Time to fight back: Last weekend, the Sunday Times carried not one but two antis-salmon farming stories. Neither was actually anything new or newsworthy but one of them should represent a massive wake-up call to salmon industry representatives.
Social media is awash with negative comments about salmon farming, but those Tweeting have few followers. Most of the messages are tweeted and retweeted by the same small group of critics. However, over the last week, one of them has persuaded TV naturalist Chris Packham in his position as an RSPCA VIP to investigate salmon farming. He tweeted in response that he will work with RSPCA officials towards a renewed position from their point of view. This tweet led to the publication of one of stories in the Sunday Times. This claims that the RSPCA have received £500,000 in fees from the salmon farming industry towards certification. The critics argue that an animal welfare charity should not be supporting an industry that imposes so much cruelty. I could write here about how misleading the article was but the RSPCA have subsequently issued a response, which of course the critics have all ignored. I will however mention that Chris Packham was also in the news last week as OneKind have made him their patron. Mr Packham is probably unaware that whilst OneKind have joined with angling organisation Salmon & Trout Conservation to highlight cruelty in salmon farming is cruel, they have turned a blind eye to the cruelty imposed on wild fish by anglers.
Why the Times story is a gamechanger is that whilst critics like Corin Smith have 400 followers on Twitter, Chris Packham has 368,000, who will read his views. Fortunately, Mr Packham has not yet made any further comment about salmon farming.
Whilst, it is easy to ignore the misinformed views of a handful of keyboard warrior critics, negative stories that might go mainstream should not be. The problem is that the industry has largely dismissed the vocal minority as irrelevant and therefore not bothered to counter their increasingly outrageous claims. Without any rebuttal, the critics have become more emboldened and are upping their game. Corin Smith has reinvented himself as an ‘organisation’ with a new website and plans to bring a mass protest to the Aviemore exhibition. He is even laying on free transport from a number of Scottish towns and cities. Approaches have been made to Channel 4 TV to feature the cruelty of raising salmon in pens. The TV programme has been offered an extensive scientific dossier. Salmon & Trout Conservation are planning to make another film about salmon farming and as the Sunday Times highlight, Kate Winslet is to narrate a film showing the negative impacts of salmon farming. Another anti-salmon farming film was also recently posted on the internet.
This sort of activity can no longer be ignored. The time has come for the industry to stand up and defend itself by countering this ever-increasing misinformation by providing accurate and up to date facts. This does not mean that the industry has to engage directly with these critics – they won’t engage anyway except on social media where they can hide often anonymously behind their keyboard and computer screen – but they can start by issuing fact sheets about any of the misleading claims made and unfortunately there are many. One example is a claim made by long standing campaigner Don Staniford. He posted a question that ‘if you genuinely care about fish welfare then why do you use a heated torture chamber called Thermolicer. Listen to the science and stop welfare abuse on salmon farms.’ He attached a link to two scientific papers that have appeared in the journal Veterinary and Animal Science. One is titled ‘Thermal injuries in Atlantic salmon in a pilot laboratory trial’ and the other is ‘Sudden exposure to warm water causes instant behavioural responses indicative of nociception or pain in Atlantic salmon’. The problem is that the experimentation in these papers bears little resemblance to what happens in a Thermolicer. The researchers of the second paper held fish at varying temperatures up to 38oc for five minutes. It’s not surprising that the fish showed behavioural responses. The fish are exposed to warm water in a Thermolicer for less than 30 seconds and at a lower temperature.
What is interesting is that when these critics are faced with facts, they never respond. Although I have made many comments about interactions between salmon farming and wild fish, not one of these critics has ever highlighted anything I have said as being incorrect. Instead, their usual response is to attack me personally. This week’s examples can be seen below:
Interestingly, this says that I hate anglers. This is untrue. I don’t have any problems with angling. My objections are to an angling sector that blames the salmon farming industry for the decline of wild salmon and sea trout stocks. Even the REC Committee report which the wild fish sector continually refers to accepts that there is no evidence to show that salmon farms are the cause of the declines.
Sadly, there is clearly a battle going on with the anti-salmon farming campaigns and the wild fish sector on one side and the salmon farming industry on the other. The critics think they are winning the battle, but this is only because the salmon farming industry has so far failed to turn up.
The news this week that salmon farming has generated exports valued at £618 million during 2019 is a good news story but it doesn’t matter how good this news is if someone is standing behind you digging a massive hole for you to fall in. The salmon industry is a great news story but unless the industry addresses, and corrects the criticism, then the negative stores will get prominence.
Surely, with sales abroad worth £618 million, the industry could bear the added cost of countering the negative stories. The time has come to fight back and correct the misinformation that starts on social media and escalates into major press stories.
By coincidence, Canadian Sea West News has this week published a long article titled ‘Fact checking the falsehoods by anti-fish farm activist group.’ The article starts by saying the mantra of those wanting to spread falsehoods and fear has been that if you tell lies big enough and keep repeating them the people will eventually come to believe it. The article continues that judging by its recent report – Going Viral – the Tofino based anti-fish farm activist group – Clayoquot Action seems to have adopted this as a pillar for their campaign to oust fish farms from BC waters.
Sea West News says that this science deficit report that has been snapped up by the media for sensational headlines claimed that the Norwegian strain of PRV has infected 14 fish farms in Tofino. They continue that there is a need to look past the spin, hype controversy, myths and fears and inform all with science not activism. The Scottish salmon farming industry should adopt a similar policy as a matter of urgency.
The full article can be found at https://seawestnews.com/fact-checking-the-falsehoods-by-an-anti-fish-farm-activist-group/
Red rag: Fish health company chief Jim-Roger Nordly has responded to the recent news about the Traffic Light controls on salmon production. The Norwegian authorities have classified two areas as ‘red’ dictating a reduction in capacity.
Mr Nordly told iLAKS that the Traffic Light Scheme is a rather hopeless tool based on adopted misconceptions about the impact of salmon lice on wild salmon. He adds that it is tragic that the Government are using this method to try to regulate the industry because the focus is very narrow.
I would argue that it is not only narrow but extremely flawed. I discussed the Traffic Light Scheme during the initial negotiations. I wasn’t convinced then and I remain unconvinced. The scheme has three different levels of risk. Green is applied if the risk of sea lice induced mortality is below 10%. Yellow is applied if the risk is between 10-30%, whilst red is for a risk in excess of 30%.
The problem I have with the scheme is that we knew then that 95% of all migrating smolts die at sea with only 5% returning to the rivers to breed. This level of mortality applies regardless of whether salmon farming is present or not. If 95% of smolts die due to other factors how can a further 30% die due to sea lice. This would make a mortality of 125% which is nonsense.
It could be argued that the 30% is included in the 95% of mortalities due to other factors but if this is the case then why would the overall mortality be the same in areas where there is no farming? Norway has one long coast line which may be difficult to break down in to salmon farming areas and those without but in Scotland, salmon farming is carried out on one coast whereas the bulk of wild fish can be found along a totally different coast where there is no salmon farming at all. The same problem arises in Scotland as in Norway when calculating salmon mortality due to salmon farms. 95% of salmon die before they return to the river so claims of high mortality due to sea lice don’t add up.
I have often referred to the work of Jackson and colleagues in Ireland who conducted a smolt release trial with over 385,000 smolts. They found that the typical mortality from sea lice was around 1%. A more recent study conducted by Marine Scotland Science found no impact from sea lice, but this was because they failed to catch even one fish returning to a west coast river. It might be suggested that the mortality levels of up to 30% identified in Norway actually relate to the 1-2% of fish that die due to sea lice. This would mean that with a 30% mortality, the total impact would be about 0.3% of the stock. Compared to the massive mortality suffered at sea, mortality from sea lice is insignificant.
Jan Arve Gjøvik who writes Aquablogg commented in iLAKS about the basis for the new Traffic Light regulation. The Norwegian Government took advice on which zones were allocated which colour of the Traffic Light from the ‘Expert Committee’. According to Mr Gjøvik, and using Expert Committee data he calculates that combining the data from all the zones, 855,300 fish would be expected to die as a result of sea lice. However, Mr Gjøvik argues that as these smolts migrate, they would be exposed to the same 95% marine mortality as any other fish. This means that 43,000 fewer fish would return to Norwegian rivers.
However, VRL, the wild salmon advisory group have calculated that sea lice have reduced the wild salmon stocks by 10,000 fish or a quarter of the number calculated by the Expert Group. They can’t both be right.
Mr Gjøvik points out that although these are two very different groups, Bengt Finstad, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Natural Research (NINA) is a member of both groups. He surely cannot agree with both sets of findings. Something is clearly very wrong.
In the latest Aquablogg posting, Mr Gjøvik highlights another factor in the relationship between salmon farms and wild salmon. A four-year study in the Hardanger Fjord has shown that 94% of the migrating wild smolts have left the fjord before any salmon farms show signs of sea lice infestation. This means that almost all the smolts have not picked up any sea lice and thus any subsequent mortality cannot be due to the presence of salmon farming (https://www.aquablogg.no/gront-luselys-i-hardanger/).
I can understand that the Norwegian Government are keen to be seen to be introducing the new measures but if the data on which they are based is incorrect then the new regulations are flawed.
The Scottish Government’s Interactions Working Group considered the Norwegian system during their deliberations. It is not yet clear what conclusion was arrived at. Perhaps, considering this new data, they ought to be more cautious as to their recommendations.
There is an additional concern about this advice that Mr Gjøvik did not raise and that is neither VRL nor the Expert Group appear to include any representation from the salmon farming industry. It appears to me that the groups consist of people whose view I would consider may not be as objective as it might be, based on the wider views of the organisations they work for. The inclusion of salmon farming representatives might provide a more balanced judgement.
Closed minds: The Argyll Advertiser reports that a Coastal Communities Network (CCN) refused an invitation from the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) to attend a workshop intended to help create a blueprint for the industry’s sustainable future. CCN say that the SSPO has ignored the REC Committee’s recommendations and should move production to closed containment. They say that closed containment is commercially viable but that the industry appears unwilling to move to such production. They will only talk to the SSPO if the discussion relates to moving salmon farms to closed containment.
The problem is that CCN have heard that closed containment is the solution so many times that they now believe that it is a reality. They are mistaken in believing that closed containment for harvest size salmon is commercially viable. There is not a single closed containment farm producing harvest sized salmon on a regular basis and that is making money.
By coincidence, Drew Cherry of Intrafish has recently reviewed the current state of the closed containment sector and describes a recurring scenario – an unknown company issues a gushing press release about a new land based operation with outlandish projections of production and an eager market to pay a premium price for locally grown fish. Often the press release is issued by a single guy with a mobile phone. The expectation is to make money on the idea not on real production.
Mr Cherry points out that Atlantic Sapphire is now worth $1 billion on the stock exchange which he says is a high price for a company that has shown nothing but losses, minimal revenue and hasn’t even proved it can produce a product want to eat. The share price is simply a reflection of the exuberance of investors.
Closed containment has been hyped up and is the darling of wild fish and environmental campaigners. Yet, the benefits are few and far between. The main argument, and one put forward by CCN is that they prevent sea lice and capture waste. The view seems to be that if salmon farming is isolated from the nature environment, the sea’s bounties will magically reappear. Sadly, those with such a view will be sadly disappointed.
Equally, those who expect to make a fortune through closed containment expecting consumers to pay a premium price will also be disappointed. The costs and risks outweigh all else and whilst one pioneering farm might be able to obtain a higher price for their fish, others will not. In addition, the technology for large scale production is still unproven and there are other problems to resolve. Sea lice may not be an issue, but other diseases can spread quickly, especially in the higher stocking densities required to make such system pay. Any small error can result in a total wipe-out because water quality is quickly compromised, when things go wrong.
Mr Cherry’s colleague Rachel Slapin also raised another issue which she calls Land based farms dirty little secret, although it is not a secret to those in the industry. Salmon grown in tanks can develop a notable off-flavour, especially when grown in the type of low salinity system which are often promoted. This is not unique to salmon, but it can be removed by purging the fish in clean freshwater whilst starving the fish.
The Conservation Fund Freshwater Institute in West Virginia have been at the forefront of promoting closed containment, but they admit that the fish develop earthy and musty flavours during production. The Institute want to show that fish welfare is not compromised during this depuration although it could be questionable that the welfare of the fish at higher stocking levels is of much greater concern.
It was interesting to see that anti-salmon farm campaigner Corin Smith highlighted the Intrafish article on his Twitter feed. He wrote that the battle lines between land based and open cage farmer are beginning to emerge and to expect this to ramp up over coming years. He continues that one is claiming it is environmentally friendly whilst the other undermine its quality. What this self-proclaimed expert on salmon farming fails to realise is that the Intrafish article is about how the Freshwater Institute have raised the issue of off-flavours and are trying to show that they can be addressed. Mr Smith assumes that it is traditional pen farmers who have highlighted off-flavours whereas it is those that are promoting closed containment who have drawn attention to the issue rather than dismiss it.
Mr Smith is also incorrect to suggest that closed containment is environmentally friendly because it isn’t. Mr Smith’s reference to environmentally friendly ultimately relates to his view that if salmon farms are removed from the sea then wild fish will not be plagued by sea lice and thus wild stocks will recover so he can go out and catch and kill them for sport.