LA LA LAND
Politicians inventing wild salmon to pacify anglers and justify rapidly expanding fish-farming marks a new low
Imaginary wild salmon are the latest Scottish Government invention
The first thing anglers booking fishing do is ask about the Conservation Limits for the river. Category 1 is what they want; with discretion, boards can allow some fish to be kept and eaten. Category 2 rivers can too, but with extra caution. Category 3 rivers are total release – you hook the fish and then you un-hook it.
Having been bruised by the discovery that anglers really care about this, the Scottish Government unceremoniously jettisoned last year’s categories. Marine Scotland Science (MSS) t hen re-graded many Scottish rivers upwards, restoring control to local managers in an attempt to pacify irate anglers and claim to be managing scientifically.
However, the hastily assembled model for 2017’s grades risks government becoming a laughing stock. Rivers have been assessed as having fabulous migrations belonging to La La Land. To arrive at these inflated numbers a river’s ‘wetted area’, or total water volume, has been calculated. But salmon do not breed in ‘wetted areas’, they need oxygenated gravel.
For 2015 the Spey is accorded over 100,000 breeding salmon; the Brora, where about 400 were caught, apparently had a run of 8,000; the Dee enjoyed a theoretical run of 30,000 although anglers hardly contacted any. The River Helmsdale, which has a counter validated by government cameras, had a proven 2015 run of 3,400 against the model’s imaginary figure of 11,000.
Conjuring up these imaginary shoals assumes the whole river accommodates spawning
One eminent biologist suggested that Government charts resemble ‘a naive undergraduate’s early attempts’
salmon. Dead stretches – sheet bedrock, sticky peaty deeps, mud plains, tumbling rapids – are allowed the same breeding significance as riffly gravel where fish can actually bury their eggs.
Rod catches expose the hollowness of these fantasy runs. The Spey had 100,000 fish swarming up it but somehow only 7,000 were caught. The Cree had a theoretical run of 6,500 but the dumb anglers could only remove 300.
Commentators piled in scornfully, critiquing in detail the simplistic MSS model. Glasgow University’s Ecology Centre highlighted t he crudeness of using Ordnance Survey mapping data instead of real-life habitat mapping. Proper mapping exists – the River Lochy for example has habitat-mapped the whole system – but MSS never sought the information. Its numbers are particularly adrift on the west coast.
The eminent biologist Dr James Merryweather, who is based in Kyle of Lochalsh, suggested that Government charts resemble, ‘a naïve undergraduate’s early attempts’. He dissected the mathematical method used to arrive at salmon population trends, describing it as flawed and incomprehensible.
So why is all this nonsense happening? The answer is that in Scotland everything is political. A totemic triumph was needed to divert attention from the abandonment of the fisheries bill, so step forward conservation grading.
More cynically, it concerns the government’s plan to accelerate aquaculture. Helping Norway out-source Scottish sea-lochs to feed China with fish has a weird, irresistible appeal to our political overlords, with production to double by 2030. But as expansion onto new sites is constrained by lengthy planning enquiries, aquaculture’s pet poodle SEPA is scrapping old containment volumes of a maximum 2,400 tons of salmon on one unit, and preparing to sign off mega multi-million fish units. Multiplying the number of cages below existing farms neatly sidesteps public protest.
Now, the last obstacle – disappearing wild salmon populations – melts away if they are suddenly in dramatic recovery. Problem sorted. Forget yesterday’s horrors, rocketing parasite levels, chemical inputs up by a thousand per cent, salmon inadvertently boiled to death in the desperate search for ever-fiercer lice controls, forget that Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch assessing 53 world salmon sources on 10 health criteria warns against eating only one – Scottish farm salmon – just turn the west coast into a giant fish production unit.
One day someone will ask who has drummed up these dangerous fictions ruling anglers. Then the chickens – poultry waste, surrealy, is salmon farmers’ new cheap feedsource – will come home to roost.