- Andrew Flitcroft The Observer,
- Article history
Visiting trade delegations do not often register on my radar. However, the high-level Chinese visit to Scotland in January was different. Apart from the inevitable "gift" to the hosts, consigning two hapless giant pandas to a life of incarceration in Edinburgh Zoo, a new trade deal on Scottish farmed salmon between the two countries was signed, allowing access for the first time to the vast Chinese market. First minister Alex Salmond crowed that the Scottish fish-farming industry may need to double salmon production to satisfy Chinese demand. The announcement a few days later that China was halting the import of Norwegian farmed salmon (China's retaliation, according to the Norwegian press, for the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo) lays Scottish government open to the charge that it is in effect supporting repression. But cynical politics aside, the implications of increasing significantly, let alone doubling, farmed salmon production in Scotland are terrifying. Surely it is recklessly irresponsible to contemplate any increase without first rectifying the dire existing problems, particularly the spread of deadly sea lice, caused to juvenile wild salmon and sea trout in the west Highlands and Islands by current production levels. There is little doubt that the situation is set to deteriorate. But first, for readers who are not familiar with the war between the salmon farming industry on the one hand and those trying to protect wild salmon and sea trout runs on the other, here is a brief summary of the problem. Marine cages of hundreds of thousands of farmed salmon are breeding grounds for millions of sea lice; these parasites feed on the mucus, tissue and blood of their farmed salmon hosts. The companies employ a range of measures using highly toxic chemicals to combat the lice, in order to reduce the damage and stress caused to their captive hosts. However, juvenile wild fish, which migrate from the rivers to the sea each spring, are simply not designed to cope with more than the odd louse. As these fragile young fish, known as smolts, run the gauntlet past the fish-farm cages conveniently placed on their migration routes down the sea lochs towards the open sea, they are ambushed by the unnaturally high concentrations of lice. The attachment of more than 10 lice is almost invariably fatal. The fish are literally eaten alive although death is usually hastened by secondary infections, which gain access through open wounds made by the grazing lice. This is the environmental calamity that the salmon farming industry and Scottish government is so determined to deny. Make no mistake – there is no such thing as "sustainable" farmed salmon, no matter what the evocative packaging on the supermarket shelves tries to convey. Indeed, all such packaging should be approached with scepticism. M&S's Lochmuir salmon comes from an entirely fictitious location. Now evidence is growing that salmon farms in Scotland are fast losing the battle against sea lice, mirroring the situation in Norway, where the head of the Directorate for Nature Management (the equivalent of Scottish Natural Heritage) has just called for a 50% cut in salmon production because, for the second year running, the average number of lice on each caged fish in several regions of Norway has exceeded the official limit of one mature female louse or five lice in total with increasing resistance to chemical treatment. He said that such a cut might not be enough to save Norway's fragile wild salmon stocks as: "The problem is very big and it is not under control." It is perhaps no wonder the salmon farming industry in Scotland is so sensitive on the sea lice issue. Witness their gagging of Scottish government last year to prevent publication of Marine Scotland's farm inspection reports. Analysis of these reports, obtained by Salmon and Trout Association's Guy Linley-Adams under FOI, confirms instances where sea lice have been completely out of control, necessitating early slaughter on several farms. Compared to five years ago, Scotland's salmon farms are using far greater quantities of pesticides to kill sea lice on farmed fish as the chemicals become less and less effective and the lice develop immunity. Some are adopting desperate measures and two managers of a Shetland farm have just been charged with animal cruelty following the death of more than 6,000 farmed salmon last August. Given these problems, it is galling that Scottish government continues to trot out the same tired mantra that salmon farming is "sustainable" and there is no proven damage to wild fish populations, aided and abetted by the nauseating spin peddled by the Scottish Salmon Producers' Organisation, the front for the Norwegian companies that dominate the industry in Scotland. Most galling of all is the prospect of an even bigger industry. There is one ray of hope. Solicitor Guy Linley-Adams, acting for the owners of the Ullapool river, has just submitted a formal 80-page complaint to the EU, detailing the failure of the authorities to designate an appropriate number of west coast Scottish rivers as Special Areas for Conservation for salmon under the EU Habitats Directive.
The complaint also details the failure of the Scottish government to rein in the salmon-farming industry to provide proper protection for wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout in the west Highlands and Islands. The gloves are starting to come off.Andrew Flitcroft is the editor of Trout & Salmon