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reLAKSation no 975

Advisory Threat: Question? – If you were trying to safeguard stocks of wild salmon would you consider an impact that resulted in the death of 135,000 salmon a greater threat than one that brought about the deaths of 39,000 salmon? Surely the loss of the larger number would have the greatest impact on the future viability of wild salmon stocks. Sadly, the Norwegian Advisory Committee for Salmon Management don’t think so. They argue that the greatest threat to wild salmon in 2019 came from sea lice from salmon farms. Using mathematical modelling, they estimated that 39,000 fewer salmon would return to Norwegian rivers because of the presence of these farms. However, they also suggested that the slaughter of 53,048 wild salmon by commercial fishermen and of a further 82,365 fish killed by anglers is hardly a threat to salmon stocks at all.

The Advisory Committee ranked a total of 17 different factors that could represent a threat to wild salmon but actually the list should be 18. They failed to recognise that the biggest threat to wild salmon in Norway comes from the Advisory Committee themselves.

The Advisory Committee has thirteen members, nine of whose research includes identifying the negative aspects of salmon farming, such as parasites, escapes, and wild fish interactions. By comparison, only one member of the Committee has an interest in exploitation. Against this background, it is not surprising that salmon farming is considered to be the biggest threat to wild salmon in Norway.

An extended discussion about the Advisory Committee report can be found later in this mailing.


Unlikely suspect: The Atlantic Salmon Trust recently broadcast the third update to their Spring & Summer series

In this, Professor Ken Whelan explained the process behind the ‘Likely Suspects Framework’ which is intended to identify the threats to Wild Atlantic salmon. He summarises this as a way of organising the available information and tests it scientifically to see what stands up in terms of defendable data.

Unfortunately for salmon and sea trout, this has the potential to be such a long-winded process that salmon stocks could well disappear before any solutions are found. Currently, the AST are running the Missing Salmon Project which could take several years to reach any firm conclusions.

I would argue that a better approach would be to establish an Expert Working Group – but not one based on the Norwegian Advisory Committee. This working group would be open to all and would meet two or three times a year. The group would draw up a list of every possible factor that might constitute a threat to wild salmon and sea trout survival. The Group would then divide into small teams to identify as much evidence as possible about each threat and what action might be taken to mitigate against it. Currently, there is too much focus on one or two potential threats – salmon farming being the most talked about. Yet, whilst most wild fish people stick to this narrative, I have been informed by people in the know that actually the greatest threat to wild salmon on the west coast comes from hydro-electric schemes. Strangely, this is one threat that is rarely mentioned, let alone discussed.

Surely, the time has come for a more open-minded approach rather than let one perceived threat dominate the discussion?  Whilst this emphasis on salmon farming continues, the other threats continue to squeeze the future life out of wild salmon stocks.


Strange week: Its certainly been a strange week. The anti-animal cruelty charity, OneKind hosted a webinar about salmon farming. The guest of honour was Corin Smith who was described as a photographer and anti-salmon farm campaigner. What they failed to mention is that Mr Smith is an avid salmon angler and also runs a guiding business for anglers in which he arranges salmon fishing trips for anglers around Scotland. Mr Smith has appeared on the ‘Into the Wilderness’ podcast in which he clearly states that angling is inherently cruel. It seems that OneKind are happy to turn a blind eye to such cruelty in order to target salmon farming, but then this is not so surprising since there is a large amount of charitable funding to be accessed when the issue is salmon farming.

The approach taken by Mr Smith was to show a video of a couple of highly infested salmon and then imply that this was typical across the whole industry. Perhaps, if Mr Smith would take up one of the offers made to him to visit a farm, he might find a completely different picture to the one he paints. However, such a visit would destroy his existing narrative.

Mr Smith used the webinar to encourage those present to sign his petition. This has over 8,000 of the 10,000 signatures required for submission to the Scottish Parliament. However, there have been several postings on Twitter suggesting that many of the on-line signatures are fake. Certainly, this is something that the Scottish Parliament should investigate if Mr Smith reaches his 10,000 goal. I should mention that I am no-way suggesting that Mr Smith is the source of these fake signatures. There are other people who are more than capable of manipulating the narrative to ensure that salmon farming is portrayed in the worst light.

Also last week, one of the keyboard warriors expanded their repertoire to recording and writing parodies of industry people. By their own admission, this is the biggest load of puerile rubbish ever spoken on the subject. The recording and the first written attempt at humour defamed certain industry people and after a lawyer’s letter was sent, these were removed from the web. The receipt of this letter did not deter this person from writing a second post. This was aimed at one of the river managers and myself.

The posting is extremely defamatory, especially about me. I am now considering my options. There is no rush, I have a year in which to instigate any legal action. I am currently too busy working on the science, which is exactly what such critics prefer to ignore.

It is a puzzle why instead of directing their energies towards helping safeguard wild fish stocks around Scotland, such keyboard warriors prefer to hide behind their PC screen, sniping at the industry and do nothing to advance the debate. Do they really think that politicians etc will take note of anyone who is so ready to defame and criticise those who would be happy to engage in the wider debate?


Advisory Threat continued:  As discussed above, the Norwegian Advisory Committee for Salmon Management has decreed that the three biggest threats to wild salmon come from aspects of salmon farming. These are sea lice, escapees and other infections. However, if the data used by the Advisory Committee is examined with different eyes, then the scale of the threat significantly diminishes. In my opinion, this group of scientists are simply too focussed on the issue of salmon farming to consider many other possibilities.

After the report was published, I noticed a tweet from TalkSalmon that posed a question to Eva Thorstad, one of the members of the Advisory Committee. This stated:

In 1997 the number of wild salmon returning to Norway was 400,000 fish at a time when farm salmon production was 380,000 tonnes.

In 2019, the number of wild salmon returning to Norway was 481,000 fish at a time when farm salmon production was 1,361,000 tonnes.

The question posed was why if salmon farming is such a threat, has the increased production of farmed salmon been mirrored by an increase in the number of returning wild salmon?

The reply came in two parts. The first was that the number of returning fish has halved from the 1980s until now and was most apparent when salmon farming was also prominent and second that there is a huge amount of solid scientific evidence supporting the negative impacts of salmon farming.

However, I consider this misleading. This is because the number of returning fish is expressed as the PFA – Pre-Fishery Abundance or the number of fish returning before any exploitation occurs. As I have already pointed out commercial fishermen caught and killed 53,048 of these returning fish and anglers accounted for a further 82,365 fish. So, whilst 481,000 fish returned to Norwegian rivers, only 345,000 actually made it back to spawn. Increased regulation of fisheries has meant that over the years, less fish have been caught by fishermen and anglers so even though the number of fish returning to Norway has halved since the early 1980s, the number of spawning fish has increased from around 150,000 to around 330,000 fish last year. (The numbers are estimated from the graph in the report as the data is not actually provided). This is despite the presence of an ever-expanding salmon farming industry. The Advisory Committee do acknowledge on page 5 of the summary that spawning stocks have increased from 20% during the early 1980s – a time before the drift nets were closed down – to 61% in 2019.

One of the reasons that the number of spawning fish has increased is because exploitation of the stocks has fallen over the years. Last year, 135,418 fish were killed in total whereas during the 1980s, the number was around 900,000. The Advisory Committee’s interpretation of this reduction is that the harvestable surplus has reduced due to the impact of sea lice. Around 2010 to 2014, the Committee estimate that 50,000 fewer salmon returned to Norwegian rivers due to the impact of sea lice. In 2018, the estimate was 29,000 and in 2019 the number was 39,000. They say that many wild salmon populations in farming areas are in a very poor state and whilst several threats impact these populations, it is the sea lice burden that is the likely reason they have not recovered. The Committee also conclude that there is a risk that even more wild salmon populations will become endangered as there are enough mitigation measures in place, especially as the traffic light system will bring about an increase in salmon production of 23,000 tonnes.

Given the number of salmon estimated by the Committee to have failed to return to Norway’s rivers as 39,000 in 2019, it is difficult to see how such a number would have impacted the harvestable surplus for angling and commercial fisheries. The total number of fish killed as percentage of the PFA is about a third so if these 39,000 fish had returned, the increased catch would have only been about 4,300 for commercial fishermen and about 6,600 more fish for anglers, hardly a significant reduction and equating to a theoretical increase in the catch by just 7%.

The Advisory Committee rank seventeen different factors according to how much they threaten wild salmon stocks. Top of the list is sea lice and farmed salmon escapees. Bottom of the list is agricultural pollution. One of the factors that is not included is marine mortality, yet despite being absent from the list of threats, it is discussed on page 4 of the summary report.

The Committee refer to the River Imsa and say that in the best years of the 1980s, 17% of smolts that left the river, returned to spawn. In recent years, that return rate has varied from 1 to 4%. This is in keeping with findings across the North Atlantic where during the 1980s the rate of return was about 20% and now it is less than 5%. This means that 95% of migrating smolts do not survive to return to rivers to breed, irrespective of whether salmon farms are located nearby or not. Surely, the loss of 95 out of every 100 smolts at sea is clearly the biggest threat to the future viability of wild salmon stocks. Yet the Advisory Committee seem to focus their attention elsewhere. Perhaps, it would be helpful to put the figures into context.

Although the report discusses the attainment of spawning targets, it does not follow through to mention the number of smolts that have migrated out of Norway’s rivers to their marine feeding grounds. I am led to understand that whilst they don’t include this number in this status report, they have published an estimated number elsewhere.

The estimated number of smolts leaving Norwegian rivers is around 10,000,000 fish. In 2019, the estimated Pre-Fishery Abundance (PFA) was 481,000 fish. This would put the mortality at sea at 9.52 million fish and a return rate of 4.81%. This fits in with the current loss rates of under 5% across the North Atlantic.

The Advisory Committee has estimated that the number of wild salmon that have succumbed to sea lice is 39,000 or 0.39% of the total smolt emigration. Of course, the actual figure will vary from river to river but even in areas judged to be red by the traffic light system, the numbers are still relatively low.

There has been a massive debate about the mortality levels of wild fish due to sea lice. It is now seven years since Dave Jackson and his colleagues in Ireland published their paper measuring the survival of 352,142 smolts released in 28 separate releases in eight different rivers over a nine-year period. Their conclusion was that sea lice induced mortality is a minor and irregular component of marine mortality and is unlikely to be a significant factor influencing the conservation status of wild salmon stocks. They found that the overall mortality due to sea lice was about 1%. This is in keeping with the 0.39% mortality estimated by the Advisory Committee for Norwegian fish in 2019 and thus confirming that sea lice are a minor component of marine mortality and not as the Advisory Committee suggest, a major threat to wild salmon populations in Norwegian rivers.

Perhaps, the Advisory Committee should be expanded to include others, with different experiences and expertise from outside this small scientific group.