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.