By Mark Macaskill
Charlie Whelan, the former Labour spin doctor, has taken a swipe at the Scottish government for its “criminal” support of fish farming.
Whelan, who advised Gordon Brown during the 1990s and was political director of the trade union Unite, believes disease spread by salmon farming is the biggest threat to wild fish. He said the proliferation of factory farms along the west coast of Scotland has polluted the environment, decimated wild salmon and “should never have been allowed”.
Whelan, 64, who lives in Grantown-on-Spey and is a passionate fly-fisherman, also criticised Scottish ministers for imposing a strict catch and release policy on more than two-thirds of rivers where salmon are in decline.
“The idea that stopping anglers killing fish can make a difference is absurd,” said Whelan. “The problem is out to sea. Salmon leave and many don’t come back. I think the most pressing problem is salmon farms, the way the Scottish government has allowed their expansion is criminal. The salmon farming companies shouldn’t be allowed to do what they’re doing.”
Whelan is not opposed to fish farming but questions why factory farms have been allowed to locate along coastal stretches, where wild salmon are exposed to lice from farms. It is also thought that the genetic integrity of wild salmon has been harmed through breeding with millions of farmed fish that have escaped through nets.
He said fish farms should have been forced to operate inland, using subterranean tanks to rear farmed fish and admitted that Labour could have done more to regulate the industry during its time in power in Scotland between 1999 and 2007. “I’m not saying the SNP is only to blame,” he said. “Our lot was just as bad.”
Whelan, who is a fishing ambassador for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, is lobbying the Labour Party to take a keener interest in salmon farming and will be inviting Richard Leonard, the new leader of Scottish Labour, to meet ghillies and fishery managers. “There’s a misconception that people who hunt, shoot and fish are toffs. Many are working class and it’s about highlighting that to the Labour Party.”
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “With the survival of salmon during their marine phase falling from about 25% to 5% over the past 40 years, it is important that we minimise any of the pressures we can control, including forestry, hydro, barriers to migration, predation, angling, salmon farming and diffuse pollution.
“No single one of these, tackled alone, will recover our wild salmon stocks.”