reLAKSation no 861

RECed – A personal view by Dr Martin Jaffa: The latest evidence session held by the Rural Economy Committee focused on the regulatory bodies. Having watched the whole session, the one comment that jumped out was made by Mark Harvey from the Highland Council.  Colin Smyth MSP had asked the witnesses whether sufficient investment was being made in research in Scotland. Mr Harvey said he would like to quote the Scottish Government from their response to recent planning applications. He read out that:

“salmon aquaculture can result in elevated numbers of sea lice in open water, and hence in some circumstances is likely to have an adverse effect on populations of wild salmonids. However, the magnitude of any impact from sea lice arising from farms in relation to the overall mortality levels of sea trout or salmon populations is not known.”

Personally, I find this a rather incredible response from the Scottish Government although I suspect that it originates from Marine Scotland Science. If this is the case, then I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Mr Harvey told the Committee that ‘It strikes me that this indicates that there is a serious dearth of data this far on into the history of Scotland’s salmon industry. Addressing that would involve a fairly fundamental piece of research that obviously has not yet occurred’.

I would totally disagree with Mr Harvey and with Marine Scotland Science. Almost two years ago, I contacted Marine Scotland Science to request a meeting to discuss the findings of my own study of catch data. I was informed that a meeting could only take place once my work had been published as a scientific paper. As the intention of my request was to obtain feedback on the study, arranging to meet after publication seemed a pointless exercise. At the time, I did wonder if all those from the wild fish sector who had had contact with Marine Scotland Science had had to publish research before they could gain admittance!

I had also written to the aquaculture section of Marine Scotland mentioning the same study and unbeknown to me the head of the section had sent my correspondence to Marine Scotland Science who in response produced a briefing document stating why studies like mine using catch data could not be used to assess the impact of salmon farms on wild fish stocks. They still had no idea of what approach I had taken to my study. It was interesting to see that whilst they wouldn’t spare me half an hour of their time, they were willing to write and publish a briefing document on the subject. This must have taken much more time than a short face to face meeting. Last Christmas, I heard form Marine Scotland Science to say that they were sorry a meeting had not taken place but if I provided a list of what I wanted to discuss, they would consider a meeting.

I would suggest that the production of over seven hundred graphs does not constitute a dearth of data about the impact of salmon farming on wild fish. It is just that the wild fish sector and Marine Scotland Science don’t seem to want to know about them since they don’t support their views.

The recurring message from Marine Scotland Science has been that the only way to determine the impacts of salmon farms on wild fish is through an experimental approach. For the last three years, Marine Scotland Science has been running such an experiment through a £600,000 SARF project. This has now concluded, and the final report has been written. I understand that the conclusion is that ‘the results were not as expected’. I believe that Marine Scotland Science had hoped to show a link between salmon farms and the decline of wild salmonid stocks but haven’t. I haven’t heard this definitively, so I hope the Committee ask Marine Scotland Science to clarify the results.

This project wasn’t unique as similar experiments have been conducted in Ireland and Norway. Both found that the mortality of migrating salmon due to sea lice was about 1%. My study using catch data also suggests the impacts are very low. Unfortunately, the wild fish lobby has a much louder voice, so it is their voice that the committees and others get to hear.

Colin Smyth MSP asked the witnesses whether their organisations fund research. I was interested in their response because I approached both the Crown Estate and Scottish Natural Heritage to seek help with funding. I was not looking for direct funding from either organisation but rather support for an application to the Scottish Aquaculture Research Fund (SARF) to help with my research into the interactions between salmon farms and wild fish. Neither organisation offered their support and whilst an application was submitted, it was blocked by Marine Scotland Science. It does seem that MSS are only interested in findings that meet their own expectation. I would have thought that they would be interested in any research that helps resolves the conflict between the wild and farmed sectors.

Richard Lyle MSP asked the witnesses if the two sectors could coexist together. My answer is yes. The problem is that most of the wild sector only hear one side of the argument and therefore can only conclude that salmon farming is to blame for declines in wild fish numbers. They never hear any alternative views so cannot arrive at any other conclusion.

I became involved in the wild fish debate through being asked to speak at an event organised by the Fishmongers Company. I think that a mini conference should take place in which various views as to the fate of wild fish can be discussed. I have suggested this to Marine Scotland, but nothing has been forthcoming. Surely, all claims or counterclaims should be challenged and discussed instead of blind acceptance.

Unfortunately, this does not happen, even in Parliamentary Committee. Each evidence session appears to be sectorial. This means that when, for example, the anglers claim salmon farming is to blame for wild fish declines, the claim is unchallenged. Surely, a subject based session would enhance the debate. If a session focussed on sea lice and wild fish then witnesses from all sectors could be present, requiring the presentation of facts rather than generalised claims.

As Stewart Stevenson MSP pointed out in the last evidence session – correlation is not indicative of causation. How right he is.

 

Economic with the truth: In the last issue of reLAKSation, we discussed how angling guide and photographer, Mr Corin Smith had written defamatory claims on his Facebook page and yet despite being asked to remove them or provide evidence to support his claims, has failed to do either. Interestingly, whilst he appears happy to post links to reLAKSation on Facebook which he then criticizes, he hasn’t been so keen to do so when he was the subject under discussion.

During our telephone conversations, Mr Smith claimed to have been engaged by the Scottish Government to evaluate the financial position of salmon farming companies. No-one we have spoked to seems to be aware of Mr Smith or this work. It is possible that he was just trying to mislead us, so we have begun our own investigation into Mr Smith.

What we know is that Companies House records Mr Smith’s address as being at Murthy, north of Perth. In a different blog, he states he comes from a family of three generations of salmon fishers. As it happens, the owner of two prime salmon beats just three miles from Mr Smith’s address is a Mr Michael C Smith, who was once Chairman of the Tay Salmon Fisheries Board. We have yet tpo ascertain whether the two Mr Smiths are connected or if this is just a coincidence.

Mr Smith told us that his relationship with the Scottish Government was ‘sensitive’ and he couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us who he was in contact with. His local MSP, with an office about 8 miles from Mr Smith’s address, is John Swinney MSP. Mr Swinney just happens to be the Deputy First Minister. We have no idea whether a relationship exists between Mr Smith and Mr Swinney, but Mr Swinney would certainly be someone with whom a connection would be considered to be ‘sensitive’. We have therefore submitted a Freedom of Information request to see whether Mr Smith has ever visited Mr Swinney at his Government office as Mr Smith had intimated. At the moment, any link is hypothetical and based solely on their local proximity.

Back in March, Mr Smith wrote on his Facebook page ‘After 40 years, we are only just discovering the environmental reality of salmon farming. It is now time to reveal the economic reality’.  Mr Smith highlights a report that Alban Denton, Managing Director of Loch Duart Salmon had been short-listed for the IoD Director of the Year Award. Mr Smith says that Mr Denton deserves an award – for running a business tax free in Scotland.

Mr Smith claims that Loch Duart paid corporation tax of only 3.6% in 2016/17. He says that this is £300k on £8m profits from sales of £42m. In return they received a grant of £650k from government including £250k for capital expenditure. Mr Smith says that 89 staff were employed locally and with an assumed average salary of £20k, then that equates to a share of sales of 4.2% for local communities or 95% of value not finding its way to the local community.

Mr Smith says that over the last three years Loch Duart have paid £595,000 in tax but received £1.9m in Government grants whilst shedding 10% of employees. He says it is clear that Scotland is paying Loch Duart to farm salmon.

In the last issue of reLAKSation we mentioned how Mr Smith said that the economic evaluation of Scottish salmon farming that he is undertaking for the Scottish Government is completely impartial. Certainly, this impartiality is not being reflected in the views he has expressed on his Facebook page.

There is no denying that if Mr Smith’s figure of those employed by Loch Duart is correct, then that is 89 jobs in the North West Highlands that wouldn’t otherwise be there. That is 89 people who are paying tax and spending money in the local community. It is 89 people who probably have families and require schools and other local services. The presence of one employer of this has a significant impact across the locality.

By coincidence, Fishupdate.com reports this week that Loch Duart Salmon has held two receptions within the community to thank them for their support. This includes hotels, restaurants and community leaders. Mr Denton said that the biggest benefit provided by the local community was to provide a home and a community for their staff. He said that Loch Duart employs more than 115 people, somewhat more than Mr Smith suggests.

The company has a local purchasing policy and has spent £5.1 million in the Highlands and in excess of £1m in South Uist. This includes the purchase of 292 hotel night last year worth £26,000. This is expected to rise to 325 in 2018. In addition, the company has donated over £20,000 to local projects.

Mr Denton says that the company aims to be open and transparent with the community.  We hope that those employing Mr Smith are taking note.

In his latest posting about the recent planning applications in Skye, Mr Smith writes:

‘It breaks my heart that the expectations of rural communities are set so low that all it takes is the hope of seven jobs.

Today the applicants made a paper profit of around £2m, the local community? Nothing; other than the hope of some scraps from the table in the form of jobs. No community funds, no share of revenues, no regional wealth funds, no share of Crown Estate revenues. Just the prospect of living with the well documented environmental impacts. Green Scotland? Fair Scotland? We are industrialising our most precious (valuable) landscapes, while distant interests accumulate 95% of the revenues.’

The big question is not whether the Scottish Government is conducting a review of the economic impact of salmon farming on the west coast of Scotland, but why is it secret, especially at a time when the Parliamentary enquiry is underway and more importantly, why is an unknown, but highly critical, angling guide/photographer being tasked with the job?

One of the recurring questions arising from the Parliamentary enquiry is whether the salmon industry should be paying more towards research etc. The underlying message from Mr Smith’s Facebook page is that the salmon industry should be just paying more, period. Could it be that the latest thinking is to rehash the idea of a levy on all harvested salmon?

 

Conservation conversation: The ’Dumbarton Reporter’ recently highlighted that the Loch Lomond Angling Improvement Association (LLAIA) were massively disappointed by the outcome of a vote by the Scottish Parliamentary Environment Committee. They had voted narrowly to block an attempt by the LLAIA and Dumbarton MSP Jackie Ballie to overturn what they describe as ‘draconian’ regulations on salmon fishing, in particular the categorisation of their river system as a Grade 3. This means that the members of the angling club cannot kill any of the salmon they catch. This is the sum total of the draconian regulations imposed on them. LLAIA claim that the grading will have long-term damaging effects on their 118-year old club. It seems that if their 400 members are not allowed to kill a salmon, the fear is that many may leave the club.

It seems to us, at Callander McDowell, that it is not the salmon regulations that need to be changed but that these anglers need to be better educated about conservation. There are over two and a quarter million anglers in the British Isles who regularly fish in freshwater and put back every fish they catch without a moment’s thought. In fact, there was a huge outcry when anglers of Eastern European origin started to take carp home for the pot. Catch and release is standard practice and there is no reason why this shouldn’t apply to salmon and trout fishing too. We have said previously, that the three-year ban imposed on net fisheries should have been extended to cover killing any rod caught salmon in Scotland too. The River Dee has had mandatory catch and release for many years and anglers still fish the river. Surely, if there are concerns about the state of the salmon stock, then no fish should be killed for sport.

Jim Raeburn from the angling club told the ‘Dumbarton Reporter’ that today’s anglers are very aware of conservation issues and the vast majority already practise voluntary catch and release’. He said that ‘there are more serious threats to the survival of salmon than the angler who takes the occasional fish’. However, if every member of LLAIA takes just one fish that would be 400 breeding fish removed from the local river system and it seems by her use of the word occasional that some anglers might even want to take two or three.

The argument put by Ms Ballie is that the current method of assessment is flawed and that there are gaps in the knowledge of fish catches in the local river. She said that the model and methodology used by the Scottish Government to justify the changes amounts to nothing more than guesswork. Jim Raeburn added that he had told Marine Scotland in 2016 and 2017 that the data used to assess the river was incomplete, but they still went ahead.

We would suggest that with over 300 different river systems to assess, there will always gaps in the knowledge at the start of the process, but it must be preferable to be cautious than tear up the methodology. It seems to us, that if the local angling club believes there to be insufficient data, then they are the ones on the river and they should be the ones trying to fill in the gaps.

However, as the vote went against the angling club, the discussion is closed for another year. The single reason that we have brought it up again is that we have come across a letter in the Newfoundland newspaper – The Telegram. This was written by Donald Hustins from St John’s, who described himself as an angler, author and conservationist. He refers to an earlier letter he had written in February calling on the Minister to halt the killing of all wild salmon as stocks ‘are a trickle of their former populations and are now under great threat’.

Mr Hustins wrote to the newspaper again last week saying that his comments generated considerable attention but that he was gravely concerned by the tone of the responses. He said that none admitted that stocks were in trouble. Instead they all expressed frustration with the prospect of not being able to kill any salmon this summer. Mr Hustins said that ‘it is sad to see this ‘entitlement’ emerging in the face of the stock decline and to hear groups state that they are not willing to sacrifice a few salmon for the table today to ensure future generations have a sustainable stock of wild salmon.

He continues that ‘all the respondents dismiss the Government’s scientific data and complain that the small number of counting facilities are not sufficient to make decisions on stock, or that the salmon are plentiful but just moving north, or that the Government’s conservation limits are inappropriate’.

Mr Hustins says that of course, the data could be better, but it is the best science that the Government has. The scientists cannot make speculative decisions on data they don’t have. He added that had the Government not taken action, they would be first to be criticised for doing nothing. Finally, Mr Hustins said he was disappointed that none of the conservation groups came out in support of the Government action. He said their silence allows the groups to present incorrect information to the public.

Of course, Mr Hustins’ comments relate to the other side of the Atlantic, but the story sounds so familiar.

For us at Callander McDowell, it seems that nearly half the members of the Environment Committee were seduced by similar messages. There was a readiness to disregard the science, either because members were being misled or because they didn’t understand it.  This very much rings a bell with us in relation to the Committee’s report concerning the environmental impact of salmon farming!