By Sally Campbell
On Landward, a special programme on Saving our Salmon (see Landward on BBC iplayer 2018.2019: 25 Saving our Salmon) the Scottish Salmon Company (SSC) declined to come clean and discuss the appalling sight of salmon damaged with raw flesh eaten by parasitic sea lice in their Roag salmon farm in the Outer Hebrides.
The following day the SSC announced that it is in the awards competition for The Drum B2B Brave Awards in America; it had already reached the short list and was making lots of fuss about their nominations in three categories at this year’s awards following the launch of new “Premium Scottish farmed salmon brand Lochlander” into the North American market earlier this year. Winners are to be announced at a “gala ceremony on 15 November at the Edison Ballroom in New York”. The three categories, are would you believe :
Best Brand Campaign
Best Product launch
Best ROI campaign
It seems remarkable that this company, after all the problems and adverse publicity with sea lice infestation, are attempting to sell itself as pristine and with care for their fish with the following customer soothing words
“In the remote western Highlands & Islands of Scotland time seems to move more slowly. We can’t put a clock on nature, which is why we allow our naturally raised premium Lochlander Scottish Salmon approximately three years to grow lean and strong. Lochlander Salmon are nurtured by our dedicated Scottish Salmon Masters, unrivalled in their passion for fish care giving our customers Scottish Salmon…
…You Can Be Proud Of.
• Approximately 3 years growth
• Zero synthetic colorants in feed
• Zero GMOs, steroids or hormones”
Fish welfare has risen quickly up the agenda with both statutory bodies and animal welfare campaigning organisations concerned with standards in fish farms. The Scottish Fish Health Inspectorate is involved.
So what about sea lice in particular?
Sea lice graze on fish scales leaving open wounds. This summer in the River Blackwater on the Island of Lewis, dead wild salmon were collected close to several salmon fish farms and Corin Smith, wild life photographer and fly fishing guide, twice filmed farmed salmon in their cages. Lice had removed flesh from the heads of salmon resulting in white heads with lice eating away skin and flesh. A large amount of stock was filmed in a really bad state with lice numbers 13 times above acceptable levels, in the farm in Loch Roag. The footage on the investigative blog, The Ferret, (Rob Edwards September 3rd 2018) showed “as many as 80 per cent of the salmon” suffering from sea lice damage at the Scottish Salmon Company site, Vacasay fish farm in Loch Roag, Scotland. It is said that cleaner fish were present but this cannot be confirmed.
Whilst sea lice are found on wild salmon they are usually in small numbers and drop off dead when the salmon enters fresh water rivers. Now much larger numbers are being found on wild fish returning to their rivers of birth. Andrew Graham-Stewart, Director of Salmon & Trout Conservation, Scotland, said:
“Many of the individual farms’ sea lice numbers, which have long been hidden within regional aggregated ‘averages’ published by the industry, are far worse than we envisaged. Sea lice numbers on farmed fish across much of the industry are of epidemic proportions. More worrying, the Scottish Government’s flagship new policy appears to be a sham, little more than a cynical ‘widening of the goalposts’ to the industry’s advantage, a policy with no teeth.”
Guy Linley-Adams, Solicitor to Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland, said:
“The data that Scottish Government didn’t want anyone to see shows that salmon farms have been permitted to operate with breathtakingly high lice numbers for weeks or months on end. To date, no meaningful enforcement action, such as the ordering of culls or immediate reductions in fish-farm biomass, has been taken against serial offenders.The Scottish Government has a legal duty to protect and conserve wild salmon and sea trout, but this data shows it is failing to rein in the biggest threat to wild salmonids.”
There is no doubt these heavy infestations of sea lice on salmon farms are then infecting the wild salmon. The two events are linked with effects on wild salmon and sea trout. Every credible study in Norway and Ireland and now in Scotland points to this. Sea lice infestations on sea trout near Fort William reflect the same invasive increase in salmon farms over the salmon production cycle.
On average there are 400,000 salmon per farm, approximately 20 times the population of wild salmon across the entire NW coastline of Scotland. So one farm with 400,000 fish in a size of a couple of football pitches, and with 200 farms around the west coast of Scotland, we need to be alert to the effects on the environment, both short and longer term. This intensive exploitative industry has already decimated the wild salmon and trout fisheries in the rivers, with the ghillies, and tourism outlets badly hit, affecting small communities. The level of intensity of salmon aquaculture will have and indeed is having an enormous impact on the environment. No containment of waste, faeces and uneaten food discharged without controls, with chemicals including organophosphates and antibiotics incorporated into feed and additional chemical bath treatments to control lice and disease vectors.
In 2017, 56 salmon farms did not reach a satisfactory environmental standard, says SEPA. That is one in five of all salmon farms. Since January 2015 reduced maximum biomass stocking has been imposed on 42 fish farms in response to non-compliance. There is a problem with regulation, and the government relies on salmon farms to self-report, which is largely voluntary. Salmon producers are taking the tonnage up and up, so the regulation needs to be tightened and properly resourced. We are seeing applications across the whole of the inshore waters of the west and north west to accommodate vast increases in production taking advantage of Scotland’s light touch and this needs to be halted.
Collecting awards is becoming a huge industry for the applicants, sponsors and promoters. We see it in The Arran Banner weekly. We have all been alternately laughing and saddened in equal measure at Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) picking up an award for the extensive upgrade of Brodick Ferry Terminal. CMAL received the industry accolade at the “UK Port Awards 2018” for the completion of the vastly over-expensive £30 million redevelopment project, and recently CalMac collected one for “Best Ferry Operator of the Year at 2018 National Transport Awards”. No one asked the passengers what they thought of the service. The Drum B2B Brave Awards in America are a continuation of that Awards industry. In one of my lives, in years gone by, I recall being involved myself in the UK National Training Awards, and with any services we consistently checked out the story with a variety of customers as well as reading the overblown applications !
On salmon farming, it is not going to go away. However in Scotland we need to take charge of this industry, stop it from doing so much damage to our marine environment, mandate more environmentally sustainable practices and lead on quality rather than quantity. The Norwegians have learnt their lesson here and it simply demonstrates our weakness that predominantly Norwegian based companies as well as the Scottish Salmon Company are taking advantage of their unfettered access to Scottish waters.