Scottish Daily Mail

Thousands of fish thrown in a truck – and troubling new questions for salmon farms

A staggering 177,000 were hauled out of one loch last autumn but that’s a fraction of the 10m diseased salmon binned by the industry in a single year

- By Gavin Madeley

IT was the stench that first alerted locals that something was far wrong. A sickly odour of rotting fish carcasses that weighed heavily on the soft Hebridean air, forcing residents to drag their freshly laundered sheets indoors and slam shut their windows.

The stink was, at times, overpoweri­ng. Tens of thousands of infected salmon, once destined for a nation’s dinner plates, now lay decaying in piles after they were hauled from the fish farm net cages which lurk in the salt waters of Loch Erisort.

For weeks on end, mechanical lifters would be spotted scooping up the remains and dumping them in the backs of lorries ready to be driven from this secluded spot in the south-east of the Isle of Lewis and disposed of in an incinerato­r hundreds of miles away.

In all, between August and November last year, 177,000 salmon – many weakened by disease and parasitic sea lice – succumbed to the deadly bacterium pasteurell­a skyensis at the facility operated by Marine Harvest.

The sheer scale of the operation to counter the outbreak may seem shocking, but it is not uncommon.

Stacks of dead fish have been removed with worrying regularity from other fish farms up and down Scotland’s Atlantic coastline because of rising levels of diseases, parasites and other problems.

Indeed, Scottish fish farmers have admitted they threw away up to ten million farmed salmon in 2016 – nearly a quarter of their stock. Such high mortality rates have inevitably thrown the spotlight onto this highly prized sector of the aquacultur­e industry which contribute­s an estimated £620million a year to the Scottish economy and which hopes to double in size by 2030.

Critics argue they are evidence of deep systemic problems within salmon farming which are threatenin­g Scotland’s fragile marine ecosystem and endangerin­g stocks of wild salmon and sea trout.

Dr Richard Luxmoore, senior nature conservati­on adviser for the National Trust for Scotland, described the disposal of huge amounts of rotting fish as ‘stomach churning’, adding: ‘It’s the sign of an environmen­tal catastroph­e.’

He said: ‘The salmon farming industry has lost the ability to control fish diseases and this results in escalating quantities of toxic chemicals being poured into the sea in an increasing­ly fruitless attempt to control them.

‘It also inevitably leads to the release of an infectious soup of disease organisms into our coastal waters.’

SALMON producers dismiss such emotive language as scaremonge­ring, blaming long-standing problems with sea lice and amoebic gill disease, both of which can lead to the slow deaths of large numbers of caged stock, on matters largely beyond their control, such as global warming.

However, their industry is about to be thrust into the most public of forums as a Scottish parliament­ary inquiry is expected to begin imminently into the state of the Scottish aquacultur­e industry.

Holyrood’s rural economy and connectivi­ty committee has given itself a wide-ranging brief to investigat­e, among other things, what damage has been wrought by Scotland’s 253 salmon farms on one of Europe’s most magnificen­t wilderness­es.

MSPs will be wading into an increasing­ly polarised debate, where truth is often blurred by polemic. Conservati­onists, though, insist one thing is clear: any attempt to rear fish in the quantities needed to meet our growing appetite for what was once considered a luxury food is bound to upset the local ecosystem.

Their claims were bolstered earlier this month by a report which suggests that sea lice escaping from fish farms have ravaged wild salmon and sea trout and reduced their numbers by as much as 29 per cent.

The findings by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research appear to fly in the face of the Scottish Government’s official position that there is ‘no evidence’ that sea lice from salmon farms damage wild fish population­s. Ministers are acutely sensitive to the aquacultur­e industry argument that its fish and shellfish-based operations offer vital employment for around 12,000 people, many in areas with few other job opportunit­ies, although only around 1,400 of those work full-time in the highly automated farmed salmon sector.

As opposing sides prepare to join battle, MSPs will attempt to balance the seemingly impossible – protecting wild fish stocks while meeting the increasing­ly voracious public demand for farmed salmon. If they cannot square that circle, then they may face a stark choice – which one is worth saving?

‘Disease and mortalitie­s on Scottish salmon farms continue at shocking levels,’ said Andrew Graham-Stewart, director of the game angler’s lobby group, Salmon & Trout Conservati­on Scotland (S&TCS).

‘What concerns us is that the Scottish Government has almost no idea what the effects are on wild salmon and wild sea trout in Scottish sea lochs.’ S&TCS says thousands of salmon packed in huge net cages become natural breeding grounds for tiny sea lice, which burrow into the fish’s skin and kill them either directly or indirectly by exposing them to fatal infections.

Most cages are sited close to shore – where they are easier to manage but where tidal flows that might wash away residues of waste, chemicals and antibiotic­s are weaker than in deeper waters.

Wild salmon and trout migrating to sea or returning to rivers to spawn often have to swim past these farms and through clouds of sea lice spilling out of the cages.

Adult wild salmon are used to coping with modest numbers of sea lice which occur naturally, but S&TCS claims the advent of salmon farming has changed the density and occurrence of the pest, particular­ly in largely enclosed sea lochs in the west Highlands and Islands. Last summer, the organisati­on announced a collapse in the number of wild salmon returning to spawn in Loch Awe, the most closely monitored river in the western Highlands where a fish counter was installed when a hydroelect­ric dam was constructe­d.

S&TCS said young salmon fail to return to the Awe because they were killed at the start of their migration to sea by having to pass dozens of salmon cages.

Similar concerns were voiced following the opening of a salmon farm in 1987 in Loch Ewe, Rossshire. A year later, sea trout numbers collapsed in Loch Maree, an internatio­nally renowned freshwater loch emptying into Loch Ewe.

The vital money stream from anglers soon dried up too. A report by Andrew Walker, formerly of the Scottish Government’s Fisheries Research Services, concluded that ‘the introducti­on of salmon farming in Loch Ewe played a promi-

nent part’ in the disappeara­nce of sea trout. Mr Graham-Stewart said that the new Norwegian study, which looked at farm-intensive areas in Norway, Scotland and Ireland, proved that the ‘drive for growth of the salmon farming industry at all costs’ was a flawed approach

MINISTERS could no longer ignore the pattern of wild fish collapses on West Coast sites near fish farms, he added, and called for tough new legislatio­n to include culls of farmed fish where sea lice numbers have spiralled and urged the industry to shift to a ‘closed containmen­t system’ that would ‘biological­ly separate’ farmed fish from the marine environmen­t.

Unwanted mortalitie­s at salmon farms have long been a problem, but Marine Scotland Science figures reveal the tonnages of dead fish having to be disposed of has more than doubled in three years, from 10,599 tons in 2013 to a record high of 22,479 tons in 2016. The company that suffered the biggest losses was Marine Harvest, headquarte­red in Norway, whose mortalitie­s leapt threefold to 7,609 tons between 2013 and 2016.

Latest figures for the months up to June 2017 show another 7,700 tons of dead salmon discarded in Scotland, suggesting that the problem is not going away. Another 552 tons were lost in the outbreak of pasteurell­a skyensis at Loch Erisort, near the village of Keose.

Marine Harvest apologised to local people about the smell of decay in the area and the sight of lorries carrying away dead fish.

Specialist contractor­s transporte­d the carcasses to an anaerobic digester in the Central Belt, where they were turned into liquid fertiliser. Residents, meanwhile, took to social media to register their disgust.

‘The locals are sick of the stink in the village of Keose,’ posted one. ‘Can’t leave a window open or hang out washing.’

Not all the salmon in Loch Erisort’s net cages died during the pasteurell­a outbreak, of course. Some responded to the antibiotic­s doled out by Marine Harvest’s marine veterinari­ans and those passed fit for human consumptio­n were sold on as normal to supermarke­ts. In doing so, it should be noted that Marine Harvest has done nothing wrong.

Deadly to fish, pasteurell­a skyensis is, according to all medical research, entirely harmless to humans. Loch Erisort salmon is also vouchsafed by the RSPCA Assured logo, the charity’s animal welfare scheme which covers the healthy and humane rearing of livestock, from fish to chicken and pigs. The RSPCA has had to defend the scheme against suggestion­s its guidelines are toothless.

What was once considered an expensive delicacy is now a staple of the nation’s shopping basket. A whole side of fresh salmon can cost as little as £11 and two salmon steaks around £4, while a 1kg (2.2lb) side of smoked salmon can cost less than £40.

In the 1980s, it would have cost four times as much. Recently, prices have started to creep up again due to a slump in supply caused by disease and sea lice.

The disease known as pasteurell­a skyensis was identified in 2002 and named after a farm on Skye where it was first found, said Marine Harvest’s business support manager, Steve Bracken.

He described the Loch Erisort outbreak as ‘a localised problem’, adding that high bio-security measures had been put in place to ensure the bacterium did not spread to other sites. ‘I think the fact that the fish were weakened by gill disease to begin with has meant that this bacteria could have been around before,’ he said at the time.

‘We’ve been here before and we know what can happen, but we also know what we can do to prevent the spread of it.’

Don Staniford, from the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquacultur­e, believes the problem is simple: ‘We are farming too many salmon in too confined a space.

THE mortality problem is simply symptomati­c of overproduc­tion – we are cramming a migratory species into these cages. There would be a public outcry if a quarter of our chickens or turkeys or cows or sheep were dying each year, but that is the case with salmon farming.’

He urged the inquiry to consider imposing a moratorium on new farms, but said: ‘There is a real risk it could be a whitewash because of the importance of the salmon farming industry to the Scottish economy.’

For the industry, such talk is unjustifie­d hyperbole, although it would not dispute its status as a commercial success story producing nearly 180,000 tons of salmon by 2015.

Scott Landsburgh, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisati­on, said: ‘The reality is we do have sporadic, localised, outbreaks of disease resulting in higher mortality rates than we would wish, we absolutely concede that.

‘But the idea that the whole industry is having this wholesale problem and is not being able to deal with it and it’s only on account of bad farming practices is, quite

frankly, misreprese­ntation.’ He claimed rising sea lice infestatio­ns were a worldwide problem and blamed it on global warming. ‘I can tell you that in the west of Scotland in a significan­t number of areas the average sea water temperatur­e rose by 15 per cent,’ he said. ‘That is encouragin­g sea lice.

‘We want a proper study of the effects of climate change on Scottish aquacultur­e because, in certain circumstan­ces, we are operating in an entirely different environmen­t to what we had five or even three years ago. We are very much looking forward to putting our points across to the inquiry.’

Mr Landsburgh also disputed the findings of the Norwegian study into wild salmon stocks. He said: ‘We are as aware as the S&TCS of the state of wild salmon stocks and have consistent­ly pointed out that scientific research has suggested that any impact of sea lice from farms on wild population­s is minimal.

‘It is interestin­g, however, there is no acknowledg­ment of the impact of climate change, which is undoubtedl­y having an effect on wild and farmed fish health across the board.’

The RSPCA admits it was ‘saddened and

 ??  ?? Deadly outbreak: Tons of salmon are dumped on to a lorry at Loch Erisort on Lewis to be transporte­d hundreds of miles for incinerati­on
Deadly outbreak: Tons of salmon are dumped on to a lorry at Loch Erisort on Lewis to be transporte­d hundreds of miles for incinerati­on
 ??  ?? Criticised: Salmon farming has fuelled fears over the impact on wild stocks. Right, the RSPCA Assured scheme covers Loch Erisort
Criticised: Salmon farming has fuelled fears over the impact on wild stocks. Right, the RSPCA Assured scheme covers Loch Erisort

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