Two new island fish farms given the go-ahead in spite of Scottish parliamentary report warning of possible environmental impacts
Alexandra Heal and Ellie O’Donnell
Two new salmon farms are to be built off the Scottish island of Skye after receiving permission from the Highland council, despite opposition from residents over the possible environmental impacts and a lack of guarantees the farms will remain organic.
The two sites on the north-east of the island are among the first to be approved since MSPs warned that the continued expansion of the industry could cause “irrecoverable damage”to the environment.
Infestations of parasitic lice on fish are one of the main ecological concerns. Chemical “medicines” used to kill lice, along with fish excrement, can negatively impact ecosystems in the waters surrounding farms. Lice and other diseases killed 14% of farmed salmon in 2017, and conservationists say they are affecting wild stocks.
“I’m very disappointed with the decision,” said local resident Ian Dobb. “The Highland council is not listening to its communities nor the Scottish parliamentary committee’s advice. Why? The dumping in our seas has gone on for too long and has to stop now before it is too late.”
The applications for the two organic farms, each consisting of 12 open-net pens, propose new sea lice mitigation methods that aim to deal with the chemical pollution problems. These include avoiding certain chemicals and deploying smaller fish in the pens to “clean” lice off the salmon.
However, the Highland council’s report recommending approval of the sites allows for these new methods to be abandoned if the farm operators sell on to another company, or find they have to switch from organic to conventional methods.
“The applicants have said the nature of organic farming is that you start off organic, something untoward can occur and you’re unable to fulfil that organic requirement,” said Highland council planning lead Mark Harvey. “And you [then] continue to produce the product in an inorganic manner.”
Harvey said the council had therefore considered the plans as conventional, not organic, farms. He said there is not yet enough evidence of the negative ecological impacts of salmon aquaculture to deny permission for new sites.
Some locals fear the two farms proposed by Organic Sea Harvest Ltd will be sold to large Norwegian multinationals – something that often happens with smaller operations. The UK chief operating officer of Norwegian fish farming company Villa Seafood is among the Organic Sea Harvest’s five directors, as is Highland councillor Alister Mackinnon. In 2017, three of the five largest salmon producers in Scotland were Norwegian-owned.
But Alex MacInnes, a director of Organic Sea Harvest, said: “I and my colleagues have absolutely no intention of farming other than organically or have any intentions of selling the business. The vision is as it has always been: to hand the business over to the next generation.”
Staffin Community Trust (SCT) publicly supported Organic Sea Harvest’s applications for the employment opportunities they could bring to the rural area as well the “much needed infrastructure investment”.
The fact that some objectors feel SCT does not represent them, because it is an unelected body and a limited company, has played a large part in the dispute.
SCT chair Sandie Ogilvie said: “Anybody who lives within the SCT boundary area, or has strong links with the district, can join as members. They can also be nominated to serve as board directors at the annual general meeting.”
Several councillors supported SCT’s position when approving the farms because they should bring jobs to the area. SNP councillor Kirsteen Currie said that although she supports the work of the Scottish parliament environment committee, its concerns must be taken in a social context.
“We do need to have an overarching regulatory body for aquaculture but that doesn’t change what happens today. It’s seven jobs, seven families that could have jobs in that area,” she said. “The community benefit has to be balanced with the environment.”