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reLAKSation no 999

TV or not TV: The BBC has again succumbed to lobbying from the anti-salmon farming angling lobby and featured the industry in not one, but two countryside TV programmes. Firstly, BBC Scotland’s Landward programme recently looked at the recent release of farmed salmon due to Storm Ellen and last weekend BBC Countryfile examined welfare and other issues.

Landward featured an interview with Corin Smith, who at the time was communications consultant for Salmon & Trout Conservation, but who I understand has now parted company with the organisation.

Mr Smith told Landward that the wild fish population on Scotland’s west coast is estimated at about 20,000 fish and thus outnumbered by the 50,000 fish that were freed from the damaged salmon farm. It is unclear how Mr Smith arrived at a number of 20,000 fish because average catches over recent years would suggest a number double that. Marine Scotland Science do not publish estimates but after making enquiries, they did run their model for the northern part of the Aquaculture Zone and the resulting figure is a bit under 20,000, which would suggest that the whole west coast has a wild population much greater than Mr Smith suggests. Of course, it is not surprising that Mr Smith would be keen to portray the wild population in the worst possible light.

Mr Smith suggests that when there are hundreds of thousands of farmed fish potentially interbreeding with a much smaller population of wild fish then the progeny is not going to do very well at all. He does not explain what this means but what I think that he was trying to say is that the farmed salmon genes will swamp those of the wild fish and weaken them. Mr Smith describes this as genetic pollution, and the use of such terminology will have meant that the TV audience will have missed the most significant thing Mr Smith said and that was the use of the word potentially. The reality is that it is unlikely that any such interbreeding will occur as Mr Smith described.

Mr Smith then tries to highlight the difference between wild and farmed salmon by saying that a farmed salmon is to a wild salmon what a Belgian Blue is to a Highland cow. He argues that if you cross a Belgian Blue with the Highland cow, then the progeny are not going to do well out on a Scottish hillside and hence a farmed salmon- wild salmon cross will not do well in a Scottish river. Unfortunately, Mr Smith’s knowledge of breeding seems to be somewhat lacking. Belgian Blues and Highland cattle are both breeds of cow that have been bred over many generations for specific, but quite different characteristics. Is Mr Smith really saying that wild salmon are just a breed?

The Countryfile programme also considers the consequences of the storm damaged farm reporting that 300 of the fish had been caught in nineteen different rivers. The programme spoke to Stuart Brabbs of the Ayrshire Fisheries Trust who described these salmon as basically a domesticated salmon now that do not have the wild fish traits like a typical Atlantic salmon. He added that they are not ideally suited to living in the wild especially as they are unable to find food.

He continued that some fear that if farmed fish were to breed with native salmon, it could water down the genetic traits that allow the wild fish to adapt and survive in the wild. He says that this could weaken the species chances of survival.

The message from these two programmes is extremely confusing. It seems farmed salmon are swimming around in Scottish rivers waiting to breed with every wild salmon migrating upstream. At the same time, these fish are said to be unsuited to life in the wild without the skills to find food yet are able to undertake the complex changes required to breed with their wild counterparts. This makes no sense, but then many of the claims made against the salmon farming industry make little sense.

The Countryfile programme, which was filmed very recently, reported that 300 of the freed fish had been caught by anglers, yet the REC Committee were told 400. The fishing season ended sometime ago so the exact number should be known, yet even with what should be a straightforward record, there is misleading confusion. Fisheries Management Scotland had requested scale samples from all the suspect fish and were supposed to be publishing the results of whether the fish caught and killed were of farmed origin or were of wild stock, when the fish were caught, the river they were caught from and where on the river the fish were caught. Although it only takes minutes to read a scale, the results have still to be published.

The reason that this is important is that I have heard two independent reports that whilst anglers had a bumper crop on a couple of days, the fish disappeared as quickly as they appeared. It seems that a few entered the river on a tide and then thought better of their transition to freshwater and headed out back to sea. The fish that were caught, were all caught from the lower reaches of the rivers. Could it be that FMS are dragging their heels about publishing their findings because they do not support the claims about threatening the wild stock. Most freed fish disappear out to sea and are lost as they are not able to adapt to the wild.

The comments about the freed fish were made at the end of the Countryfile feature. The start began by stating that wild salmon numbers are in decline whilst salmon farms are growing. This would give the impression to the audience that the two are connected yet no evidence was offered to support that claim. Instead, the programme spoke to Andrew Graham Stewart, long-term friend of Countryfile and national officer for Salmon and Trout Conservation UK, an organisation described as a wild fish protection charity, that is a charity who wish to protect wild salmon so their members can catch and kill them for sport. Despite their cynical name change, S&TC’s membership are anglers who like to catch wild salmon and trout using a rod and line.

Mr Graham Stewart opened a laptop on the banks of a river to show a video of a sea lice infested salmon and declared that people who were concerned about the welfare of farmed animals would be shocked at the images. He said that the images were taken by an investigator who had recently visited several farms. What he did not say was that this investigator was his organisations communications consultant who if he had visited any farms had trespassed on the farms and at a time when they were closed to any visitor due to Covid. What was interesting about the images shown is that none were date stamped or the location identified. Viewers had no idea if the images were recent or even if they were even filmed in Scotland. It is possible Mr Smith’s images were videoed during one visit to one farm and have been recycled ever since. Mr Smith has been previously invited to visit salmon farms but has refused. Both Mr Smith and Mr Graham Stewart seem reluctant to speak to people from the industry probably because the big holes in their narrative will be exposed. Mr Graham Stewart also failed to mention that whilst he is concerned about the welfare of farmed salmon, the same concern is not extended to the wild fish that his membership abuses them as they try to catch them with a sharp hook in the mouth for sport. Mr Smith has admitted on a podcast that angling for salmon is inherently cruel.

The programme went on to discuss mortalities, quoting the industry figure of 15% which is the figure obtained by calculating the number of salmon that have died. Using biomass, the figure is lower. I have calculated this as just below 13% for 2019. This is the mortality across two different year classes. Yet Countryfile claimed that mortality for the same year class across two years was 26% and this figure had been verified by the Scottish Government. Of course, no mention was made as to who might have verified this figure, and for all we know, it could be a member of S&TC who happens to work for the Scottish Government. I would hope that Marine Scotland clarify this claim as a matter of urgency because the SEPA biomass mortality data does not indicate the high level of mortality claimed. Unfortunately, as we know, the angling sector makes all sorts of claims without the support of any hard evidence. Of course, the salient point about these mortality figures is that the 26% figure promoted in the programme is from a period of two years, which gives an annual mortality of around 13%.

Fortunately, I suspect that we have now seen the last of this sort of programmes about the salmon farming industry. Neither the Landward nor the Countryfile seemed to generate much reaction from the public except the usual critical minority of keyboard warriors. The issue still is about a group of privileged anglers complaining that there are not enough wild fish for them to catch and finding someone other than themselves to blame. The two programmes and the One Show have now covered the issues extensively so if Mr Graham Stewart wants more publicity, he will need to come up with something a little different than the usual unproven issues.