over the impacts of salmon farming. The issue is much greater than any of these. The first question I would ask is why did the Marine Directorate allow nearly a thousand wild salmon to be killed from Scottish rivers in 2023, irrespective of whether they were caught by rod or net?

I am not sure why the Marine Directorate bothered to publish this data, but I will provide a detailed analysis of salmon catches once the full data set is published. Finally, I suppose I should mention that anglers caught 42,971 salmon in 2022 but this fell to just 32,477 fish last year.


Masquerade: The latest issue of Fish Farmer magazine included a commentary from Tavish Scott, Chief Executive of Salmon Scotland about the desperate tactics employed by some anti-salmon farming campaigners. His commentary can be read at:

In particular, he highlights the salmon angler’s representative organisation, recently renamed as Wild Fish Conservation. Tavish says the truth about Wild Fish is that they masquerade as a conservation organisation when they are clearly not.

Tavish’s commentary has provoked a response from Wild Fish Scotland director Rachel Mulrenan titled ‘Why WildFish campaigns to end open-net salmon farming Rachel writes that because of their stance against salmon farming, Wild Fish has become the target of attacks from the industry. She says that to be clear and to reiterate, the work they do is based in science and is driven by their mission of environmental and fish protection.

Using Rachel’s words, to be clear and to reiterate, and I am not aware of any attack on Wild Fish by the industry until now other than from myself, and this is absolutely because of their total refusal to discuss the science that they consider so important. It is worth mentioning that Wild Fish’s refusal to engage with me or the industry is matched by their isolation from the wider wild fish sector. Their views and aspirations do not match those of their fellow wild salmon organisations.

Rachel says that Wild Fish is a small charity and on the issue of salmon farming our opposition is formidable – a multi-pound industry that employs countless PR firms, political lobbyists and the odd industry troll, with the explicit goal of silencing those against its hugely profitable activities.

I suspect that Rachel’s reference to the ‘odd industry troll’ is directed at me and reusing Rachel’s words of to be clear and to reiterate, I am not employed by the industry. No-one tells me what to do or what to say. I am my own man and I equally I am not a troll, the definition of which is – a person who intentionally antagonises others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content. I am sorry if Rachel considers wanting to discuss the science is inflammatory, irrelevant or offensive however, I would argue that the science on which Wild Fish base their aspirations is flawed and perhaps if Wild Fish were more willing to discuss the science, then there would be no need for me to have to write about it in these commentaries. Over the years I have failed to understand why Wild Fish refuse to engage about the science other than they are maybe not confident that they are able to argue the science they promote. I have repeatedly said that if one believes in their cause, they should be willing to stand up in front of anyone and defend their position. Wild Fish have always hidden themselves away from public scrutiny. By comparison, I have repeatedly offered to speak at wild fisheries events, an offer which is equally repeatedly refused.

It is also worth mentioning that whilst I am not employed by the salmon farming industry, I have never heard of any mention that the sector is trying to silence organisation such as Wild Fish. If they have any concerns I suspect that it is to try to correct the constant flow of misleading information that charities like Wild Fish rely on to boost their campaigns.

In her commentary Rachel writes that in Scotland, one of the major threats facing wild fish populations is the rapid expansion of open-net salmon farming in the northwest highland and islands and the northern isles. How this is a major threat when salmon farming is located in an area from which at best 10% of Scotland’s salmon can be found is beyond me. Regardless, Rachel says that after twenty years of unsuccessful calls to reform the industry, in 2021, Wild Fish conclude that to protect wild fish and the environment. the open net salmon farming industry must be closed.

She says that the ‘body of evidence’ that supports the fact that open-net salmon farming harms wild salmon and sea trout is extensive and historic.  This is not surprising since most of the research has been directed at showing that sea lice do have a negative impact on wild fish. By comparison, there is very little research showing that sea lice do not have an impact. Rachel provides a link to a Wild Fish report on open-net salmon farming, which unlike any science paper does not provide any information on who wrote it (and therefore their expertise of the subject).

The Wild Fish report shows how the body of evidence they use can be extremely selective because when they mention the study by Dave Jackson, which found mortality of wild salmon due to sea lice was unlikely to be a significant factor influencing the conservation status of wild salmon, Wild Fish repeat the claim by Thorstad and Finstad from NINA, made in a report commissioned by Wild Fish that the statistical analysis used was misleading. In their discussion about why Jackson was wrong, Thorstad and Finstad say that all the results discussed and were summarised by ICES at a meeting in 2016 in Denmark. I was also at that meeting as was Dave Jackson and there wasn’t agreement at all, but any dissenting views were dismissed by a very vocal grouping, and certainly this led me to request that my name should be removed from that report, which ICES refused to do.

I was also interested to see that the Wild Fish report included a reference to a Norwegian paper by Helland and others. Wild Fish say that the paper shows that salmon farms are the most important contributors to sea lice pressure. However, the paper was more about determining the best statistical methods to use to evaluate sea lice pressure. Like the authors, Wild Fish completely miss the main point from the data used in the paper, that any impacts of sea lice on wild fish have been highly over-stated.

In his commentary Tavish asks other than attack salmon farming, what have Wild Fish done to help safeguard wild salmon. He suggests that the money used in campaigning could have been used directly on projects to protect the fish they claim to want to help. However, even if they have limited finding, there are things Wild Fish could do to help protect wild fish that they have failed to do. Wild Fish paid for the study that brought about a change in the ICUN status of wild salmon yet, despite salmon now being classified as endangered, Wild Fish have not demanded the killing of wild salmon should be prohibited but then again, why would they when it is their members that are doing the killing. Wild Fish say that their work is based on science, yet seeming only the science that suits their cause whilst ignoring the other science that might help safeguard the future of wild salmon.

A new paper from Canada repeats again that catch and release fishing at water temperature above 200c can be lethal to wild salmon irrespective of how the fish are handled. Even fish that have been caught and released at below 200c were found to die if they then encountered higher temperatures after being released. Depending on the temperature, over twenty percent of released fish subsequently died. With increasing reports of higher water temperatures in Scottish rivers, A conservation charity like Wild Fish might be expected to be sending out a message that angling should be prohibited during peak summer temperatures but sadly, Wild Fish are so engrossed in removing salmon farms, that anything doesn’t seem to matter, especially if it should impede their members enjoyment of chasing wild salmon.

Of course, the real issue is that if Wild Fish were successful in having salmon farms removed from Scottish waters, they fail to realise that it will make no difference to wild salmon numbers because salmon farming is not the reason wild salmon are in decline.


About turn: Aquablogg reported that this month Dagens Naerinsliv (DN) published an article authored by Institute of Marine Researchers, Monica Solberg and Kevin Glover, that I think is worth repeating here in reLAKSation. The two researchers posed the question of whether escaped farmed still represent a threat to wild fish.

Certainly, researchers at the Scientific Committee on Salmon Management (VRL) appear think so and rating escapes as the largest threat after sea lice. However, as we already know that what VRL think and the reality about sea lice are two very different things, I suspect that the same can also be said for their opinion about escapes.

In the article, Solberg and Glover say that the damage from escaped salmon has already been done but over time, natural selection may cleanse the wild salmon of ‘farming’ genes. Aquablogg says that when IMR researchers attach a question mark to the word threat then this must be considered a definite U-turn. The researchers say that they will be monitoring the cleansing effect of natural selection.

Back in the early days of the salmon farming industry, farmers had to go through a steep learning curve. There was no handbook on how to farm salmon. Everything had to be learnt including how to stop fish escaping from the pens. Early fish farming equipment was rudimentary and sometimes failed and fish escaped. Some fisheries scientists were concerned saying that if escapes continued unabated, there could be a chance that farmed fish would submerge the wild population. However, repeated escapes did not continue because farmers realised that such escapes also represented a financial loss that would be unsustainable. The number of escapes declined, and the predicted genetic extinction vortex never happened, however, fisheries scientists like those in VRL continue to promote the same concept of threat that failed to materialise thirty to forty years ago. Yes there are the unfortunate occurrences that despite the most stringent measures where an escape does happen but these are few and far between and I would suggest that the impact, if any, is negligible. My own view is that Darwinian genetics applies and that survival of the fittest ensures that the wild salmon population is not impacted by any ‘farmed’ genes if such genes exist and they are as weak as some fisheries scientists would suggest.

I have written about this before but just because markers on the genes suggest the fish have a farmed origin doesn’t mean that the genes are actually any different to those in wild fish. Genetic testing in humans can show through markers our genetic heritage but just because someone may have a strong Viking heritage doesn’t make them a Viking.

According to Aquablogg, Solberg and Glover co-authored a paper in 2017 of which the forgone conclusion was that escaped farmed salmon are a major threat to wild salmon and must be combated at all costs. Yet the following year they co-authored another paper which modelled the impact of what they called maladapted domesticated escapees.  They conclude:

“Based upon results from these simulations, together with existing knowledge, we suggest that a combination of reduced spawning success of domesticated escapees, natural selection purging

maladapted phenotypes/genotypes from the wild population, and phenotypic plasticity buffer the rate and magnitude of change in phenotypic and demographic characteristics of wild populations subject to spawning intrusion of domesticated escapees. “

What this means is if farmed fish are not effective at breeding in the wild as claimed, together with the effects of natural selection which purge/cleanse any negative impacts (if there are any), and the fact that fish can respond to their environment, all suggest that claims of escapes fish on wild populations are highly overstated and not a threat as claimed.

The researchers are now aiming to try to measure genetic purging or purification on fish in the Etne river, but Aquablogg expresses concern that the genetic markers could have been introduced many years ago and not when the researchers start their investigations. However, of more interest is the news from yet another IMR study that 2023 is the weakest year for wild salmon in the Etne river. The number of wild salmon has fallen from 2,042 in the year previously to 1.095 in 2023, the percentage farmed salmon has remained the same at about 2% with 61% sexually immature in 2023 and 49% in 2022. Data from previous years is less clear. However, it is a puzzle how 14 sexually mature farmed salmon in 2023 compared to 1,095 wild salmon, can be considered such a major threat to the wild salmon population.

IMR monitor all the fish that swim up the river allowing them to compare the number of escaped fish over time. IMR say that major genetic changes have been demonstrated in the wild salmon in the Etne river but they make no mention of what these changes are. It would be more interesting if IMR could provide more historic data to show how these changes could have been brought about but based on the current evidence, the case against salmon farming is weak.

Yet despite such evidence along with the idea that natural selection will purge any adverse genetic material from salmon populations, the latest IMR risk report, published at the beginning of February and of which the two researchers are co-authors, still continues to state that escaped farmed salmon pose a threat to the genetic integrity of wild salmon populations if interbreeding should occur.  Perhaps the reality is that researchers just cannot bring themselves to admit that escapes may not have an impact on wild salmon because they recognise that such an admission might put themselves out of a job.