Two leaked emails tell fishy tales of salmon farming in Outer Hebrides

Two emails exchanged by two top executives in The Scottish Salmon Company’s have been leaked to campaign group, Outer Hebrides Against Fish Farms – and as well as this issue being relevant all along the Scottish west coast, Argyll’s once local authority partner, the Isle of Arran, is mentioned in dispatches.

Their content has led to renewed demands from an enraged community for the company to remove a fish farm at Plocropol, already the focus of disputes. This is in East Loch Tarbert in Harris.

The emails are, first, one from The Scottish Salmon Company’s Environmental Manager, Rebecca Dean, to two fellow executives, one of whom is the CEO, Stewart McLelland. The second is Mr McLelland’s response.

The fairest thing is first to read the two emails now at the heart of a considerabe stooshie.

The Environmental Manager’s email

The CEO’s response

The Outer Hebrides Against Fish Farms’ reaction

The press release issued this morning, 8th January 2013, by the Outer Hebrides Against Fish Farms group essentially takes issue on three fronts.

They are incensed at the community of Plocropol being referred to as ‘a vipers’ nest’. [We also notice that both Dean and McLellan refer to Plocropol as 'PlocrApol'. A common spelling mistake is improbable so this may be an automatic in-joke.]

The campaigners note that: ‘These e-mails prove once and for all that the company’s so-called consultations are just a cynical PR stunt designed to fool local people, statutory planning authorities and statutory consultees alike into believing that cooperation is a shared aim.’ [There is, of course, an irony in the generator of this leaked discussion being termed the company's 'Environmental Manager' - a title clearly open to a variety of interpretations.]

The group highlight the company’s strategy for getting what it really wants, made transparent in these emails:

  • to make it seem as if, on occasion, they are conceding defeat to a determined local campaign – and to use that apparent moral advantage to get concessions for alternative tonnages that will add up to the same thing;
  • to apply for planning permission for modest fish farms, bolstered by barge anchorage space and facilities, operate them for a while until they become a familiar part of the locality – and then enlarge them.

The campaigners are angered by what they describe as a ‘cynical, abusive and aggressive company’ whose intentions are to achieve ‘expansion by the back door’ and, a red flag to a bull, ‘on our terms’.

Their reaction has been to demand the removal of the fish farm at Plocropol, which is pushing at a door they have already opened by their campaign, with the company revealed in the emails to see this installation now as not worth the level of aggravation they face.

What’s the damage?

Some of what is learned from these communications can hardly be a surprise.

It is clear that both sides, the aquaculture industry represented here by The Scottish Salmon Company and those who, for various reasons, are opposed to salmon farming as it is practised or to specific salmon farms, see themselves – rightly – as being in a highly conflictual situation.

In public relations terms, it is a resounding negative for the company to be caught referring to a concerned community as ‘a vipers’s nest’. It does demonstrate an alienated contempt.

That said, we can only imagine what, in private – as The Scottish Salmon Company executives imaged they were, the Outer Hebrides campaigners have been calling the salmon farmers. It is unlikely to be any more complimentary.

Then there is the company’s covert strategic intent. The reality of any conflict is that each side has strategies in place and a tactical capability to take advantage of an opportunity on the fly.

Here the two have come together, with The Scottish Salmon Company’s strategy of ‘softly softly catchee monkey’ being neatly ambushed by the opportunity presented to the campaigners in its acquisition of the leaked emails.

Finally, the company’s clearly heartfelt decision to put its efforts into winning permission for fish farms in sites where it thinks it can get consent – rather than batter fruitlessly against implacable and resourceful local opposition is no more than any of us would do in the pursuit of any project. Why ever not?

The key confirmation

The really enabling insight from these emails relates to the last point above. Determined and able local campaigns opposing an installation, or the enlargement of an installation, can obviously be highly effective.

And the numbers involved are relevant to the particular area. A doughty campaign group in a numerically small population, as here in the Outer Hebrides – albeit in one of its busier locations near Tarbert in Harris – can pull real weight.

The Scottish Salmon Company is clearly resigned to the fact that it cannot win at Plocropol, nor in Arran.

It will look elsewhere – and the indicative note is that, from the evidence of these emails, it has major expansionist ambitions.

For campaigners here, as on any issue, this episode provides good quality inside information on just how much of a potent nuisance a strong local campaign can be. Good. Democracy, in the end, is left to the people to enforce.

The positive outcome of this is the stripping away of pretence. The Scottish Salmon Company’s mask of cooperation with communities cannot be put on again. Negotiations from here on in can be much more straightforward.

Economic and environmental tensions

There are two elephants in this room. They are the Scottish economy and the marine environment and they are, at the moment, set on an oppositional course.

They are squaring up around the collision between two facts.

The farmed salmon industry is important to the Scottish economy, but not as important as it might be. It creates jobs but not that many: Scottish Government figures show a total of 1100. As shown below, surveys have shown that game angling is responsible for around 260 full time equivalent jobs in the Western Isles alone.

Given how extensive the industry here already is and how much further it – and the Scottish Government – intend that it will grow to meet the market demand it has successfully generated, there is absolutely no defence for building its wellboats in Norway and not in Scotland. This is not an immature or a poor industry and it is here to stay.

Scotland urgently needs to develop its shipbuilding industry and this is an opportunity being missed by the Scottish government in making it known that its support for the industry is contingent upon the industry making every contribution it can to the growth of related industries here.

Another benefit of the industry is the impact it has on the international branding of Scottish food. Its impact on the markets in the east and far east has bred widespread awareness of food from Scotland and of its potential quality. In a way, this industry and its success, following that of Scotch whisky, are the foundation stones of the branding of Scottish food and drink. They have built and opened a door other sectors of this industry must set their sights on entering as soon as possible.

The environmental issues are as real as the economic ones.

The excreta, the surplus food and the chemicals used in the treatment of the sea lice that are endemic to the farmed salmon industry are progressively unhelpful inputs to the marine environment.

The shooting of seals in preference to the installation of capable predator nets is:

  • damage endangered seal species, like the common or harbour seal;
  • offer an insult to the care for animal welfare any civilised society must observe – aggravated by the fact that, inexcusably, salmon farms and other licensees are now permitted to shoot lactating seals [thanks to Marine Scotland, there is no closed season on seal shooting];
  • reduce the numbers in some seal colonies and thereby undermine the livelihood of small businesses running boat tours to see seals.

The serious concerns about the impact of farmed salmon, particularly over the issue of  the genetic impact of escapees  – who have no idea where they’re from, breeding with wild salmon whose natal compass is unfailing and which, in the salmons’ return to spawning grounds, secures the traditional and celebrated Scottish salmon fisheries.

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, in its evidence to the Scottish parliamentary committee consulting on the Aquaculture and Fisheries [Scotland] Bill has been snidely superior in dismissing the economic impact of the salmon fisheries.

However while the topline earning in the fisheries cannot compare with the mass production profits generated by the farmed salmon industry, it substantially supports the local economy in many of Scotland’s fragile remote rural communities.

Surveys carried out in the Outer Hebrides in 1999 and 2000 showed that:

  • the capital value of the fishery was estimated then at £17 million;
  • the estimated 7,500 game anglers who came to the Western Isles in 1999 represented 4.8% of all visitors and 12% [£3.98 million] of all visitor spend there in that year;
  • visiting anglers stayed for 3-4 days more than the average visitor and showed a markedly high percentage of repeat visits: 80% of anglers had visited the islands more than once, and 38% had visited at least ten times;
  • 40% of the spend of visiting game anglers went on accommodation, 20% on memberships, rents and permit charges, 12% on food and drin, 6% on tips and 5% on fishing merchandise;
  • 185 full time equivalent jobs, equal to 1.9% of the working population, were supported by the direct expenditure of angling visitors; and, when indirect and consequent impacts of angling visits are taken into account, a total of 260 full time equivalent jobs – 2.7% of the working population – were supported by this sector.

In a chain of islands contributing 1.3% of the UK’s land area, with 15% of its freshwater area and a population then of around 28,750, since declined to 26,080,

The salmon farms in the same areas not only have a lesser impact on the local economy but, in the issue of escapees, undermine critical confidence in the traditional long stay sector of the salmon fisheries. The contribution of the fisheries to the local economies of remote rural communities cannot be replaced by the salmon farms.

This is therefore not only a matter of crude comparisons of overall earning power for the Scottish economy; but of the degree of economic support provided to vulnerable communities in places which are Scotland’s unique selling points.

The ‘what if’ concern

Everything about the salmon farming sector rings alarm bells on its potential for sudden catastrophic collapse.

Anything growing as exponentially quickly as this industry can do so only by disregarding  – and by being allowed to disregard – aspects of its processes that others, like the fisheries and the environmentalists, find damaging. Such disregard has a nasty habit of coming home to roost.

The very nature of salmon farming, the intensity of its production in the density of local populations, with the sheer volume of environmentally damaging waste, is a recipe for an awful collapse through some outbreak of infection or contamination.

What if this happened and happened on a wide scale? The industry would not only go out of business but the brand of Scottish food would suffer irreparable damage. What is now a strength – the brand impact – has the capacity to bring down the roof.

So where do we go?

It is in all interests that agreed accommodations are achieved between this industry, the fisheries, environmental and wildlife interests.

These accommodations have to be possible. Salmon farms are not going to go away, neither are objectors, nor concerned fisheries, nor can the environment absorb the onslaught from fish farms in the long term, without negative consequences.

It will require tolerance and real concession on both sides. Where might salmon farms acceptably be sited? What percentage of profits is the industry prepared to spend on improving its processes to reduce significantly its impact on the environment and on marine wildlife? What is wrong with closed containment systems?

The industry will benefit from cleaning up its act. Diverting some of its profits into protecting its long term future will also be much more publicly supportable than its current rapacious practices.

Note: Argyll’s Marine Concern has just submitted a complaint to the EC concerning the shooting of common seals, even in protected areas when the common seal population is in dramatic decline. The complaint also covers entanglement nets and acoustic deterrents.  It includes mention of pregnant and lactating seals being shot; and to the campaign run by Advocates for Animals (now OneKind), One Shot Two lLves, with a photo of a part aborted pup.

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6 Responses to Two leaked emails tell fishy tales of salmon farming in Outer Hebrides

  1. Be worried, be very worried; this article raises some very important issues and those issues could soon be coming to a shoreline near you!

    Environmental sustainability? Now it is clear that even the word sustainable requires definition as this government and Parliament clearly have little concept other than the short term gain; ‘To meet the needs of today, without affecting the needs of our children tomorrow’, I think is a fair summary. In their current form salmon farms are not sustainable; but could be with just a little forethought and investment.

    I think that it is well worth the time to read the two leaked emails as this attitude is what Marine Concern and others have encountered with the relevant industries and authorities throughout the last ten years or more. Of course there have been some exceptions and previous leaks for which we have been very grateful but the problem is only going to deteriorate with Mr Salmond’s push for salmon, especially to China, do the maths, I think it was said that a 1% increase in the Chinese market would require a 50% increase in Scotland’s production…our Scottish seas are special due to their semi isolated status, that’s going to change, and with what cost to other industries and the marine environment that sustains them?

    You thought that you had a say, democracy? Think again, at the recent public hearing on Mull, the shooting of seals was considered, ‘not relevant’, even when conditions to planning could put a stop to shooting… forget safety of the local residents the Council were not interested.

    An article over Christmas in the West Highland Free Press ran an article where MSP David Thompson is quotes as saying, “Extreme opinions on fish farming shouldn’t be allowed to hold up the planning process”. The term ‘extreme opinions’ was not defined, nor have any extreme events been witnessed or known to occur in Scotland in relation to salmon fish farm planning processes, so just what does he mean? NIMBY’s (not in my back yard), Seals, Pollution, Lice treatments, Escapes; are they all to be determined as ‘extreme’? The next stage logically would be to do away with the planning process altogether, just think how much we would save then…be careful who you vote for.

    Most of the current problems with salmon farming could be addressed by using solid wall closed containment farms, they are already being deployed in China and Canada, and we are told that they are a viable alternative, check out .

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  2. The Scottish Salmon Company’s MD Dr Stewart McLelland (whose email has been published above) featured in a 2011 BBC documentary on salmon farming, soon after the company’s application for a new farm in Broad Bay on the Isle of Lewis was turned down. When interviewed, Dr McLelland admitted that he had not even bothered to read the Council’s reasons for declining the company’s application! Such breathtaking arrogance…

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  3. I believe that all Salmon farming has to be solid wall closed containment farms,or they are not allowed…The fish farms will only do this if it is made law…as it costs a bit more than the flimsy nets they use just now…

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  4. I believe that all Salmon farming has to be solid wall closed containment farms,in Canada or they are not allowed…The fish farms will only do this if it is made law…as it costs a bit more than the flimsy nets they use just now…

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  5. Mark is right this time and from my experience usually is !! The negatives of fish farming are simply ‘VOlUMINOUS’. The positives are what ?? Limited employment that could be created in other areas when our amazing natural environment is now a product that the entire world wants to enjoy. Almost all cash created by fish farms goes overseas whereas figures show that 85% of cash coming into Argyll alone is via tourism or tourism related industries. Tourism also employs plumbers, elctricians, gardeners, garages, ferry staff and actual FERRIES !! Tourists spend a fortune in the Argyll and Isles area on food and drink, transport, fuel, souvenirs, clothing. Without tourism Argyll and Bute’s on the ground staff would be at least halved. What does fish farming bring to the area except more bad press, visual intrusion and pollution. That we embrace such an anti environment industry when our unique natural environment and visitors lust to enjoy it stares all of us in the face, has always had me baffled. If all in this area want a better way of life, put your money and your mouth into the tourism effort because we all benefit directly or indirectly from its success. Currently our senior figures simply pay lip service to the tourism industry.

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    • Seriously? Limited employment? 1100 quoted in the Economic Tensions section is vastly understated. There are probably that many directly created jobs in any one region where fish farming takes place – without bringing in the jobs created in the supply chain that supports the salmon farming industry. Tourism is here a mere 6-7 months a year in any great number, fish farming brings rural economy’s vital income year-round. In our village, over half of the 36 houses are either directly or indirectly employed by / service to fish farms and the villagers are happy to have the farm there. Why? Responsible farming by the company, job creation in an area where there are no other jobs outwith the tourist season – certainly none of a career-building nature, regular income ensuring a village shop and post office stay open, people moving to the village bringing children for our school…… the list goes on. Of course there has to be a balance, fish farms must comply with any regulation neccessary to ensure the sustainability of our seas and should actively seek to find ways of containment, but if the dissenters stopped dissenting for just a minute and actually listened to what the Salmon Farmers are saying, they may just find that these things are happening already! The more money companies have to waste on appeal after appeal, battling to find the right site, or defending themselves for various things, the less they have to spend on pro-active measures. As the article says, fish farming is here to stay and the sooner people – both in and out of the industry start finding ways to cooperate, the better.

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