Appearing before the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment [RACCE] Committee on 9th January, Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, used the word ‘granularity’ six times in relation to his views on whether or not there should be a legal duty on fish farm operators to disclose information about sea lice infestations on a site by site basis.
The word appears to have migrated to the environmental debate from the photographic world and seems to mean that the picture can be provided but only after it’s been metaphorically photo-shopped. [Ed: 'granularity' was also a word much in vogue in academic circles in the mid-1990s, so its a bit passe´.]
Backed by his advisor, Willie Cowan, the Minister explained that he is totally opposed to sea lice data being produced to government in a precise form because the general public would then be able to access it via the environmental information regulations.
Thus it seems that government is prepared to forego the chance of meaningful scientific analysis by itself via Marine Scotland, in case the information falls into the ‘wrong’ hands.
Leaving the industry to do its own science means that independent bodies such as SAMS at Dunstaffnage and university departments would also be deprived of the data. Fish farm companies could, of course, recruit them privately, but would also be able to keep the results private.
As Mr Cowan explained, having the data publicly available would raise issues of ‘commercial sensitivity’ and could have ‘huge implications for local jobs’.
While it is no doubt true that members of the public could be put off eating fish that came from farms with a history of sea lice infestation, some would argue that this is a price the industry should be prepared to pay.
After all, fish farmers are almost unique in being given official permission to pollute the natural environment.
Arguably this should come with an obligation to be utterly transparent about the effects.
In the course of the first day’s evidence last month, Alex Fergusson MSP expressed surprise that fish farmers should expect to be exempt from requirements to report problems on a farm by farm basis – a requirement long incumbent on their land-based counterparts.
Concealing data also means that the very best companies run the risk of being tarnished by the blunders of the worst, which seems very unfair in a competitive market.
The problems caused by sea lice are probably the biggest environmental issue facing the fish farming industry at the present time, not just in Scotland but in other major centres of aquaculture like Canada and Norway.
The Norwegian government has gone down the route of total disclosure on a public website as the best way to maintain public confidence. It’s a pity that they weren’t invited to contribute to the debate here, but there’s still time.
While an argument rages about whether the decline in wild salmon on the Scottish West coast has been caused by the industry, no-one disputes that sea lice are deadly to wild fish, in particular our native salmon and sea trout.
The pesticides used to kill them are increasingly ineffective, for reasons that desperately need researching.
The first step in finding solutions must be for government to have an accurate understanding of what is going on in particular locations rather than to be given a deliberately ‘grainy’ image.
Ewan Kennedy, saveseilsound
Editorial comment: This situation and the Minister’s choice of imposed ignorance for reasons of political expediency are genuinely shocking and irresponsible. It’s as medieval in its intellectual outlook as was burning books.This is a valuable industry but a dirty one. The answer can never be to let it carry on and choose not to know how dirty it is and who the dirtiest practitioners are. The answer is to clean it up and the profits-driven [for foreign shareholders] industry will not spend a penny on cleaning up its practices unless it is required to do so. It is in the industry’s own interests that this requirement is firmly applied.