Sir David: According to the Mail on Sunday, Sir David Attenborough has said that ‘fish farms may kill all wild salmon’. The newspaper said that Sir David has accused fish farms of ‘threatening the very survival of wild salmon’, except he never said that at all. In a video produced for Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland, Sir David said that ‘The survival of these astonishing fish is at risk. Dams blocking their rivers, over-exploitation, pollution of the water, the spread of parasites, diseases and fish escaping from open cage salmon farms. all of these together with the inevitable effects of climate change are threatening their very survival.’
It’s actually difficult to know what Sir David Attenborough thinks the problem for wild salmon actually is because the video is highly edited, and we suspect that Sir David was provided with a script. Speaking at the Fisheries Management Scotland conference in Edinburgh, Dr Emma Hatfield from NASCO said that Sir David had been recruited through a personal contact with Andrew Graham Stewart of S&TC. With the launch of a new TV series on Netflix about protecting the planet, we imagine that Sir David has greater concerns than salmon farming. After all, according to a report commissioned by Mr Graham Stewart from NINA in Norway, the impact on wild salmon from salmon farming across all of Norway is just 10% of the total stock. Unlike the Norwegian industry, Scottish fish farms are limited to one area of Scotland and even before salmon farms were established, these west coast rivers produced less than 10% of the Scottish salmon catch. Based on the Norwegian figures, the impact of salmon farming on wild fish equates to about one percent. How this can be described as ‘may kill all wild salmon’ beggars-belief.
Andrew Graham Stewart told the Mail on Sunday that when people hear Sir David’s voice, they are drawn in. However, if Mr Graham Stewart is hoping for a repeat of Blue Planet, he is likely to be greatly disappointed. We can understand that the public can relate to the issue of plastics in the marine environment when shown on prime-time TV. By comparison, the only people likely to watch this video are anglers, so Sir David will be preaching to the converted.
Unfortunately, Mr Graham Stewart did not attend the recent Fisheries Management Scotland conference which included a workshop on salmon farming. This would have been an ideal place for him to expound his views, especially as the audience were treated to a showing of his video.
Meanwhile, we wonder if Sir David is aware that the wild salmon he wants to protect are still being caught and killed for sport in Scotland?
Talking wild fish: Last week, Fisheries Management Scotland held their annual conference in Edinburgh in celebration of the International Year of the Salmon. In a departure from their usual arrangements, the conference was open to all. This was of interest because in addition to the main speakers, there were five workshops, one of which focused on the issue of salmon farming. For the first time for a long time, this presented an opportunity for open discussion between wild and farmed fish interests, something we have been advocating for several years. The wild fish sector often hears only one side of the debate and this can lead to a blinkered view of the potential impacts of salmon farming on wild fish. Whilst this opportunity to debate the issues must be welcomed, the wild fish sector’s blinkered view led to what only be described as a blinkered programme for the salmon farming workshop.
The programme consisted of six speakers; one from the industry who spoke about how lice infestations on farmed fish are being brought under control and five speakers, who can be best described as being not in favour of salmon farming as it is. This imbalance was something of a pity, but it was not unexpected. When the conference was first announced, an offer was made to speak about the impacts of salmon farming on wild fish from a salmon farming perspective, however this offer was swiftly refused. The wild fish sector does not want to hear that salmon farming may not be the demon created by thirty years of constant and repeated criticism. It would rather reinforce their long-standing preconceptions of the evils of salmon farming. This was apparent during the presentations when someone mentioned that the salmon farming industry should move quickly to closed containment and there was impromptu applause.
The industry presentation was followed by Dr John Armstrong of Marine Scotland Science. He began by describing the overall trends for both salmon and sea trout. For salmon, he said that catches have declined most steeply on the west coast relative to other areas during the expansion of the aquaculture industry. Such a claim would resonate with this specific audience, but his statement masks the fact that west coast catches have declined as a percentage of total Scottish catch, but this could be equally due to the increased catches on the east coast. Whilst recent east coast catches have declined, it wasn’t so long ago that they were increasing year on year. In fact, the catch data shows that a number of west coast rivers have also seen increased catches in recent years. It is also worth remembering that Dr Armstrong’s team have classified nearly half (47%) of the fishery districts in the ‘Aquaculture Zone’ as exploitable in one form or another, meaning that anglers can kill the salmon they catch if they so wish. If the situation was as bad as the wild fish sector makes out, then every river would be a Grade Three.
For sea trout, Dr Armstrong said that these fish were also in decline like salmon but that ‘earlier declines should be noted.’ This is a key point. We have argued repeatedly that sea trout catches have been in decline since 1952 and that it is possible that whatever caused the decline from 1952 to 1982 could also be responsible for the decline since 1982 to present. Unfortunately, Dr Armstrong’s predecessors at the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory didn’t seem to think it of sufficient importance to investigate why these fish were in decline and it only became an issue when anglers began to link these declines to salmon farming.
In describing some of the research, Dr Armstrong revealed that there is no evidence of the level of impact on either salmon or sea trout populations in Scotland. He told the audience that international research has suggested that there is an impact of sea lice ranging from 0% to 40% of returning fish. Our view is that the figure is nearer 0 to 2%, something that we would have been happy to debate given the opportunity. Dr Armstrong continued describing the three-year £610,000 SARF project in which he was unable to confirm any figure at all. His findings will be discussed in a forthcoming issue of reLAKSation so we won’t consider them here, other to say that after three years, Marine Scotland Science appear none the wiser.
Three of the presentations were given by visitors from overseas. Sten Karlsen from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research discussed escapes and highlighted that the average level of introgression in Norway was just 6.4%. Although Erik Sterud from the angler’s organisation ‘Norwegian Salmon Rivers’ began his presentation by stating that he was not a scientist, he discussed the science behind the Norwegian traffic light system for controlling salmon production in Norway. He highlighted that the Norwegian Government had set the higher limit at 30% mortality for radical action to be taken, but during questions, it was pointed out that at the beginning of the conference, speakers had bemoaned the low level of return of salmon in general at less that 5%. This means that 95% of salmon die before they return to their native rivers and this is irrespective of whether these rivers are in farming areas or not. It makes no sense that 95% of salmon die at sea and a further 30% can die of sea lice. Fortunately, Alan Wells of FMS offered an explanation that the 30% was of those that returned. This would equate to about 1.5% of the total populations, which fits in with our own view. The reality is that this focus on salmon farming is misplaced and that rather than worry about the impacts of salmon farming, the wild sector should be looking urgently at how the impacts of marine mortality can be addressed.
Dr Paddy Gargan from Inland Fisheries Ireland said that whilst his Scottish colleagues may not be able to show sea trout declines are linked to salmon farming, it was possible to do so in Ireland. We will take a deeper look into his research in a future reLAKSation. Dr Gargan was forced to rattle through his presentation at a fair speed of knots so it wasn’t easy to pick up the specifics, which is why we will take a closer look at this research. We are aware that not everyone in Ireland agrees with his conclusions.
The fifth presentation was from Alan Wells of Fisheries Management Scotland. He told the conference that he is not against salmon farms just as he is not against hydro schemes, but he is responsible for the protection of wild fish and wants to see the right development using the right technology in the right location. We believe that if he removed those blinkers that we mentioned at the beginning of this commentary, then he would see that the industry is largely made up of the right developments using the right technology in the right locations.
It is possible that his judgement is somewhat clouded, and this was apparent during the summing up of his presentation. He wants to see investment of a proportion of any profits generated by the salmon farming industry into protection of local salmon and sea trout populations. We have previously discussed this idea that the salmon farming industry should financially assist the wild fish sector to help restore stocks so that anglers can catch and kill more salmon for sport. We have no objection to the industry helping local conservation schemes but if the idea is to conserve stocks then they should be conserved not restored to provide sport.
It is worth pointing out that the conference was entitled – ‘Salmon and People in a changing World’. Interestingly, there was one group of people who were never mentioned at all during the conference and that was the anglers.
The workshops covered salmon farming, renewable energy (hydro), high sea pressures and predation but there was no mention of exploitation. This was not unexpected since Fisheries Management Scotland represents river proprietors who benefit from those who fish the rivers. There was no talk of following the moratorium on netting salmon with a moratorium of catching them by rod and line. There wasn’t even discussion about the imposition of mandatory catch and release. Instead, we have a position where the wild sector blame anyone and everyone for declines of wild fish except themselves, the one group who it can be proved are killing wild fish.
In the case of salmon farming, Dr Wells expects the salmon industry to dig into its pockets to help anglers continue to kill the very fish that they are expected to protect. The reality is that the problems of the wild fish sector go far beyond the issues highlighted at this conference and the responsibility for addressing these issues lies firmly with those who want to exploit these wild fish. The salmon farming industry has nothing to answer for.
Parliamentary debate: This week, Rachel Hamilton, MSP for Melrose on the River Tweed instigated a member debate on the long-term decline of salmon stocks. She highlighted that rod catches from the Tweed have fallen from 23,219 in 2012 to 6.577 in 2017 (5,644 in 2018) and called for the Scottish Government to take urgent action to devise effective conservation and management plans.
The debate followed First Minister’s Question Time and it was interesting to see the mass exodus of MSPs from the chamber before this debate on salmon began. It seems that about fifteen members remained to speak about the issues. Clearly, concern from the wider population is not as great as some would have us believe.
During the debate, one issue was raised by speaker after speaker and that was aquaculture, although there was some acknowledgement that other factors could be at play. Yet, how salmon farming can be held responsible for the declines on the River Tweed is a complete mystery. One thing is certain, when Neil Findlay MSP said that it isn’t fishermen that are causing the problems, there was a muted cheer from a public gallery filled with anglers and their representatives. However, surely if fish stocks are in such a poor state then the first thing to do would be to stop killing any of these fish for sport.
One of the MSPs also mentioned the issue of mackerel stocks. This is the theory put forward by Jens Christian Holst, who spoke at the recent FMS conference. He argues that an explosion of the numbers of mackerel has reduced the food available to migrating salmon. A new report from ICES confirms that the mackerel stocks have increased from 2.35 million tonnes to about 4.2 million tonnes. Even this might be a conservative estimate.
Jens Christian Holst has suggested that mackerel need to be thinned out to ensure salmon have plenty of food to help improve their survival at sea. Perhaps a new conservation strategy for salmon should be a total ban on fishing for migratory wild fish for at least three years – in a similar way to the ban on netting – to ensure the maximum chances of regeneration. Meanwhile, those anglers who want to go fishing should turn their attention to helping reduce the mackerel stocks. They can then kill every fish they catch.