Norwegian-owned Marine Harvest has promised to give the 120 residents of Colonsay, to the north of Islay, £50,000 up front and £10,000 a year thereafter if they vote for 12 salmon cages to be moored 1,500 metres off their east coast.
Islanders are deeply divided on the issue, with some worried about the environmental dangers and other anxious for new jobs. They are due to vote on the plan in a referendum later this year, and the company has promised to abide by the outcome.
People on different sides of the argument, canvassed by the Sunday Herald last week, all agreed that the result of the referendum was “too close to call”. And they accepted that, whichever way it goes, it would be a crucial turning point for Colonsay.
One of the most ardent of opponents is 60-year-old Mike McNicholl, who retired yesterday as owner of the local shop. The cash on offer was undoubtedly “a bribe”, he said, aimed at winning support for an initial development that would later expand.
He was very critical of Marine Harvest’s safety and environmental record in Scotland, Chile and elsewhere. And he feared that a fish farm would damage Colonsay’s reputation as an “unspoilt” holiday destination.
“I really don’t see the benefits,” he said. “Whatever the outcome, it’s already caused damage. It’s not enhanced the island.”
The island’s laird and son of Lord Strathcona, Alex Howard (50), who owns 60% of the land and 38% of the houses, was similarly concerned. “Colonsay has completely unpolluted waters, which is why many people want to come here,” he said.
“I have not yet seen enough evidence to say that we are not taking an unacceptable risk.” He warned that the salmon farm “could backfire horribly” because it “could have incredible, far-reaching negative consequences, ruining the environment.”
Howard said he would find it hard to vote in favour of the plan, but accepted that some of his fellow islanders might be influenced by the tens of thousands of pounds on offer. “If you dangle money in front of people who haven’t got much, they will take an interest.”
Marine Harvest’s past environmental record has been blemished by its failure to control pollution at some fish farms, the Sunday Herald has discovered. Eight of its existing west coast and island salmon farms were rated as “poor” by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) in 2010, while 48 were found to be “good” or “excellent”.
The problems were due to chemicals and wastes leaking from the farms breaching agreed limits. The company’s fish processing plant in Fort William also failed Sepa’s pollution assessment in 2008 because of bad smells, though it has improved since.
Some Colonsay residents, however, are optimistic that a new farm could be made to work without wrecking the environment. The standards are “very high”, according to Kevin Byrne (64), who drives the school bus and has written a history of the island.
He’s very worried about the lack of work for young people. “Who will look after me if I get ill? Who will bury me?” he said. “It would be foolish of those of us who are past working age to stand in the way of this.”
The local development officer and crofter, Donald Macneill (58), reinforced the point. “Anything that brings new jobs to Colonsay is not just important, it is vital,” he said.
He pointed out that the vast majority of the islanders – 95 – were over 45, with 49 of them over 60. “We do need young people, and jobs to give them,” he argued.
The fish farm will create six full-time jobs, a significant addition to the 16 existing full-time jobs, many in the public sector. The extra money would be invaluable as there was little that generated income on the island, he said.
Marine Harvest’s manager, Steve Bracken, who is based in Fort William, pointed out that the fish farming industry had created more than 500 new jobs across Scotland over the last four years. “Colonsay has a great marine environment that is ideal for growing salmon,” he said.
“And as it will bring six direct jobs it could be a ‘win-win’ for everybody concerned.” He rejected the suggestion that the company was trying to bribe the islanders.
“We see this as an opportunity to help the community in whatever way they see fit to fund various projects on Colonsay. If we are successful, our farm staff and families who will live on Colonsay would benefit from this funding as well.”
Bracken confirmed that Marine Harvest would only proceed if it won the support of a majority of the islanders. The company withdrew plans for a salmon farm near the island of Canna to the north in 2010 after islanders narrowly rejected the idea by eight votes to seven.
But islanders were warned by an environmental group not to take the company’s claims at face value. “A few new jobs and some clever bribes might appear attractive to a small island community in the short-term,” said the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, Stan Blackley.
“Obviously it's up to the local community to decide how to proceed, but they will have to find a sensitive balance between the claimed economic and social benefits and the actual scenic and environmental impacts.”