- Scottish salmon, the fish which has gone from being a
luxury to the ubiquitous filler of sandwiches and supermarket fish counters,
is in trouble.
- Environmentalists have accused the salmon farming industry
of poisoning shellfish stocks, thus creating toxic algal blooms around
the coast which threaten the survival of wild salmon stocks. Fish farms
have also been accused of using illegal toxic chemicals, leading to criminal
inquiries by environmental regulators. Mass escapes of farmed fish have
also led to claims that these will irrevocably damage the country's wild
- As a result, two committees of the Scottish Parliament
have begun a joint inquiry into allegations that salmon farming a booming
industry which employs 6,500 people in the Highlands and Islands and earns
£260m a year is wrecking the environment.
- Salmon farming has become a multi-national industry over
the past two decades and is now dominated by companies such as Norsk Hydro
in Norway, and Marine Harvest in the Netherlands.
- In 1980, Scottish fish farms produced roughly 800 tons
of fish. The latest annual figures put wild salmon catches at 198 tons,
compared with 127,000 tons of farmed salmon produced by 340 farms dotted
around the coast of Scotland, from Campbeltown in Argyll to Sutherland
on the North Sea.
- Faced with such a sudden growth, some regulators believe
the industry is in danger of upsetting Scotland's delicate marine environment.
Balancing the environmental issues against the industry's economic value
will be a key task for the parliamentary inquiry. At the same time, the
Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) is preparing to tighten its
already strict rules on the location of salmon farms, their use of restricted
chemicals, and their discharge of waste into the seas.
- Under a stricter system of regulations aiming to combat
an increase in pollution incidents, the agency has threatened to revoke
licences and relocate fish farms. Eventually, its officials believe, the
parliamentary inquiry could oppose the industry's further expansion unless
it improves its waste technologies and its environmental record.
- But the green movement's charges have been dismissed
by the industry as unsubstantiated or even malicious. Lord Jamie Lindsay,
a Scottish Office environment minister under the last Tory government,
who now heads the main industry association, Scottish Quality Salmon (SQS),
agreed that the industry is now under intense pressure to improve. But
he insists its record is generally very good.
- "Sensitivity towards the environment demands the
highest possible practices," he said. "We recognise that simply
complying with legal minimum requirements isn't good enough. Our sustainability
strategy is leading to a level of discipline and quality which will guarantee
a sustainable future."
- Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth Scotland believes recent
events justify its criticisms. In July, one company was expelled from SQS
and stripped of its "Tartan Quality Mark" after two former workers
signed affidavits alleging that the company had illegally used two toxic
chemicals ivermectin and cypermethrin to combat sea-lice. While legal
in its correct formulation, the company allegedly used a cypermethrin product
designed for horses.
- Ten days ago, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD)
said it had found levels of ivermectin, a banned neuroinsecticide, four
times above official "action levels" in three samples of farmed
salmon out of the 30 fish tested.
- Using for the first time the statutory powers introduced
in 1998, Sepa and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries have
launched a criminal inquiry into the new discovery, which could lead to
prosecutions. One source said the regulators had a simple policy: "Using
inappropriate chemicals and medicines has the potential to do real environmental
damage ... We will prosecute if we find enough evidence."
- Kevin Dunion, the director of FoE Scotland, believes
there are even more worrying statistics. The Salmon and Trout Association
has reported 30 mass escapes of farmed salmon over the past three years,
with at least 500,000 fish escaping this year. These larger, quicker-growing
fish are interbreeding with wild stocks at a time when "wild"
catches in Scotland have fallen by nearly 40 per cent from 1998 to 1999.
Last year's 198-ton catch was the lowest on record.
- FoE Scotland also supports concerns over fish farming's
alleged links to algal blooms, which were raised by Alan Berry, a former
shellfish farmer from Beauly, near Inverness, in his petition to the Scottish
Parliament which led to the latest committee inquiry.
- Fish farms are also being blamed for increasing levels
of nitrogen in the ocean. In the past two years, Sepa has detected 26 effluent
pollution leaks, often involving nitrogen-rich fish droppings, compared
with only nine in the previous two years. Naturally-occurring algae feed
on this nitrogen and grow into large toxic blooms that help to close down
other fisheries. Experiments by the government's Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen
have found that, in laboratory studies, legal chemicals such as azamethiphos
and cypermethrin can create an imbalance between plankton and algae populations,
producing toxins such as diarrhetic shellfish poisoning or amnesic shellfish
- Neither of these theories has been proved and Sepa officials
remain sceptical about their accuracy, but other studies suggest ammonia
in droppings stimulates the growth of another toxin, paralytic shellfish
poisoning. Last week, there were 65 separate bans on the harvesting and
farming of queen scallops, scallops, mussels and oysters across the Western
Isles and mainland coast. Most of the bans were close to fish farms.
- While Mr Dunion stressed that these issues pose no real
risk to consumers' health, Sepa and the Scottish executive now recognise
that salmon farming does threaten the wider environment.
- "The industry will soon be operating in a much less
forgiving regulatory regime," he said. "Also, consumers want
to buy a quality product from sea to plate which doesn't do much damage.
I think salmon is becoming a degraded product for consumers and food writers."
- Yet fish farmers such as Nick Joy, whose company Loch
Duart Ltd, in Sutherland, north-east Scotland employs 26 people, insists
such claims are false or exaggerated. Algal blooms and the decline in fish
numbers have occurred naturally for decades, he said, for a wide range
of unrelated and more complex factors.
- He has a thriving mussel farm next to his fish cages
and two neighbouring salmon rivers, which have reported the best catches
since the 1950s. He employs one person full time to deal with nine separate
regulatory agencies and their strict licensing conditions. Despite its
regular testing regime, the VMD has uncovered contaminated samples of
fish on only two occasions since 1995, which proves how false FoE Scotland's
allegations are, he said.
- He added: "I'm passionate about this industry, and
I think we have a very good story to tell. It's far better that we end
up with some sort of public inquiry to show what utter drivel these people
- According to Lord Lindsay, the Scottish Parliament investigation
will serve to focus minds on the most critical issue of all: finding a
proper balance between protecting the environment and supporting a valuable
- "Our success to date should bode well for the future
because the global demand for fisheries products by 2010 is going to be
massive, and aqua-culture worldwide has to step in and take up that demand
because the oceans have no hope of doing so," he said. "Aqua-culture
has an enormous contribution to make, and Scotland has proven in the past
that it can compete on grounds of quality in that market."
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