Sunday Times, 25 Aug 2013: We need farmed fish. They just can’t go anywhere near the sea

We need farmed fish. They just can’t go anywhere near the sea

By Charles Clover Published: 25 August 2013

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Picture a jetty at the end of a single-track road through one of the most breathtaking landscapes in Scotland, with a view of mountains and islands across a shimmering sea. I asked the ferryman what he thought of the big new salmon farm that has been built since I was last there, nearly doubling the number of fish kept in the sea loch. “Controversial? There was only one man against it,” he said. “Everyone else was in favour. It’s brought jobs for young men on the island.”

It was a Local Hero moment — the Bill Forsyth film in which the outsider turns up on the west coast of Scotland to find a site for an oil terminal and discovers most of the locals are keen to sell their beautiful shore to the highest bidder, jarring with his own instincts. I was reminded what a complicated business salmon farming is, with wrong arguments and good people on both sides.

As a holidaymaker in the Hebrides, you have to sympathise with those who have to earn a living outside the tourist season. Yet as an outsider you observe that salmon farming is an industrial process, involving pesticides, pollution and a degree of avoidable scruffiness, conducted by multinational businesses. The top three Scottish salmon-farming businesses are owned by Norwegians and Czechs, and grow salmon for export. That is the reality behind the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation’s slavish attempt to ingratiate itself with the ruling Scottish National party, expressed by its chairman, Phil Thomas, as “Scottish food, Scottish jobs, Scottish communities, Scottish economy, Scottish salmon”.

It is hard to say who looks after the traditional public goods of Scotland: the landscapes, the marine life and the wild fish. For however much it may offer a lifestyle better paid than working for landowners and safer than going to sea, salmon farming has had an adverse effect on the life of the rivers, locks and sea lochs, about which the Scottish government is curiously averse to publishing information. There is no doubt that in Wester Ross, on the Isle of Mull and in Connemara in Ireland, there has been a collapse in the population of wild sea trout since the advent of salmon farming 40 years ago. That had an effect on hotels, tackle shops and the jobs of gillies – and on anglers who brought money into the economy. It was assumed wild salmon migrations were also affected, but nobody knew exactly how much – until now.

In the past year of so scientists have been attempting to quantify just what effect fish farming has on the wild fish population. They have focused on parasite infestation – sea lice- which develop far beyond natural levels because salmon farms concentrate vast numbers of fish in inshore waters where the parasites thrive.

The results present a real challenge for the industry and raise questions for super markets about whether their farmed salmon products are as “responsibly sources” as they often claim.
Salmon are perfectly adapted to cope with sea lice concentrations found in the wild, but in salmon farms the lice build up to such an extent that the fish have to be treated with a pesticide called Slice or they suffer severe damage to their skin, develop secondary infections and die. In the vicinity of salmon farms, which are now near-ubiquitous on the west coasts of Scotland, Ireland and Canada, wild fish migrate unprotected through a soup of sea lice. Anglers and landowners have always alleged that some are eaten alive.

But how many have disappeared? The answer, produced by a group of scientists from New Zealand, Norway, Canada and Scotland in a paper for the Royal Society last year, is 39%. The scientists analysed 24 trials in Ireland and Norway. In them, tagged, pesticide dosed smolts – juvenile fish about to migrate to sea – were released alongside ordinary smolts. The proportion of each group returning to the rivers a year or more later was monitored. Treated fish showed a much higher survival rate.

The findings appeared devastating to the industry’s reputation. But hope was at hand in the form of a paper by David Jackson of the Marine Institute in Ireland, based on an even larger number of trials. His statistical analysis, published January, concluded that there was only a negligible risk to wild salmon from sea lice – 1%. This was seized on by the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, which pronounced the study “rigorous, definitive and unequivocal”.

The organisation has been silent since last week, when a peer-reviewed journal published a paper by the original group of scientists rubbishing Jackson’s methodology and correcting his conclusions. When analysed by the reviewers, the trials used in the Marine Institute’s study show a one-third loss of all wild salmon returning to rivers, caused by sea lice from salmon farms: a genuinely devastating conclusion.

The scientific debate may have a way to go but the findings look certain to alter the development of an industry. In Ireland a proposed farm of 1,100 acres on wild salmon migration lanes is now in questions. In Scotland, landowners may have the ammunition to force fish farms away from the mouths of wild salmon and sea trout rivers. Worldwide, investors have been given notice that the future lies not in sea cages but closed containment systems that separate farmed fish from the environment. If that means we can have jobs in wild places without adverse consequences, so much the better. That would be an ending straight out of Local Hero.

(C) Sunday Times

For full article see http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/comment/columns/charlesclover/article1304393.ece

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