The ‘Stop Fish Farm Expansion’ campaign gains momentum

On Saturday, 29th June, Georgina Lepley-Maclean swam the last five hour leg of her circumnavigation of Arran, returning to the point in North Sannox from where she started at the beginning of June. This amazing effort was to highlight the danger to this unspoiled piece of coastline from the Scottish Salmon Company’s (SSC) proposal to build a huge new fish farm off Millstone point. And this last section saw her swim through the area where the farm would be located.

Arriving on the shore to a group of supporters and others involved in the campaign, she told The Voice that in this stretch of water there was more wildlife than in any other part of the swim. “Every metre there were fish, starfish, all the way there was a lot of different wildlife”. She noticed the clear quality of the water in this area particularly in contrast to Lamlash, where she had been much more aware of algae during her swim. She also commented on the noise in the water in Lamlash. “From Hamilton Rock onwards you can hear sort of clicks and other sounds, mechanical like noise” which she couldn’t hear in any other part of the swim, and she thinks it is connected to the fish farm in the Bay.

Georgina coming into the north Sannox shore, in the last few metres of her round Arran swim

The Stop Fish Farm Expansion campaign has been gaining momentum since the Scottish Salmon Company made their intentions known earlier in the year of building a large fish farm in the north east of Arran. The SSC have not put in the planning application for the development yet, but have been conducting a process of ‘community consultation’ which is a requirement before the application is sent to North Ayrshire Council.

The signs at north Sannox showing the route between Sannox and Lochranza, and the abundance of marine life in the area where the fish farm would be located.

The company have held various events over the past couple of months in an attempt to engage the Arran community. However these have been set up in a way that has been more about imparting their point of view to community members rather than holding a meaningful engagement process, and for islanders to have the serious and multiple issues of such a development addressed. Questions concerning waste and water pollution, salmon health and lice, damage to the environment and local wildlife were all issues that were raised in the Question and Answer sessions that were held by the SSC in Brodick in May.

Attendees wanted to know about the use of ADD’s (Acoustic Deterrent Devices) which are used at fish farms to ward off seals, how the company intend to clean the salmon and maintain fish health, and also probed the SSC on the issue of morts. The Voice was given some details about these sessions and in one exchange the SSC apparently did not know the figures concerning the problem of morts in Lamlash.

One attended, asked “How do you justify a figure of 44 tonnes of salmon morts in Lamlash last year?”
The SSC representative admitted that he was “unfamiliar with that figure”.
The attendee continued, “Lamlash aside. What about the high mortality rate at Inch Kenneth of 58% last year?”
The SSC representative replied “Different sites offer different challenges with regards to sea lice. Blooms can occur in shallower, slower flowing water and can grow quickly. The site at north Arran has been chosen because the water is deep and faster flowing which should result in fewer sea lice.”

New Technologies

During another conversation at these sessions, the issue of new technologies came up, which the SSC claim would make salmon farming much cleaner. The SSC say they have a range of new technologies that they will bring to the north Arran farm.  At the session one of the SSC representatives wanted to explain how these innovations can address the community members’ concerns, including preventative gill health and parasite treatments on the farm, freshwater supply through desalination and rainwater, preventative net washing solution, and recovery of dead fish immediately through sensors on the pen with subsequent oil extraction which will then be used to run the barge.

While these may sound promising, not enough is known about them and the SSC seemed unwilling to clarify the research going into these technologies or provide evidence to show they are actually working in sites.

One of the attendees, asked, “Are these technologies being used currently in your Lamlash site?”
The response was “They are technologies that can be re-implemented to an existing site and once they are production ready Gael Force will take them to SSC and other clients and encourage their use.”
The attendee replied, “Can you clarify if the previous technologies are being used in Lamlash?”
Marc Browne, Head of Site Development for the north Sannox farm said, “No. The new innovation packages are proposed for North Arran.”
To which the attendee asked “If SSC have innovations that would solve the mortality problems and improve the farms why aren’t they in use or being implemented into current farms rather than starting a new site?”

‘Community consultation’

The community members who attended the sessions felt that the responses from the SSC did not answer their questions adequately nor convince them that the problems with the development were being accounted for. The way in which the sessions were held limited the exploration of attendees concerns and amounted to little more than a box ticking exercise for the SSC in their planning application process. Some of the comments passed on to The Voice about the process are as follows:

“Whenever the SSC people answered a question, they spoke at length and vaguely. I felt they were doing this to curtail the number of questions that could be asked within the session time. Only 6 questions were taken in 50 minutes”.

“SSC presented as a barrage, not a friendly community consultation. They were smooth. They would always say ‘our policies are within legal limits’, rather than admit they had a lice problem for instance, which they were allowing to continue, and showed no sign of adopting different policies at their proposed new farm. I left the meeting feeling angry and frustrated.”

“These meetings are just box ticking exercises that they need to go through. They are doing the bare minimum required by the process.”

“It felt very much under their control, we had to email them before coming and there were 10 of us from the community and 6 from the SSC. Every time a question was asked they’d talk endlessly and pass it to each of the staff, repeating the same things over and over, which took so much time. We only had three questions answered. They kept saying they needed to move onto the next group, so it just felt like time wasting, and not a conversation. It felt like the opposite to what a community consultation should be, it was more them telling us and not an opportunity for the community to ask questions.”

The feeling that the important issues are being side-stepped came up again at a meeting with Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary of Agriculture and Fisheries who visited the island on the 17th June 2019. At the meeting in Whiting Bay hall, Arran resident John Ford reported that several salmon farming objection questions were asked by the audience. He wanted to know why are all the salmon farms in Scotland are located on the West Coast and none on the East Coast? John reported that Fergus Ewing passed this question to his civil service helpers and said he would write to John with the answer.

Another question was asked by a COAST biologist who said that it was obvious that neither the salmon farming companies nor SEPA had any idea how to conduct salmon farming operations in a sustainable way that protected local environments. Further the Scottish Government should declare a moratorium on any further salmon farming licences until these organisations found acceptable solutions. John said, “When Fergus Ewing writes back to me I am going to put this very same point to him again and demand an answer.”

Interpretations of ‘environment’

These interactions between community members on the one hand, and SSC representatives and politicians on the other, show there are are manifold problems – social and environmental – with expanding the salmon farm industry. Incidences such as algae blooms in warm waters, which cause the mass death of fish, are not going to be an unusual occurrence, as global warming increases. Aside from localised problems such as algae blooms, the recent article in the Scotsman points to the wider sustainability issues raised by the Scottish government’s plan to double salmon farming production.

In her article, Ilona Amos writes how “Plans to expand Scotland’s salmon industry could be under threat as new figures reveal two-thirds more wild fish would need to be harvested from the world’s already depleted fisheries to realise the Scottish Government’s ambitions.”

To one of the community member’s questions about the SSC claiming to be a custodian of the environment Marc Brown apparently said, “SSC look at all considerations, do baseline surveys and examine the seabed. They wouldn’t be looking to develop the site if there were environmental concerns. They are regulated through Marine Scotland and SEPA.”

In the face of increasing amounts of scientific evidence that salmon farming has a myraid number of negative environmental implications, this statement by the Head of Site Development is astonishing. But it also points to the way that the company is aiming to appropriate an ‘environmental’ narrative which puts them on a level with the motivations of the community. Yet as one attendee commented, “At the end of day, The Scottish Salmon Company’s sole objective is an economic one: to make money”, which makes prioritising a healthy environment ultimately impossible. Clearly there are different interpretations of ‘environmental’ being used in this context but with an increasingly informed community population these kinds of duplicities will be called out.

The future of the campaign

While COAST has spearheaded the campaign so far, creating the petition calling for a halt to fish farm expansion in Arran, there are growing numbers of locals who are involved and who also want to see more from the groups, committees, organisations, media and charities on Arran (other than COAST) formally declaring a stance against the farms.

COAST have made some ‘heat maps’ which have been created through the petition signatories postcodes so far.  Here are two of the images, and the areas in red show where most of the support for the campaign is concentrated.

Central Belt heat map


UK heat map

If you want to know more or want to help keep the pressure up with this campaign, contact COAST on (01770) 600 656. And go to the screening of Artifishal on Tuesday July 9th in Lamlash Community Theatre!