from Scottish Wildlife Trust magazine, August 2012
Nearly every day in the summer, David Ainsley takes tourists on his boat, Porpoise II, to look for wildlife amidst the unassuming beauty of water, rock and hill that characterises the west coast of Scotland. If they are lucky, they get to see eagles, goats, seals, dolphins, porpoises and minke whales, as well as the famed Corryvreckan whirlpool.
For more than 20 years, Ainsley has been running a successful wildlife-watching business from his home on the island of Seil, eight miles south of Oban. But now he is worried that the wildlife - and with it his livelihood - could be blighted by the burgeoning billion-pound fish farming industry.
A Polish-owned company, the Meridian Salmon Group, has applied for planning permission to double the production of a nearby salmon farm in the Sound of Seil off Ardmaddy, and move it 900 metres south. This means more shooting and scaring of seals, more pollution and more dangers for the area’s priceless natural heritage, Ainsley fears.
“Salmon farming is an important industry but some farms unnecessarily kill wildlife and affect wildlife tourism,” he says. “The salmon farm at Ardmaddy is a classic example of an inappropriately located farm.”
In their anxiety to prevent seals from eating salmon, fish farmers sometimes shoot them, or try to frighten them with loud underwater blasts of noise. But according to Ainsley, this can interfere with the echo-sounding vital for dolphin and porpoise navigation. “It’s like blinding them,” he argues.
Pollution from the existing salmon farm was declared “unsatisfactory” in 2010 by the government’s green watchdog, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa). The conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, has also expressed concern that chemicals used to treat the fish could spread to the nearby Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation, protected under law because of the rarity of its reefs.
Meridian’s expansion plans for Ardmaddy have prompted more than 800 objections, and are still to be assessed by Argyll and Bute Council. The company insists that it is “totally committed to ensuring best practice” and describes claims of damage to wildlife as “unsubstantiated”. Said managing director, Mark Warrington: “If there was conclusive data on this, we would look to change our operations.”
The arguments over Ardmaddy are being replicated across Scotland, as the salmon farming industry seeks to keep on expanding. Recently, there have been conflicts over fish farms proposed near the islands of Eigg, Canna and Colonsay - and there will be many more.
Production of Atlantic salmon has risen nearly fivefold from 32,350 tonnes in 1990 to around 157,400 tonnes in 2011, and now involves 30 companies at about 250 sites along the west coast and on the islands. Farmed salmon is Scotland’s single largest food export, with a worldwide retail value of over £1 billion and major sales in the US, China and France.
Scotland is the world’s third largest producer of farmed salmon, after Norway and Chile. But for the industry, backed by the Scottish government, this is not enough. It wants to grow even bigger, and is aiming to boost the production of all farmed finfish 50% by 2020.
The industry has brought jobs and income to remote communities, but this has come at a price. “There’s no doubt that salmon farming has given a boost to rural communities in the highlands and islands, but this has to be balanced against environmental costs,” says the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s ‘living seas’ policy officer, Alex Kinninmonth.
“The salmon farming industry must acknowledge that it’s the unique quality of Scotland’s natural environment that’s the brand that’s so successful worldwide. To operate in a way that damages Scotland’s wildlife not only puts itself at risk, but the future of hugely important livelihoods, like tourism and fisheries.”
The problems are manifold. As well as the fish wastes that smother the seabed under the cages, farmers have to regularly use pesticides to try and kill off the sea lice that eat the salmon alive. Surveys by Sepa in 2008 and 2009 found pesticide contamination in the sediments of all nine sea lochs tested on the north west coast.
Research by the Salmon and Trout Association suggests that pesticide residues in some places are above safety levels set to protect wildlife. The danger, points out the association’s lawyer, Guy Lindley-Adams, is that lobsters, crabs and prawns could be killed. The solution, he says, is to introduce “closed containment units” for fish farming to prevent pollution from leaking out.
Meanwhile, there’s mounting evidence that sea lice are growing increasingly resistant to the pesticides, and can spread to wild fish, damaging their populations. Farmed salmon also escape when nets are ripped by storms, and dilute the genetic integrity of wild salmon by interbreeding.
The risks to wild fish in some areas are “significant”, according to Dr Alan Wells, the policy director of the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards. Along with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, he is looking to new aquaculture legislation promised by Scottish ministers to help tackle some of the problems.
Both organisations are calling for stronger controls on the management of fish farms, and for new powers to limit the amount of salmon allowed to be farmed. Such moves, though, are strongly opposed by the salmon farming industry, which is resisting further regulation.
“There appears to be little sensible rationale for bringing forward a bill which consists of regulation and bureaucracy serving no purpose other than to tie salmon farmers to computers instead of allowing them to rear fish,” says the chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, Scott Landsburgh.
The clash between the companies and the conservationists is not going to lessen, or be easily resolved. But many would argue that Scottish ministers must be careful not to sacrifice the long term value of the natural environment for the short term demands of businesses. There is much at stake.