Too late?: Is it too late to save our salmon? This is the question posed in a Saturday Essay in the Daily Mail from Claire Mercer Nairne, proprietor of the Meikleour Fishings on the River Tay. The newspaper describes the essay as a ‘passionate plea from an entrepreneur (and devoted angler)’ and as such attracted our interest. Mrs Mercer Nairne (we hope she will not object if we refer to her by her first name) describes her family’s fishing business on the Meikleour Estate as one of the River Tay’s best-known fishing beats. The 1.7-mile double bank beat is set in the stunning grounds of Meikleour House boasts some of the most glorious fishing in Scotland. However, Claire now says that they have recently noticed a huge slump in the number of salmon returning to the river. Last year, the Tay produced a total catch of only 4,464 salmon, the lowest since 1961. However, she adds that it is also concerning that this is not just a problem on the River Tay. Claire says the first inkling that not all was well came about six years ago. She writes that until 2013, when there was still good fishing along the Tay river system, there were alarming signs on the West Coast of Scotland that the sea trout stock had collapsed, and wild salmon stocks were struggling. Of course, Claire mentions that coincidently that is the same area where Scotland’s 240 plus salmon farms are located. Given that the salmon industry has been operating since the late 1970s, the message that salmon farming has allegedly destroyed wild stocks on the west coast seems to have taken a long time to have reached those working along the River Tay. Claire says that there is a widespread belief that fish farms have contributed significantly to the demise of wild salmon, but she does acknowledge that it is not the whole story. What she fails to mention is whether she thinks that this ‘significant contribution’ to the decline of wild salmon is limited to the west coast region where the farms are based or whether it also applies to the declines on her river too. We would argue that salmon farms have been at the centre of this debate for so long that the story has become confused and misleading.
Salmon farms have been operating in numbers on Scotland’s west coast for over forty years. In 2011, the Rivers & Fisheries Trust of Scotland (RAFTS) produced a graph showing how salmon catches had increased on Scotland’s East coast rivers whilst those in the west had fallen. The message was clear. Salmon stocks were doing well in those areas where there is no salmon farming. Claire, mentions that problems in the east coast rivers did not appear until six years ago so why would salmon farming suddenly become an issue for proprietors of east coast rivers such as the Tay? The answer is that salmon farming remains a convenient scapegoat for the wild fish sector to blame.
To help demonstrate the impact of salmon farms on wild fish stocks, Claire describes the classification system used for Scottish salmon rivers. She says that Category One is for rivers that are ecologically sound. Category Two is a warning to be careful whilst Category Three means that the river is no longer sustainable. She adds that the west coast consists mostly of unsustainable Category Three rivers. Unfortunately, Claire is incorrect. The classification for 2019 shows that nearly half the fishery districts in the west coast ‘Aquaculture Zone’ have at least one river or fishery that is classified as a category one or two and therefore can be exploited.
Claire then states that ‘we may not have any Category Three rivers on the east coast’ but yet again she is incorrect. Several smaller rivers are classified as Category Three but more significantly, the Rivers Don, Ythan and Ugie are all also graded as Category Three.
The grading of rivers is a wild fishery issue and if Claire (and others) are unaware about the reality of these gradings then how can we hope that their perceptions of the salmon farming industry are based on truths rather than such misinformation? Unfortunately, Claire repeats the same misconceptions again and again about salmon farming so that the typical Daily Mail reader would assume that the fundamental issue for wild salmon is salmon farming.
One issue Claire raises is the alleged damage inflicted on the marine environment. She says that hundreds of thousands of essentially domesticated fish have escaped from farms and through interbreeding have threatened the genetically diversity and survival of the native species. Yet, despite claims that these escaped farmed fish are swimming up rivers across Scotland, only 27 fish supposedly of farmed origin were caught in Scotland last year. The reality is that some of these 27 fish were probably not farmed at all but were reported as such from rivers imposing catch and release so they could be killed and taken home. In addition, 5 of the 27 were released back into the rivers despite their potential impact on the environment. More alien Pink salmon were caught the previous year in Scotland than farmed fish, but it seems escaped farmed salmon are considered a bigger threat. It is just another example of misleading claims being used to vilify the salmon farming industry. If anglers like Claire are so poorly informed about their own industry, it isn’t so surprising that they are also misinformed about the salmon farming industry.
To be fair to Claire, she does write that conservationists (aka anglers) do accept that salmon farming is not solely to blame (ignoring the fact that these conservationists still kill wild salmon for sport). She highlights that one of the main problems for wild salmon is at sea. For example, the Atlantic Salmon Trust claim that for every 100 smolts which set out on their migration, fewer than five will return. It doesn’t matter whether these fish originate in east or west coast rivers or even from other parts of the North Atlantic, the problem is still that over 95% of wild salmon fail to return to their home rivers. Surely, until there is a much better understanding of this problem, the plight of the wild salmon will never be addressed. Anglers such as Claire Mercer Nairne may continue to blame salmon farming as much as they like, but this blame game is not going to bring the wild salmon back to Scottish rivers
The Big Experiment: The salmon farming company Mowi has announced that the company is willing to close two farms due to their close proximity to ‘perceived’ (our word) sensitive wild salmon habitats. In return, they would hope that the regulators will give their backing to the transfer of the biomass to other locations and to allow the expansion of production. This will allow the company to focus on locations more appropriate for modern day aquaculture.
Yet, the Independent newspaper reports that the two farms are being closed because they have repeatedly failed to meet certain environmental standards. This is despite the obvious absence of any ruling from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) that has led to this announcement. Instead, the link between environmental standards and closures or biomass reductions has been put forward by experts the Independent newspaper consulted. The paper does not report who these experts are but refer to campaigner Corin Smith and Andrew Graham Stewart of Salmon & Trout Conservation. These two may be the experts consulted but as they have always refused to discuss the issues with us, we cannot ascertain whether they are experts or not.
Mr Smith told the newspaper that other farms will now be at serious risk because the regulator should continue to apply reductions as and when they fail’. Again, we can only repeat that no-where does it say that the decision by Mowi to request a transfer that would help the wild fish sector, has anything to do with the regulator. This is simply a matter of adapting this announcement to fit these campaigners’ narrative.
Mr Graham Stewart also told the newspaper that he believed Mowi’s decision was based on the farm’s benthic impact. Of course, he has not the slightest bit of evidence to support his claim. He is simply making an assumption. Mr Graham Stewart also claims that Mowi’s announcement vindicates S&TC’s long campaign to end salmon farming in this sea loch. He added that the farm has devasted sea trout stocks in the iconic Loch Maree, previously the best sea trout fishery in western Scotland.
Unfortunately, Mr Graham Stewart doesn’t mention how his fellow anglers have over the subsequent years still managed to catch and kill 6,016 sea trout from Loch Maree, after being supposedly devasted by the farm and which according to his organisation is a fishery that is no more.
Mr Smith continues the discussion about Mowi’s announcement on his Facebook page. He says:
I think you guys need to consider the new reality you are dealing with following your announcement . You effectively announced on behalf of the salmon farming industry that salmon farms do in fact need to relocate owing to their impacts on wild fish. That’s a welcome confessional which will have much wider ramifications, but Loch Ewe has 15 years of non compliance with regards to its sea floor impacts. It will be regulated out of existence no matter what. There is no legal or moral case for a “relocation” the biomass. MOWI is in no position, and frankly does its staff a disservice, to try and hold communities, fishery boards and the Scot Gov to ransom. You are effectively saying “we are prepared to keep damaging wild fish and the environment unless you give us what we want.” Thats really not a good look and an untenable position for Ben Hadfield and MOWI to take if they want a future in Scotland.
As we have suggested, Mr Smith is so blinkered by his own narrative that he is unable to see the reality. What we understand from Mowi’s statement is that some people think that some salmon farms are located too closely to areas that they consider to be sensitive wild fish habitats. In the hope of creating a more harmonious existence between the wild and farmed sector, Mowi have offered to move the Loch Ewe farm elsewhere. They have not made any admission at all that salmon farms impact on wild fish stocks and it is quite ridiculous that Mr Smith thinks that they have. Of course, nothing would surprise us about Mr Smith since his recent complaint about us to the Office of the Information Commissioner saying that we hadn’t removed him from our mailing list. In fact, we had never received any request from him to unsubscribe. We know he has our direct email address because he had previously posted it on his own website. The fact he never used it to request that he be unsubscribed brings his integrity into question. Certainly, the OIC were not impressed and they have now closed the case.
We, at Callander McDowell do not believe that we will see any major recovery of the Loch Maree sea trout stock if the farm is moved. However, the prospect of its removal offers a massive opportunity to investigate the relationship between salmon farms and wild fish stocks. We would hope that Mr Smith and Mr Graham Stewart would agree.
Loch Ewe and Loch Maree could become the most intensively scrutinised fishery in the world. For some years now, there has been a debate as to whether the salmon farming industry should contribute financially to help the wild salmon recover. On one side, this has been seen as a form of reparation for damage caused, whilst others see it as nothing more than blood money. We understand that discussions about any financial contribution continues under the auspices of the wild fish interactions group. We have heard nothing since the minutes of the February meeting were published but here is apparently some debate as to how this money should be administered.
We believe that one proposal under discussion was how wild smolt production could be boosted by farming companies at their own cost. However, a new proposed Government policy on stocking would effectively prevent this happening. By comparison, we believe that FMS just want any funds to go into their general restoration programme.
The potential closure of the Loch Ewe farm presents a new and different use of any funding which would have direct bearing on whether salmon farming has an impact on wild fisheries or not. We, at Callander McDowell propose that any funding offered to the wild fish sector should be used to pay for a long-term academic study of the Ewe System including Loch Maree sea trout fishery. This would involve multiple agencies and academic institutions, putting the fishery under the scientific microscope. Both the fishery and the environment can be forensically examined leaving no stone unturned. We need to know more about Loch Maree and Loch Ewe than any other fishery in Scotland. Once the farm has closed, we need to see whether fish return and in what number.
Of course, catches will increase at first because more anglers will return to try their luck and more anglers mean more fishing effort but with time, we will be able to see whether the farm had any impact or not. It would be the ‘Big Experiment’ and something that we are sure the salmon farming industry would be happy to fund as it should resolve the question of farm impacts one way or another.
Surely, the wild fish sector could not object, especially as they wouldn’t be paying.
We hope that Mr Smith and Mr Graham Stewart will remove their blinkers and see this offer by Mowi for what it really is, a unique opportunity which no-one either in the farmed or wild sector can afford to miss.
90%: The Mail on Sunday informed readers that 90% of Scottish salmon isn’t from Scotland. Don Staniford of Scottish Salmon Watch says that the salmon farming industry is involved in deceptive marketing and food fraud and that this is a salmon scandal. He says that 65 million eggs were brought into Scotland last year from Norway and Iceland and therefore any fish hatching from these eggs should not be labelled as Scottish.
Of course, his concerns about importation of game species seems limited to just salmon that is to be raised on farms. Last year, the Shooting Times reported about Mr Staniford’s anti-salmon farming activities and especially that he had formed an alliance with Andy Richardson from the world of field sports. Shooting Times describes this as an ‘unlikely alliance’ because of issues such as shooting seals. Mr Staniford objects to salmon farmers shooting seals whereas Mr Richardson wants seals to be put on general licence.
It seems another issue that might split them is that whilst Mr Staniford appears to object to the import of salmon eggs, field sport enthusiasts are happy to see birds being imported to boost local shoots.
A new paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology (Pringle et al.) has revealed that thirty-five million none-native pheasants and 6.5 million red-legged partridges are released annually into the UK to provide sport. This equates to 45,000 tonnes of imported birds compared to an estimated biomass of 19.5000 tonnes of all native UK breeding birds. This doesn’t appear to be an issue but that’s because it isn’t about the salmon farming industry.
Pollocks: The BBC report that a fish and chip restaurant in Leicester has closed its doors because the owner said that after going on a fishing trip, he was uncomfortable about the environmental impact of the business.
The owner of the Fish and The Chip has left a message saying that ‘There’s not plenty more fish in the sea’. He continues: ‘Our fishing trip was great but turned out to be a bit of an eye opener. We saw the impact that pollution is having on the ocean and fish stocks and we are not comfortable running a restaurant that has an impact on our environment. As a result, we have decided to close the restaurant.’
Owner Aatkin Anadkat said that the restaurant which opened in 2017 will reopen with plant-based food. He said that some people might suspect that the restaurant was being closed for business reasons and not as stated.
We at Callander McDowell, would not doubt his motives, except he was not very forthcoming with details about his fishing trip. Also, whilst the restaurant is closed, the website is still running and the second page of the three-page menu is devoted to vegan food under the brand Plant & Bean. The third page reverts to the menu for The Fish & The Chip.
His fish and chip menu also included vegan fish and chips (£7.95) so perhaps, the owner was more interested in vegan rather than pescatarian anyway. Maybe his new concept fish and chip restaurant was a step too far for Leicester’s fish and chip lovers.
Feedback 2: All those industry critics persisting with their claims that salmon farming is responsible for the depletion of stocks of wild fish, should watch the latest v-log from Marcus Coleman, CEO of Seafish. The latest offering is a visit to Pelagia in Grimsby, a company that manufactures fishmeal.