Farming: Writing in Scottish Land & Estates, Dr Lorraine Hawkins, River Director for the River Dee Trust says that “Atlantic salmon are now virtually extinct across their southern European range and are vanishing fast in the south of England. All the major Scottish salmon rivers have seen drastic declines. At current rates, we may have just 20 years to save the species. We know that there are catastrophic losses at sea. Those factors must be tackled urgently”.
And writing in the latest issue of Trout & Salmon magazine, Bob White, a ghillie on the River Tay states that “we have entered a new decade and in the salmon fishing world we live in difficult times. Who would be a ghillie? An unforeseen and dramatic fall in catches over the last five years has caused enormous concern to anyone linked to salmon rivers in Scotland and further afield. Even more troubling is that, despite all the research and money thrown at the problem, we still cannot put our finger on the reasons. There is obviously something very wrong in the sea because the number of fish that are returning to our rivers has dropped to as low as three per cent”.
Clearly, wild salmon fisheries are in crisis and concern extends even to the major rivers of the east coast including the Dee and the Tay. It was therefore really surprising to read in Fish Farmer that Fisheries Management Scotland, the organisation that represents Scotland’s network of District Salmon Fishery Boards, and the Rivers and Fisheries Trusts have just announced that they are to recruit an Aquaculture Interactions Manager at a salary of up to £47,000 per year for up to three years.
The job involves supporting FMS members to manage interactions between farmed and wild salmon with the aim of protecting and restoring fish populations. FMS say that this is vital work in the context of declines of wild salmonid fish populations.
There are no salmon farms of note in southern Europe or along England’s southern coast. For that matter, there are no salmon farms anywhere near the river Dee or Tay or any of the other east coast rivers. Salmon farming is not responsible for these declines. In fact, readers may remember that RAFTS, which is now part of FMS, produced a comparison of catches in 2011 from east and west coast in which they said that the then good catches in the east were due to the absence of salmon farms.
I have mentioned in previous issues of reLAKSation that salmon catches from west coast rivers around the aquaculture zone have averaged about 10% of the total Scottish catch. This average has been around the same level even in the years prior to the arrival of salmon farming. It is unclear why when all Scotland’s rivers are in crisis, that FMS have now decided to recruit someone to focus just on salmon farming. Of course, FMS have always been keen to highlight salmon farming as a priority area. What is not so widely known is that in 2017, FMS established their own fish farming committee. This comprises of representatives of most of the west coast fishery boards, yet whilst the wild fish sector have sat on committees and groups involving the aquaculture industry for at least the last twenty five years, there is not even one representative from the salmon farming industry on the FMS fish farming committee. Like the majority of the wild fish sector, FMS appear to have a narrative that they don’t want challenged, which is likely why the salmon farming industry was not invited to be a member of this committee.
Sadly, this continued focus on salmon farming will do nothing to help restore wild salmon stocks in east coast rivers. A week ago, I suggested that one reason why salmon may be in decline is the long-term damage caused by seismic surveys. One week on, no-one from the wild fish sector has sought any further information. Could it be that seismic noise as one reason for wild salmon declines simply doesn’t fit in with the existing narrative?
Bull: It is often said that if something is repeated often enough it becomes a fact and that appears to be the case with salmon farming. However, once the new fact is accepted, it can then be further stretched. This is the case with an article that appeared in Heated, an American food related website. This was written by Michael Scaturro who claims that he has previously written for the Guardian. He writes that ‘locals say that cheap sushi found in European petrol stations and the luxurious salmon steaks found in Shanghai hotels are being cultivated at the expense of their health, their environment and ultimately, the planet.’
This is a new one on me. I have yet to hear from anywhere else that the health of people living in the vicinity of salmon farms is being affected by the very act of salmon farming. Yet, it also sounds very familiar. The salmon demarketing campaign run by the big US charitable foundations and uncovered by Vivian Krause at the turn of the century clearly made the point that salmon farming was bad for human health and the environment. However, that campaign focused on salmon consumption, not just being in the vicinity of a salmon farm. Of course, if this claim was true, I am sure that we would have heard about it long before now rather than from a US based web magazine.
Mr Scaturro seems to have obtained much of his information about salmon farming from John Aitchison, an activist who is also a filmmaker and who won a BAFTA award for his work on Planet Earth II.
Mr Scaturro’s article is full of inaccuracies, not least that the fish are fed antibiotics oxytetracyline and tetracycline ‘to ward off’ sea lice and other diseases. Mr Scaturro is simply incorrect to the point that the inaccuracies are malicious.
In a very long article, Mr Scaturro also refers to wild fish, which is of interest to me. He writes that escapes present a problem for the survival of wild salmon because the escaped fish breed with wild salmon causing salmon survival traits that have evolved over thousands of years to disappear. As a result, the hybrid fish don’t know how to migrate and are caught by predators, humans or simply die out. What is surprising is always that inferior farmed salmon manage to find their way up the rivers to breed with wild salmon at all. Certainly, the catches of farmed salmon from Scottish rivers are extremely small in number suggesting that few fish ever find their way into river systems, let alone actually breed. Given that any hybrid fish that do occur will also be very small in number but will have shared genetic material from a fish that is just twelve generation at most from a wild fish, together with genetic material from wild fish, it is unclear how these fish will not know how to migrate. At the same time, Mr Scaturro refers to Jim Seeb from the University of Washington who suggests that escapes of small fish are an even bigger problem because they are not only able to adapt to life in the wild but can thrive.
It does seem that when it comes to escapes and genetic introgression, the facts are adapted to suit whatever case is being made. It certainly doesn’t explain why salmon are in such decline in areas where there is no salmon farming. If farmed fish are finding their way into rivers well outside the farming areas, then perhaps, more credibility should be given to their ability to survive and to grow in the wild environment, instead of being portrayed as weak and inferior.
It’s a measure of salmon farming’s success that critics feel that they have to make such outlandish claims against it. To say that salmon farming is a health hazard for local residents is simply a step too far.
Conflicted: It’s not often I agree with anti-salmon farm campaigner Corin Smith but at the end of this week he writes on his ISSF website that:
“The restoration of wild salmon and sea trout populations in Scotland needs radical change delivered by a truly unconflicted and politically astute leadership. We don’t have that.”
Mr Smith is absolutely correct. Wild salmon and sea trout populations will not be safeguarded, let alone restored, without unconflicted leadership. The problem is that most of the wild fish sector are conflicted because whilst they want to protect and safeguard populations of wild fish they also want to do so in order to catch them for sport or to make money from allowing others to catch them for sport. I have written before posing the question whether the purpose of conserving wild fish is to protect them as a part of the natural environment or to ensure that the sport of salmon fishing can continue uninterrupted. Some of the wild fish sector talk about conserving salmon but at the same time they actively go out and catch these fish; sometimes even killing them to take home for the pot.
If salmon stocks are in such crisis, then perhaps the time has come to follow the example of the netsmen and pack up the equipment once at for all. The alternative is to admit that the sport is the be all and end all and then act accordingly. There are ways to have the fish and (proverbially) eat it but let’s act accordingly rather than making out some form of noble conservation ideology.
Where Mr Smith and I part company is that he firmly believes that salmon farming is the root of the problem as to why salmon and sea trout stocks have declined. I don’t share his view and will not be convinced otherwise until someone can explain how salmon farming can be responsible for declines of west coast sea trout catches dating back to 1952.
Mr Smith’s comments come as he highlights the nonsense of the proposed £750,000 west coast tracking project. I share Mr Smith’s view that this is a complete waste of money and will achieve little to safeguard the future of wild salmon and sea trout but then what can be expected when the same few groups, talk about the same things, rather than open their minds to potential alternative suggestions.
According to Mr Smith, a crunch meeting will take place on Monday 9th March when FMS will attempt to bring an end to negotiations regarding the future of regulation of the salmon farming industry. Sadly, FMS can regulate as much as they like, but it will not bring back wild salmon to Scotland’s rivers.
Wait: The UK supermarket Waitrose publish a monthly magazine, Food, which this month is nearly all devoted to fish and seafood. Against a background of declining home fish consumption (except salmon), this issue is a welcome reminder of how good it is to eat fish and seafood.
Of course, the twitter keyboard warriors are incensed that Waitrose included a feature and recipes about farmed salmon making all sorts of denigrating comments. I only mention this because as someone involved in the retail market, one of the warriors, who describes himself as a writer and humanist suggested that consumers are voting with their purse as all the Scottish salmon in Waitrose is discounted and half the price of wild Alaskan salmon.
I am not sure where this humanist and writer was looking when he went into Waitrose but earlier in the week Alaskan salmon from the counter was selling at £23.24/kg whilst Hebridean farmed salmon was priced at £23.99/kg.
This weeks’ offers starting Wednesday include an Alaskan salmon joint (450g) selling at £23.09/kg whilst the Scottish salmon joint (500g) is priced at £23.98/kg. It is also worth pointing out that the wild Alaskan salmon is Sockeye, a totally different species to the Atlantic salmon farmed in Scotland. Some other comments on twitter suggest that one is simply the wild version of farmed salmon. Sockeye is that same fish that is canned as ‘Red’ salmon.
I have been in a number of Waitrose stores this week and have seen no evidence that farmed salmon is selling at half the price of Alaskan sockeye in any of them.