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
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