Collisions between environmentalists and salmon farmers in evidence to Holyrood committee

In papers issued at the start of 2013 by the Rural Affairs and Climate Change Committee of the Scottish Parliament, much of the additional written evidence submitted was understandably focused on aspects of salmon farming.

The importance of utter objectivity in academic opinion

The Aquaculture and Fisheries [Scotland] Bill is in consultation and itself came under criticism in evidence submitted by Professor Brian Austin, Director of the Institute of Aquaculture at University of Stirling.

Professor Austin said that: ‘the Bill is vague and lacks specifics’.  Post-devolution legislation in Scotland has not been distinguished by the universal calibre of its framing but Professor Austin’s concerns seem to be unilaterally directed.

He went on to raise matters such as:

  • the need for flexibility in fish farm management agreements and statements
  • the procedures to follow escapes
  • the need for specificity in technical requirements for ‘equipment’ used in fish farming
  • the lack of clarity as to exactly what is meant by ‘commercially damaging species’ in terms of salmon aquaculture. Professor Austin asks what controls will be put into place to overseas such delegated powers?
  • his opposition to Fixed Penalty Notices [FPN], saying he could ‘foresee FPNs causing issue
    with the aquaculture industry’; asking ‘Are they really needed and will they achieve their aim?

The tenour of Professor Austin’s evidence here is squarely directed to the impact on the salmon farming industry of the proposed Bill.

This has to be read against the nature of his role at his University, as director of its Institute on Aquaculture. It is described as the biggest multi-disciplinary aquaculture department in the world, with 110 staff and 120 postgraduate students.

Importantly, it has a practical involvement in industry through its own fish farms, marine station and many commercial activities. It is, in Professor Austin;s words, ‘fully supportive of the Government’s aim of increasing
aquacultural production in Scotland’.

Some of the research at the Institute is funded by the UK Department for for International Development (DFID).  Given the cost of maintaining an institute as large and as well resourced as this is underlines how important to it is to know whether the aquaculture industry, the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation and/or individual fish farm companies fund the institute and/or some of its researches.

The University’s description of the institute as undertaking ‘commercial activities’ may be something of a pointer.

Research in the universities sector has long been mired in issues around the sources of its funding, particularly in contentious areas like defence and pharmaceuticals and, with the massive growth of the paid  ‘consultancy’ industry, the best research  – and the opinions of researchers – need to be farther above suspicion than Caesar’s wife if the public is to trust them.

It has to be noted that the Aquaculture Bill’s introduction of the application of Fixed Penalty Notices for errant fish farms is specifically objected to by Professor Austin, where leverage  – applied leverage – in any legislation is the key to its potency.

Professor Austin’s opinion may well be absolutely beyond reproach in its objectivity but it needs to be openly qualified as such in assurances that his institute and its research have no commercial relationships of any kind with the aquaculture industry.

The detail provided by the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards

The first part of the additional evidence submitted to the committee by this Association concerned a recent outburst by Professor Thomas, Chair of the Scottish Salmon Producers; Organisation, against the results of international research led by St Andrews University.

The research concluded that: ‘… sea lice are responsible for 39% of the mortalities amongst salmon in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean’.

The press release issued by St Andrews University to accompany publication of the research results said: ‘This high per cent mortality attributable to sea lice was unexpected.

‘The salmon aquaculture industry has long placed a high priority on controlling sea lice on their captive salmon – but these results do emphasise the need for the industry to not only maintain the health of their own stocks, but also to minimise the risk of cross-infection of wild fish.’

Professor Thomas, in his irate response, effectively went on to blame wild fish for swimming past farmed salmon cages and releasing the sea lice they carry to wreck havoc in the densely populated cages.

This was scientifically a hostage to fortune and the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards, representing wild salmon interests, took out the hostage in its tightly evidenced statistical response to Professor Thomas in its own new evidence.

They focus on Professor Thomas’s founding statement that: ‘the difficulty is that, when wild runs of salmon come in from the sea with heavy infestations of lice, the transfer of lice from the wild salmon to the farmed salmon tends to be a mixture of lice of different stages, including lice that are quite close to mature as well as lice that are at the free-swimming stage’.

While first disputing, on evidence, that sea lice could transfer from wild to farmed fish at the adult stages, the Association goes on to say that the inference that sea lice infestations on farmed fish arise only from wild fish is flawed.

They substantiate their position in the sort of practical statistics that are hard to refute, saying:

‘If, for example, an average fish farm contains 300,000 fish, it would require at least 150,000 adult sea lice to reach the treatment threshold in the spring of 0.5 adult lice per fish (or 300,000 lice for the rest of the year).

Even if we assume that all adult fish returning to west coast rivers carried 100 adult lice each, and that all of those lice transferred onto farmed fish in preference to their wild hosts, this would require 1500-3000 returning fish per farm.

‘There simply are not the numbers of fish returning to the West Coast to make such a scenario a reality.’

That done, the Association goes on to supply evidence on Catch and Release measures which their members employ, using radio tags to research the habits of wild salmon; and to follow their movements after catch and release to establish whether or not this procedure, designed to conserve, might actually harm and destroy the fish. They also impose Catch and Release’ on licensed anglers as a sporting practice to conserve stocks.

This part of the Association’s evidence is absolutely fascinating in the insights its provides in many directions. We settled down to read it out of interest as well as necessity and we recommend it to others as such. For that reason, as much as any, we attach below the papers from the Rural Affairs and Climate Change Committee which contain this material.

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation play the force majeure card

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation opens its latest statement with a list of economic significances that can only indicate that they feel that this position gives them the right to do as they like without impediment.

This also infers that governmental support for the development of the industry amounts to a carte blanche.

They note:

  • Fish farming industry is a strategically important asset for Scotland, the UK and EU.
  • Further expansion of fish and shellfish is an EU/UK policy priority.
  • The ex-farm value of Scottish farmed salmon in 2011 was £585m. comparing this with the UK wild marine fish landings in Scottish ports valuation of £406m.
  • The overall economic impact of salmon farming is estimated at over £1,300m per annum.
  • Scottish salmon and sea trout angling make virtually no contribution to food supply or food security, but it has an indicative current value estimated as £95-100m.
  • A figure of £12-13m has been estimated for the areas of Highlands and Islands where salmon farming also takes place. This takes no cognisance of the impact in thinly populated remote rural areas of a mere £12-13 million a year.
  • They admit that the majority [number unspecified] of the 12 wellboats the industry operates in Scottish waters are built in Norway.

Then they play the man.

Argyll’s saveseilsound campaigners – in the expertise they bring to the campaign and in their assiduous and meticulous research, have become both respected and trusted – and, as such, are a serious challenger to the effectively laissez faire regime in which the salmon farms have operated.

The organisation says – and the waspish tone is almost audible:

‘The fish farming industry attracts a small number of anti-farming groups, who claim to represent environmental interests, wild fish interests, or anti-corporate interests, often in combination. Like many other sectors of the food industry, the fish farming sector addresses this campaigning through its own retailer and consumer communications.

‘We have concerns that anti-fish farm campaign groups aim to undermine the role and authority of Scottish Government and the Scottish regulatory agencies. We also believe that campaigners’ demands on public bodies represent a drain on public expenditure.’

Rather amusingly, they say, piously and with what they imagine is a subtle reversal: ‘Nonetheless, salmon farmers remain committed to working with wild fisheries managers to mitigate potential impacts on wild fish; and to address concerns about risks to farm fish from wild stocks.’

One presumes that this relates to the hordes of sea lice jumping ship en passant from their wild hosts and heading for the delights of the imprisoned masses in the cages. They probably put in requests to their pilots for close swim-pasts.

The SSPO declare: ‘Since 2010, Guy Linley-Adams has headed a major media campaign led by the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA) designed to drive salmon farming into land-based closed-containment farming systems’.

Interestingly, they instance Mr Linley-Adams in an attempt to discredit him but  can offer nothing whatsoever to allow them to do so. The attempt becomes a ‘tarnish by association’ manoeuvre. The SSPO ‘evidence’ links Mr Linley-Adams – by no more than the wholly dishonourable ‘Likewise’ -  to a Canadian protester whose anti-salmon farm evangelism seems to be sufficiently flamboyant as to cause a Canadian Judge to describe him as ‘a zealot.’

For Argyll has had – and published – material from Mr Linley-Adams who, as a solicitor by profession, is always concerned with evidence and is unemotive in his writings.

The new material submitted to the committee by the SSPO is manifestly slippery, evasive and crudely tactical. As such it discredits the case they may well have and it alienates the interest of the objective reader in working to discover what that case may be.

We recommend the reading of the content of these papers from the parliamentary committee: RACCE Meeting_Papers_2013_01_09

Note: HM Revenue and Customs figures show that Scottish farmed salmon increased its sales to far eastern  markets by a factor of twelve in the last three years. This is an important success for the Scottish economy, It also illustrates that the gap separating environmentalists and salmon farmers is little more than a matter of the industry being prepared to operate in full transparency and in ways that everyone can accept as environmentally responsible. The cost of that is a modest impact on profit margins – but in so burgeoning an industry, that has to be acceptable; and, as a USP, should make it even more commercially desirable as a quality product from a quality operation.

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3 Responses to Collisions between environmentalists and salmon farmers in evidence to Holyrood committee

  1. You may have to be a rocket scientist to understand some of this jargon, the bill I get from British Gas is easier to understand but here is one indisputable fact. Wild salmon returning to their native rivers off the West Coast of Scotland have reached an all time low. The East Coast returns are however acceptable. The difference between these two regions? The West Coast has over 450 open net salmon farms as to hardly any on the East Coast.

    Self contained salmon farms are the way ahead. Somebody please act before one of Scotland’s iconic emblems, the wild salmon, is pushed to the verge of extinction.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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