WE HAVE TO ACT NOW... BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE
ANYONE who doubts the impact salmon farming is having on our precious marine environment should swim under these fish tanks and see for themselves what others have already found – acres of dead sea. Everything down there is dead.
When you have hundreds of thousands of fish swimming round in a confined space, then it doesn’t take a genius to work out what the consequence is going to be. We have a serious pollution problem that has been responsible for wiping out sea trout on the West Coast of Scotland.
Wild salmon could be next, although the Scottish Government is more interested in pushing to double production to 300,000400,000 tons by 2030.
It seems to ignore how poorly regulated the present industry is. It is difficult to know whether this is simply out of incompetence or something more sinister.
Either way, the evidence is stacking up – problems with sea lice, farmed salmon escapes and pollution of sea lochs around the farm tanks – and yet the Scottish Government cannot, or will not, act.
Now an influential Holyrood committee has released a withering report into the state of the industry, calling for urgent reforms to prevent Scotland’s marine ecosystem suffering ‘irrecoverable damage’.
The farmed salmon industry has long argued it has a vital role to play in remote communities, creating a huge amount of jobs, but few people work on these farms and often they are not local.
And what about the real, local jobs that are being lost through the decimation of wild salmon and trout stocks? I am convinced angling provides more jobs and generates more revenue than salmon farms.
There is a misconception that people who hunt, shoot and fish are all toffs, but many are ordinary working people who, like me, have a passion for fishing.
I should stress that I am not against salmon farming per se, just the way it is done. Why, for instance, have factory farms been allowed to position themselves along fragile stretches of our West Coast, where wild salmon are exposed to disease and pollution from salmon farms? There are fears, too, that the genetic integrity of wild salmon has been harmed through breeding with farmed fish that have escaped.
The solution is to site the tanks on land, so that there is a clear separation between farmed and wild fish. That is what the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, with whom I work, have recommended. The tanks would not have to be far from where the nets are currently sited and the same loch water could be pumped through the tanks so it would be the same product but produced in a safer, cleaner environment.
It would require a degree of investment from the industry, which probably explains why they are dragging their heels. The world’s biggest land-based tank for growing market-sized salmon is already up-and-running at the former air base in Machrihanish, near Campbeltown, Argyll. As far as I can see, such a system would be a win-win situation for everyone in the Highlands.
As an angler, I see another imbalance that should be corrected. While the Government allows fish farms to expand with a speed that seems almost criminal, anglers are facing a clampdown with a strict catch and release policy on more than two-thirds of rivers where salmon are in decline. We might keep the odd one for the pot, but it is not the anglers’ fault there are so few fish.
On the Spey where I live, for example, anglers have done a massive amount of work restoring burns, making sure that everything is right for the salmon to spawn and then the fish go out to sea and they don’t come back. That is where the problem lies. Stopping anglers from taking the odd fish is just a drop in the ocean.
Salmon and sea trout are remarkably resilient but we have to act now. Very soon, it will be too late.