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.

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