The Village, 8 July 2013: Lice, damned lies and statistics

Lice, damned lies and statistics

The Village Magazine, 8 July 2013

By Tony Lowes

Biased Siggins on ‘Morning Ireland’ repeatedly distorted the science and politics of salmon-farming and sea lice – failing elementary journalistic standards

Lorna Siggins’ performance on ‘Morning Ireland’ last Friday stunned those who have been following the fish-farm and sea-lice controversy which yields only one credible conclusion, confirmed by world experts and numerous studies – that fish farms generate sea lice that latch onto and devastate wild salmonids (salmon, trout, graylings etc). Siggins has become part of the problem – a source of what Mark Costello, the leading scientist in the field, told Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney in May was ‘recent incorrect information in the media’. Costello, Professor at the University of Auckland and Chair of the World Register of Marine Species, says he does ‘not normally get involved in such debates’ but felt conscious-bound to make it clear that sea lice are ‘linked to mass fatal parasite infestations on wild salmon and trout in Ireland, Scotland, Norway and Canada’.

Said to be once so abundant that a man could walk across Irish rivers on their backs when they returned to spawn, human impact has devastated salmon across Europe. In Ireland, a dramatic decline in their population from 1.5 million in the 1970s only halted at 150,000 in 2006 when drift-net fishing was banned. With propagandists like Siggins controlling the media discussion those responsible for continuing threats can rest easy.

Siggins greenwashed the new Marine Institute Report she was invited on ‘Morning Ireland’ to discuss. Introducing the subject of her interview, farmed-salmon sea-lice and wild-salmon mortalities, she told the duped Rachael English ‘a working group then in 1994 said there was actually no way of confirming that link.’

That Government Working Group said no such thing and no scientist would make or encourage such a statement. Siggins was in fact told about what the 1994 Report actually concluded more than a year ago, when it was published on Friends of the Irish Environment’s website with a Press Release sent to her desk.

The 1994 Working Group concluded that while the evidence available to date had not ‘disclosed a causative relationship between lice on farmed salmon and the collapse of the sea trout, the Working Group has now been able to demonstrate, for the first time, that a highly significant statistical relationship exists.’ Almost the opposite of what Siggins was spinning under-informed Rachael English.

Rather than dismissing a link, the Report concluded ‘Until further advances are made in this direction [knowledge concerning the precise nature and mechanisms of the causative relationship] a precautionary approach dictates that it would be prudent to avoid siting new fish farms, or increased farmed salmon production (above existing tonnages for the operation) within 20 km of a sea trout river mouth.’

Why did Siggins ignore this?

Talking about the new stooge Report from the Marine Institute’s Dr David Jackson, disingenuous Siggins told the nation that ‘they’re more or less saying that there really is no neglible [sic] impact of sea lice from fish farms on wild salmon stocks.’

But the new paper actually does not include any data on sea lice levels at all. No data on sea lice. Siggins got it completely wrong – once again to the advantage of the fish farmers.

The new paper merely says that the healthiest rivers are those that have fish farms sited near them. But that is simply because fish farms can only be located in the cleanest waters – it doesn’t prove a thing about the relationship between good salmon stocks and salmonid-farming sea lice. It is confusing correlation and causation. A first-year science course would sort that out.

But that misrepresentation paled when Siggins referred back to Jackson’s previous paper, released in 2011. She babbled that it proves from ‘a nine-year study of 250,000 salmon smolts which were released in eight different rivers and they were paired batches one treated for sea lice and the other one not and they found there was very little difference between the two and that sea lice were probably affecting about 1% of marine mortality of salmon overall.’

What she doesn’t say there – though all this has been patiently explained to her again and again by NGOs like the Friends – is that Jackson considered mortalities from sea lice not just where the salmons’ migratory path crossed the farm’s potential sea-lice blooms, but also where salmon smolts never crossed salmon farms – thus inevitably hugely diluting the true figures of the impact of sea lice on wild salmon.

If Jackson had given us the data in his paper to separate out those salmon studied exposed to lice populations in their migration paths from those whose paths did not cross salmon farms, we would have known what percentage of smolts exposed to lice die compared to those not exposed. As Siggins knew and conceded during the interview, IFI conclusions showed 39% more salmon died if unprotected from lice from salmon farms – based on a 3-country EU sponsored 3-year study of protected and non-protected salmon passing by salmon farms.

Siggins claimed ‘that there really is no neglible impact of sea lice from fish farms on wild salmon stocks’. That flatly contradicts every single serious paper ever produced on this subject. Even Jackson’s Marine Institute nine-year study of 250,000 thousand salmon smolts (which included smolts which never saw sea lice) demonstrated a statistically significant higher return from smolts treated with protections, proving (once again) that lice are a statistically significant source of mortality.

Siggins ’understood’ that the Commission ‘may’ have had the latest paper (the one that actually has no sea-lice data at all in it) in reaching its decisions to dismiss the NGO complaint about sea lice. In fact, the record shows that not only did they have the lackey Jackson papers, the scientist himself was in Brussels to argue to have a complaint from the Irish NGO Salmon Watch Ireland dismissed.

Her best sleight Siggins kept to the end.

She reported that the Friends had appealed the closing of the recent EU probe into the issue on the grounds that ‘the Commission didn’t actually have all the information that it needed before it came to that conclusion’. As a professional journalist it might have been expected this would have been a central concern to her, assuming – which cannot be denied – that it is the truth. Her failure is all the stranger since she had been informed, by the Friends, of Ireland’s outright lie to the Commission that it did not have the Report from Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) – the Irish Body legally-charged with protecting wild salmon. IFI’s Report flatly disagreed with the devious case the Marine Institute/Government was making. Siggins had none of the usual journalistic instincts to highlight a cover-up.

In fact, sycophantic Siggins had run a story in the Irish Times, leading to the ‘Morning Ireland’ interview. It covered only Jackson’s irrelevant new study, though the ‘Morning Ireland’ piece shows she knew the significance of the Commission’s ‘not having all the information’. There was no mention in the ‘paper of record’ that the Friends had just filed three complaints for official maladministration over Simon Coveney’s Department of Agriculture concealing the Report from the investigation, though it had been submitted to them almost a year previously. The dog ate it?

The suppressed IFI report used the Marine Institute’s own sea-lice monitoring figures to show that: ‘This does not constitute good sea lice control’. It said that the Government’s position to the EU that ‘no empirical evidence has been made available suggesting the presence of sea lice in salmon fish farms has a significant impact on the protected species’ is ‘not consistent with available information’, providing ‘numerous records that provide contrary evidence’. It concluded that ‘Mortalities of salmonids attributable to sea lice have been well documented.’

This is a cautious science-and-evidence-driven governmental body’s circumspect but unambiguous way of saying the Government’s position was wrong and misleading.

Today, Monday, Lorna Siggins has an apology of a piece in the Irish Times referring to IFI concerns about the Marine Institute study but both the IFI and she fail to mention the cover-up of the IFI’s own report.

Fact/fiction, statistical relationship/causation, link/no-link, openness/cover-up. Siggins just doesn’t seem to get the difference.

When it comes to science, journalists like Siggins whose Linkedin site proudly proclaims her education in ‘Arts Humanities’ and ‘History’, need to tread far more carefully, at least if their agenda is the truth.

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