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reLAKSation no 1182

Weak 4: The fourth session of the Rural Affairs Committee’s salmon inquiry began with consideration of research and collaboration. After a short discussion, the convenor stated that this is a very polarising topic and there needs to be a balance between commercial interests and the huge importance of the wild salmon population. He continued by saying that the Salmon Interactions Working Group considered how professional and collaborative working might be improved (with the view to reducing the polarisation) but that it doesn’t seem to be working. The convenor asked John Goodland, chair of SIWG, whether he had any ideas how in the future the arguments can become less polarised.

I will pass over John’s response to make the following observation. There have now been four sessions of the inquiry during which sixteen witnesses have been able to give their evidence including NGO’s whose stated aim is to remove salmon farming from Scottish waters. The final witness was the CEO of Fisheries Management Scotland representing the interests of salmon fishing proprietors. All the witnesses were given the opportunity to express their views without the salmon farming sector being able to rebut any inaccuracies, falsehoods or misrepresentations. Against this background, is it not surprising that there are such polarised views. If the committee want to see a collaboration and cooperation, then the salmon industry should have bene given the position to engage in all the sessions, along with the selected witnesses. However, this follows a pattern adopted by Parliamentary Committees in relation to salmon farming. The ECCLR Committee called twelve witnesses of which only one was from the salmon farming sector. Is it not surprising that views are so polarised when there these committees seem to want to hear only from those not directly connected to the salmon farming sector.

The industry will be finally able to speak in the first week in October, some fourteen weeks after this latest session. The fact is that the Rural Affairs Committee have encouraged the polarisation of views by conducting the inquiry without balance and the opportunity to challenge the views expressed.

In my experience the polarisation of views has been allowed to persist because those who hold views that salmon farming is harming wild fish have refused to enter into any discussion on the contentious issues because I suspect that they don’t want to hear anything that might undermine those views. John Goodlad has previously admitted the SIWG did not discuss the science because it was so contentious. It is only contentious because it doesn’t support the existing narrative.

Alan Wells, CEO of Fisheries Management is a case in point. Over the years, I have written to Dr Wells to ask if I can meet with him. He has refused my request claiming that I don’t have a constituency i.e. I don’t represent an organisation. The fact that I wanted to discuss ways to safeguard the future of wild salmon was clearly not considered relevant. I am also led to believe that a former head of the SSPO was looking at the possibility of holding talks with FMS and was told that if I was involved (as a sea lice specialist) then the talks would not proceed. I am not sure where FMS got this idea as I was never even asked to participate. I have also offered to speak at the FMS conference, an offer which was also ignored. In my opinion, the reality is that like the rest of the wild fish sector and the Marine Directorate, FMS  are not interested in hearing anything that is contrary to their existing view.

As I was aware that Dr Wells was to appear before the committee, I sent him a copy of my graph showing parallel rate of declines of salmon from the east and west coast. In common with everyone else claiming to be concerned about the future of wild salmon, my graph elicited no response from Dr Wells.

Before I return to the issue of the latest session, I would mention that the convenor of the 2018 REC Committee inquiry, Sir Edward Mountain has been participating in this latest inquiry. Since the REC Committee report was published, I have written to him more than once to suggest that he was ideally placed to be the catalyst to bring the two sides together to discuss the issues. As the current convenor highlighted that polarisation is still a problem, I clearly don’t have to write about the outcome of this approach.

Week 4 of the inquiry was a classic example of why there are such polarised views. The theme was salmon interactions, hence the presence of the Chair of SIWG, who was followed as a witness by the aforementioned Dr Wells from the wild fisheries sector. Where was the representation from the salmon sector. I know my name was submitted as a potential witness to the inquiry and I also wrote with details of my own potential contribution. Just as the wild fisheries sector and the Marine Directorate don’t want to hear an alternative narrative, so it seems neither does the salmon inquiry. Instead, Dr Wells was allowed an hour and a quarter to carp on unchallenged to the committee about the impacts of salmon farming whist claiming his own sector has little or no impact at all on salmon populations. The fact that his membership has overseen the catching and killing of around 6 million wild salmon and se aa trout from Scottish rivers since 1952 seems to be of little relevance to the current discussions. Before I turn to some of the points made during Dr Wells time in the witness chair, I would just mention that the first question posed by the convenor to John Goodlad was what progress has been made on the recommendations of the SIWG report. He replied not much. However, what was not mentioned was that great stride shave been made on the understanding of the science of sea lice since SIWG and these developments ultimately should affect the recommendations that appear in the report. However, they won’t because the committee will never get to hear about this progress because it has been asking the question to the wrong witnesses. This is why rather than discuss progress, what is clear is that there is an urgent need for SIWG 2 (science) I would hope, but not expect, that this should be the main recommendation arising from this inquiry.

The most important point to consider about the committee’s invitation to Dr Wells to attend the inquiry is that Fisheries Management Scotland is not an organisation devoted to protecting Scotland’s wild salmon and sea trout. Fisheries Management Scotland are very much one of the pressures affecting wild salmon in the same way as barriers, afforestation, climate change etc. Fisheries Management Scotland still oversee the catching and killing of wild fish, no matter how much they suggest otherwise. Dr Wells told the inquiry that the best estimate that angling might have on Atlantic salmon is that it might result in the loss of under 1% of the population It is somewhat unclear how Dr Wells has arrived at this figure and to what it relates.

One way that it might be considered is that the Marine Directorate have stated that catch and release in 2023 (the most recently published data) accounted for 96% of the total rod catch. Thus 4% of the catch was not returned which although a small number is not 1%. For sea trout, a species Dr Wells referred to more than once, the catch and release rate was 92% which means that 8% of fish were kept for the pot. Certainly, these figures do not include an estimation of salmon mortality due to catch and release which are suggested to be around 10%.

Whether the 1% impact is expressed in the same way as the percentage of fish returned will probably require clarification but it is the 1% that Dr Wells highlighted is what is of interest here.

However, I am just going to divert here to mention that in the past FMS appear to have published different catch data in their Annual Review to that published by the Marine Directorate, even though the data all comes from the same original source. FMS have resolved this discrepancy by simply no longer publishing figures. This is of interest because whilst the Scottish Government say that 96% of salmon are returned, Dr Wells told the inquiry it was 98%.

Returning to Dr Well’s figure of 1% for angling’s impact and he was arguing that with such a small impact, banning angling would have little impact on the size of the stock, then I would like to highlight to Dr Wells, that Jackson’s 2013 paper, based on actual experimentation rather than modelling, found that sea lice were responsible for the loss of just 1% of the fish. Clearly, the wild fish sectors impact of 1% is considered to be much less harmful to wild salmon that the 1% coming from salmon farming.

Of course, the fundamental problem here is that Dave Jackson’s work has been rubbished by the wild fish sector and ignored by those working on sea lice science simply because it doesn’t fit their narrative that sea lice from salmon farms is harming wild salmon. Dr Wells told the committee that the Scottish Government had published a summary of sea lice science in 2021 (actually, the first version was published in 2015/6). He added that the information is relatively clear that salmon farms have the ability to impact on wild fish. Yet perhaps if the Marine Directorate had included research from Jackson’s 2013 paper (and other research) in their summary of science, they might have come to a different conclusion. As I have written many times previously, the Marine Directorate have been extremely selective in their research of the impacts of sea lice and thus have perhaps arrived at the wrong conclusion. If the Marine Directorate believe otherwise, I would be more than happy to sit down with them to discuss the difference in our science.

Dr Wells was asked about sea lice data and whether it is presented comprehensively and accessible. He replied that the data is published on the Scotland Aquaculture website and it’s not particularly accessible and when it is taken off the website it needs to be put into excel and put it into a format that makes it useful. He said that it’s not that difficult to do but it’s an extra step that’s shouldn’t really be necessary. Given that Dr Wells seems to think that the data should be made more accessible, it is rather surprising that the sea lice counts on wild fish published by FMS on their website is actually extremely inaccessible.  Not only is it hidden away, but it is published as a pdf and not in excel. I agree with Dr Wells that having the data in an excel spreadsheet is much more convenient, yet FMS prefer to publish the data in pdf format. Written requests to FMS for an excel version have never been answered leaving me to request the data from the Marine Directorate, which is a slow drawn-out process. Unlike the s sea lice data from salmon farms, the data collected from wild fish is highly inconsistent and rarely keeps to the sea lice monitoring protocol. Presumably, this is why FMS have recently changed the protocol to make it easier for the fisheries trusts to catch even fewer fish. Unfortunately, the new protocol has not yet been made available for public consultation.

Dr Wells referred to fyke net sampling during his responses to the committee claiming that their introduction was an example of the collaboration that can occur between sectors. However, he failed to mention that this method of sampling does not produce a true picture of sea lice infestation in Scottish lochs. The use of similar traps in Norway, also result in unrepresentative sampling, and thus the use of such methods to sample fish for lice should be reviewed but as Dr Wells seems reluctant to discuss the science, it seems equally unlikely a discussion on sampling will ever take place.

There is always a delay in the publication of the transcript of the meetings and there are some points made during Dr Wells evidence that merit comment for which I do not have the exact context.

One of the MSPs mentioned ‘curtains’ of sea lice in the lochs then referred to it as anecdotal and this is one of the fundamental problems with any discussion about sea lice which is that most of the evidence is largely anecdotal and not borne out by the science.

There was a discussion about how Norway imposes a much lower sea lice limit on farmed salmon that in Scotland yet, despite these low limits, it is Norway that has now closed rivers to fishing, not Scotland.

Finally, Dr Wells mentioned that the sea lice regulator will be only looking at historic data going back a couple of years. He, nor SEPA, have considered that salmon catch data (a proxy for population size) goes back over seventy years and this data can be matched to the arrival of every salmon farm in Scotland. What is clear from this data is that salmon farming has had no direct impact on salmon numbers in any river in Scotland. Of course, Dr Wells doesn’t seem interested in such evidence and nor seemingly does the Scottish Parliamentary inquiry.

I suspect that the salmon farming industry is now well used to being the recipient of such a blinkered view. It’s only a shame that none of the Rural Affairs Committee members asked Dr Wells for his view of why wild salmon have suffered such massive declines in areas where there are no salmon farms.


Norwegian rivers: In the last issue of reLAKSation, I mentioned that the Norwegian Environment Agency would be assessing the state of salmon in rivers in Norway in the coming days. In fact, they announced the closure of 33 rivers in the south and west almost immediately. Now, iLAKS reports that a new assessment of rivers elsewhere in Norway will take place on July 5th. The local authorities in Finnmark in the north say that the main cause of the closures elsewhere was salmon’s survival at sea (and not salmon farming). They added that they must ensure there are enough spawning fish in their rivers this autumn and they hope that their river managers have already done enough to make sure that this happens. It will be interesting to see whether their hopes are realised next week.

In Scotland, there seems to be no mechanism in place to close rivers to fishing if stocks of salmon are perceived to be too low. However, as previously discussed, Fisheries Management Scotland do not believe closure of rivers will help safeguard the future of salmon. In fact, they suggest otherwise and that anglers are the eyes and ears of the river ensuring that any adverse situation can be addressed immediately. Yet if the declines continue at the same pace, it is inevitable that fishing must be banned. Meanwhile, it would be a step forward if FMS were to demand 100% catch and release in all rivers. This would not stop the declines but would send a message out that killing this endangered species for sport is now unacceptable.