Ewan Kennedy: the line in the sound

Fish farm gear at  Pol na Gille

Last weekend, 4th, 5th and 6th May, over two dozen boats took part in the 11th annual invitation-only muster for small boats on the Isle of Luing.

Most came from outside Argyll, including a few from the South of England and Wales. We’re not economists but the total spend by about 75 visitors must have helped our fragile local economy at least a bit.

Participants were very worried about the spread of fish farming locally – the phpotograph above  – at Pol na Gille, shows that full use is being taken of the foreshore to store equipment. Actually the whole shore was rancid so having a ‘farm’ nearby doesn’t improve the visitor experience. At least, as you can see, it kept some of the rain off the muster crews.

The Line in the Sound

When the rain cleared some strange floating concrete structures and large round fish cages were to be seen, the visible signs of an industry that is growing rapidly with loud support and a lot of financial backing from the Scottish Government.

Our part of mid-Argyll is a very popular location for fish farms due to easy transport links, despite official policy being to discourage locating production units where they conflict with other local activities such as tourism; and to avoid locating new farms or expanding existing ones in ‘inshore sea lochs and voes’.

Part at least of the problem is with the designation of the linked stretches of water comprising Seil Sound, Shuna Sound, Loch Shuna and Loch Melfort (Seil/Shuna/Melfort). If you look at the map you will see that these stretches together comprise one large sea loch in all but name.

Taking a line from Ardluing at the South end of the Isle of Luing to Craignish Point on the mainland as the Southern boundary we see a stretch of water with only two exit points to the North, the Cuan Sound and the narrow shallow channel under the Bridge over the Atlantic, the latter hardly an exit at all.

Under the influence of the Gulf Stream, the general drift of the tides is from South to North, with the result that there is very little tidal flushing. It is estimated to take several weeks for the water within the area to change over.

For reasons which local residents have tried unsuccessfully to discover under the freedom of environmental information rules, government bodies treat the area, apart from Loch Melfort, as ‘unclassified’, i.e. equivalent to the open sea.

Loch Melfort is regarded as a sea loch, which means that there is a presumption against increasing the pressure on the environment there, which at present comes from the two major fish farms at Kames and Kilchoan, both predating current environmental protection and co-existing unhappily with the massive mussel station near Asknish Bay.

The most likely explanation of course is that historically some civil servant has consulted an atlas and simply adopted the nomenclature found there, so that geography has trumped biology.

Over the last few years local residents have noticed many changes in water quality due to organic enrichment.

In sunny weather we see algal blooms as a result of which local shellfish become out of bounds and oily, scummy trails are seen across the surface. The causes aren’t known, but dumping enormous quantities of waste into the sea can’t be helping.

So, how much waste do the farms produce? First let’s look briefly at the history.

Fish farming in Scotland started in the late 1960s and soon came to be encouraged by central and local government as a low investment addition to rural economies. It was envisaged that crofting and fishing families would establish small-scale operations producing a healthy, easily-marketed product that would benefit from the fantastic reputation already enjoyed worldwide by Scotland’s wild salmon.

Many of us remember these early farms, which typically held about 100 tonnes, representing a population of about 25,000 mature salmon. They were innocuous looking things, tucked in the corners of bays, with none of the automatic feeding barges found today.

The first generation of companies showed genuine concern for the reputation of Scottish fish as a clean and wholesome product. Locations were chosen with some regard for other local enterprises such as tourism and leisure. Fish cages were serviced from boats by local labour.

From modest beginnings the industry grew steadily, as did its by-product of pollution. Scottish Government figures show that by 1986 the industry was producing 8,700 tonnes of salmon – and waste equivalent to that produced by the entire human population of the region where the farms were situated.

Now the Scottish industry claims to be one of the biggest in the world. The most recent figures published by the Scottish Government [here] show that annual production of Atlantic salmon has risen to 158,018 tonnes.

On this linked page, you’ll see the Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse saying: ‘Scotland has a world renowned reputation for high quality, delicious and healthy farmed fish and shellfish. Salmon is our largest food export and I welcome the continued growth in production and value in 2011.

‘Fish farming is a key food sector for Scotland, providing an important contribution to the economy – particularly in remote and rural communities in the west coast and Northern Isles. The industry employs almost 1,500 people, while many more jobs are underpinned by aquaculture indirectly.

‘We support the industry’s ambitions for sustainable growth – as demonstrated by our intention to bring forward an Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill – and we are working with them to keep the focus on minimising the impact on the marine environment and adopting best practices. More than 60 per cent of Scottish farmed salmon now has the RSPCA’s Freedom Foods accreditation, which is a great endorsement and selling point.’

[Ed: the RSPCA's Freedom Foods accreditation has been discredited and its claim still to be endorsed by Greenpeace had to be withdrawn after representation from that organisation. The Minister here is either uninformed or disingenuous - neither of which is acceptable.]

It’s ironic that it’s the ‘Environment’ Minister who is saying this, because the production success story comes at considerable cost to our environment

The quoted production was equivalent to about 40 million mature fish. It’s interesting to speculate about what size of human population would be required to produce a similar amount of waste, but the government figures from 1986 suggest it’s roughly 160 times the human population.

Perhaps worse, the industry dumps large amounts of medications and trace metals such as zinc (an ingredient in salmon feed) as well as pesticides that just happen to be harmful to lobsters and prawns, sea lice being tiny crustaceans.

And worst of all, the industry kills millions of fish by accident and many die of disease – a combined total of 8.5 million fish in 2012.

We have tried to find out where the dead fish, classified by Europe as potentially harmful, go, but government doesn’t know, because it doesn’t ask.

This enormous production is all accommodated on the islands and the west coast, it having always been government policy not to allow fish farms along the north and east.

Currently Scottish planning guidelines state: ‘There is a presumption against development of marine finfish farm developments on the north and east coasts to safeguard migratory fish species‘ (my italics), absurdly implying that west coast salmon prefer to stay at home. A more likely explanation would be that the proprietors of the great fishing rivers, the Tweed, the Tay, the Dee and the Spey possessed more clout than those in the west back in the 1970s, when the policy was formed – and still do.

As a result of commercial and government pressure, the west of Scotland is now threatened with a new generation of fish farms, on a scale that the original operators could never have imagined.

In our ‘unclassified’ sea loch of Seil/Shuna/Melfort, a subsidiary of Morpol (a company until recently mainly owned from Poland and now in the course of being taken over by the Norwegian giant Marine Harvest), has just been given permission to double the size of its operation at Ardmaddy and move it south to a position opposite the entrance to the Cuan Sound.

The resulting factory will hold 600,000 mature salmon. The same company has also been given consent to expand its site at Pol na Gille, at the South east corner of Shuna, to hold 400,000 [the site of the muster in the photograph above].

Both of these sites have a history of polluting the sea beyond the set legal limits. While we were sailing past on Sunday, those on shore could have been reading that day’s Sunday Herald article on the subject – here.

You will see that three farms in our area are among the sites named and Marine Harvest are among the miscreants, their worst site being at Loch Shell, further North, which polluted 455 times the permitted amount. [Ed: our emphasis].

Again last month, April 2013, we learned that another company, the locally based Kames, propose a new 600,000 capacity ‘farm’ at the South end of Shuna Sound. As we saw above, they wouldn’t be allowed to expand within Loch Melfort, where they are based, because of its protected ‘sea loch’ status.

I put the word ‘farm’ in quotes because it’s the term the industry uses – but the installations are really just industrial feeding units using the sea as a convenient way of disposing of the waste generated.

Each of these new installations would occupy between 30 and 40 hectares of the surface of the sea, with concrete feeder barges and generators running night and day to power the feeding systems and underwater lighting.

Fish farms attract seals and the operators intend to apply for a licence to shoot them, as it’s cheaper than surrounding the cages with a second anti-predator net.

Don’t believe the industry hype that the nets don’t work, because they are in use in countries where they are insisted upon. Like everything else in this industry the licence system is self-policing, with company marksmen simply reporting how many seals they have shot.

On Monday, on our trip back home as Neil and I drifted past the North end of Shuna Island, we detected the unmistakeable smell of rotting flesh. Of course it probably meant that some sea mammal had died of natural causes. Whatever the reason it’s indisputable there has been a decline in seal numbers.

Local residents remember times when the skerries in Loch Shuna were covered in seals. Last weekend you will only have seen one or two. And literally while I was writing the last words, the government has finally released data on the numbers of seals the companies admit shooting – Lakeland owned up to shooting fourteen in Loch Melfort in the sixteen months to the end of April 2012. You can read about this saga here.

The companies also propose to use acoustic deterrent devices to chase away seals, despite research showing that these can be seriously damaging to other wildlife, such as porpoises, dolphins and whales.

In dealing with the current applications, planning committees are supposed to comply with European law requiring an Environmental Statement, but at Pol na Gile and Ardmaddy this has been ignored.

We at saveseilsound are now turning to the European Commission to see if they will help to save our environment.

Planners are also required to consider the likely impact of these operations on the local economy.

In Scotland generally tourism employs 130 times the number of people that fish farming does and in Argyll it is absolutely prime. The list of local businesses is endless, from hotels and pubs to sea and land excursions, all supporting local families whether as owners or supporting services. The yachting community spends £39 million annually on the west coast alone and wildlife tourism throughout Scotland brings in £65 million.

Locally-owned and staffed businesses create further economic activity too, spending locally and of course paying tax in the United Kingdom, as opposed to multi-nationally-owned ones who take their profit abroad.

Objectors have argued that visitors come to see the scenery, the heritage and the sea-scape, not to see noisy industrial installations and the wildlife being shot. They have not been listened to. Pol na Gille was approved without going to committee and Ardmaddy has just been consented unanimously.

We intend to put up the strongest possible fight against the proposal off Shuna Cottage, water which many sailed over at the weekend.

Members of our local campaign group believe this truly to be ‘the line in the Sound’, because, if allowed it will result in an extremely popular spot becoming out of bounds, with obvious consequences for the people whose jobs depend on our visitors, let alone the enjoyment of residents.

To date the company has applied for a licence to dump pollution in the sea and has been quietly discussing things in ‘pre-application’ mode with government bodies, no doubt in the knowledge that it will be very difficult for anyone to persuade them to change their minds later.

The planning application to Argyll & Bute Council is live but the Council is not yet willing to accept comments. As a result the company has had a head start of about six months over the public and we can only wait for the notices to appear allowing us to object formally. In the meantime let’s do all we can to spread the news of what’s being done to our lovely area in the name of profit for a few foreign companies.

There is a mass of information on the campaign group website, including a blog to keep things up to date.

Please don’t forget about our local environment, or you may find next year’s visit much less enjoyable. You can contact us by emailing the address on the website linked above.

Ewan Kennedy, saveseilsound

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4 Responses to Ewan Kennedy: the line in the sound

  1. The planning authority surely have to consult SEPA, and so is it the case that this, our Environmental Protection Agency, isn’t effective? Or is there a risk of the planning authority ignoring SEPA’s recommendations?

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    • SEPA take very little to do with fish farms, for reasons best known to themselves. Laissez faire sums it up.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

      • ‘for reasons best known to themselves’?
        - they’re a statutory body, so the reasons should be best known to us and our elected politicians – otherwise there’s something badly wrong both with SEPA and with the notion of this country being capable of governing itself.

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  2. It is of great concern that the Appropriate Assessment which SEPA produced to to predict that Ardmaddy will not pollute the Special Area of Conservation does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Decisions should be based on sound science.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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