THERE is no reason why salmon farmers and anglers cannot coexist and thrive in Scotland if development is undertaken sustainably.
This was the view expressed by Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland (S&TCS) in Holyrood yesterday as the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee continued its inquiry into the current state of salmon farming in Scotland.
In this second evidence gathering session it was the turn of the angling lobby to have its say. Alongside S&TCS lawyer Guy Linley-Adams, Fisheries Management Scotland chief executive Dr Alan Wells was also present, while Richard Luxmoore spoke for the National Trust for Scotland, and Jon Gibb represented the Lochaber District Salmon Fishery Board.
The inquiry was set up following a petition by S&TCS, the lobby group that campaigns against salmon farming, and MSPs were eager to hear the anglers’ grievances.
When John Mason, SNP member for Glasgow Shettleston, asked the panel if it was possible to have successful angling and salmon farming, Linley-Adams was the first to answer.
‘Definitely, yes. We’re often labelled as anti-fish farming but it’s not correct. We’re concerned about the sustainable development of the industry. But there is no reason why the two sectors can’t coexist and both thrive.’
Gibb, who declared himself a fish farmer, but just for re-stocking purposes, agreed: ‘As a fishery board on the west coast, we’re most certainly of the view there will be a place, we’re not there yet, where both sectors can thrive.
‘Fish farming, like forestry, like hydro, like any man made activity, is going to be a risk – it’s quantifying that risk and minimising that risk.’
He said through working together with farmers and through projects to protect and enhance wild salmon and sea trout stocks, ‘we might be able to boost [wild stocks] by, say, 20 per cent’.
Wells said Fisheries Management Scotland sought harmonious coexistence but wanted to see a proportion of fish farming profits invested into improving wild salmon and sea trout stocks.
Angling groups blame the decline of wild salmon and seat trout stocks on salmon farming along the west coast and have called for sea cages to be relocated on land.
However, at the Holyrood hearing, there was an acknowledgement that other factors could be affecting depleting numbers of wild fish.
Peter Chapman, Conservative MSP for North East Scotland, said there were also problems in east coast rivers and asked whether wild salmon would be in decline if there was no salmon farming going on.
Wells said: ‘It’s never been our position that fish farming is the only pressure that wild fish face. Marine issues are a significant problem, whether it’s east or west coast, Norway or anywhere in the range of the Atlantic salmon.’
Gibb said he had ‘never seen aquaculture as the main culprit in the decline of salmon and sea trout, but what is clear is that it’s most certainly adding an extra pressure’.
‘We are seeing a new period of decline in parts of the west coast’.
The problem was sea lice from fish farms. Wells, who pointed out that his doctorate was in interactions between wild and farmed salmonids, said experiments had been done in Norway and Ireland, though not in Scotland.
These took two cohorts of fish and released them into the wild, one of which had been prophylactically treated against sea lice and one which hadn’t. The results showed that, on average, about 20 per cent less fish returned to rivers in the group not treated for sea lice.
He said he agreed with the academics who told the REC committee last week that Norway was different to Scotland. But, he reasoned, ‘we can draw broadly from the results of those two studies’.
Stewart Stevenson, the SNP MSP for North East Scotland, said given the reduction in returning fish, should we infer that the mortality is occurring at sea and, therefore, does that detach the effect of farms since lice naturally occur at sea.
Wells explained that it is the young fish leaving the rivers where the biggest impact is seen. Larger fish can cope with large numbers of lice. But sea lice add an ‘extra stressor’ to young fish as they head out to sea.
‘We understand it’s a relatively close to shore phenomenon’, and whether those fish then die because of the sea lice or whether there is a secondary reason – such as predation – comes into that ‘black box argument’.
In other words, ‘we don’t know what happens once the fish get out into the marine environment because it’s impossible to sample them.’
Linley-Adams wanted to remind the committee that sea lice were not just a problem for departing smolts, but also for sea trout, juveniles and adults, because they stay close to the farms and are exposed in a way that adult salmon, which go out to sea, won’t be.
Gibb said aquaculture had put adult salmon in the way of young smolts that were not used to meeting sea lice because, in nature, on the west coast, adult wild salmon (which carry sea lice naturally) don’t run until May so they don’t cross over smolts.
He said the farmed salmon could either be moved out of the way of the migrating smolts, or be separated from them.
He said with sea trout there was anecdotal evidence of ‘early returning behaviour’ and over time ‘you may well be seeing a lot of those fish staying in fresh water’.
In fresh water lochs, particularly where there are fresh water smolt farms, there are greatly increased populations of resident brown trout. These can cause an imbalance and a predation risk to salmon.
Colin Smyth, the Labour MSP for South Scotland, asked if Marine Scotland had got the trigger levels for sea lice correct.
Richard Luxmoore said there were several of these, including the industry’s own Code of Good Practice levels and the ones set by Marine Scotland, but they were all based on the impact on farmed fish, and say nothing about the impact on wild fish.
‘What is important is the number of lice larvae shed into the sea from a fish farm,’ he insisted, adding that the volume of fish in a farm is what matters.
Linley-Adams noted that the recent Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) committee report recommended that the industry Code of Good Practice trigger of .5 lice per fish should be a mandatory level, and he believed levels should be per farm not per fish.
‘There needs to be a ceiling above which farms should not operate and the .5 level would be our preference.’
Wells said sea lice are dealt with on an area management basis, with synchronised treatments, and shouldn’t be looked at in terms of individual farms.
There is already a voluntary model for this with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council certification scheme. A lot of the principles that he would like brought into the regulatory system already sit within that scheme.
The ASC is ‘one of the main reasons we’re working a lot closer with Marine Harvest now. They are the one company in Scotland that say they are going to try and get all of their farms through this certification scheme.’
It requires a much lower threshold for treatment – 0.1 lice per fish – and it also takes into account the number of fish within the area. It requires monitoring of wild fish too.
Asked by Fulton MacGregor, the SNP member for Coatbridge and Chryston, if disease can be spread between farmed and wild salmon, Linley-Adams said there was not much evidence that it causes an impact and he would rather concentrate on sea lice.
Wells agreed, saying the small amount of sampling undertaken by Marine Scotland Science ‘hadn’t found much evidence of disease in the wild’.
Richard Lyle, the SNP MSP for Uddingston and Bellshill, said he supported salmon farming and wanted to see it doubled, but found the 20 per cent mortalities on fish farms, plus escapes, ‘unacceptable’. If he was a farmer losing cows he would be seriously worried; ‘is there nothing they could do about it?’
None of the experts mentioned the £50 million the industry spends a year on fish health, but they did try to put the mortalities in perspective.
‘Salmon by its very nature produces many, many thousands of eggs and there’s a natural erosion,’ said Gibb.
‘It’s tempting to look at very high mortality and compare it to sheep or pigs but it’s an entirely different thing.
‘I run a farm and you do get wastage,’ he said, but he would be happier with lower mortalities. ‘The industry used to have a figure of around 10 per cent not 20 per cent.’
Luxmoore, who is a senior nature conservation adviser at the National Trust, said the ‘issue of how many fish die is primarily a welfare issue and a commercial problem for the farm itself, but not necessarily an environment problem.
‘The problem arises if the cause of death transfers to the environment round about.’
And Linley-Adams said that mortalities in farms were ‘not necessarily a concern to wild fish populations’.
‘But if there is a disease problem, then the management of the farm isn’t right…it’s unlikely to be positive for the wild fish that this level of mortality is occurring.’
His answer to this was closed containment: ‘We see closed containment projects popping up in Norway including floating closed containment units.
‘Investment, incentivising closed containment, rapid research, anything the Scottish government can do to push us down that path would be very welcome.’
Other matters covered during the hearing included the grading of rivers and enforced catch and release regulations which, Gibb said, had created ‘poor local feeling’ among anglers, who believed they had behaved responsibly for years and yet were being blamed for the decline in stocks.
Mike Rumbles, the Lib Dem member for North East Scotland, said the ECCLR was not convinced that Sepa (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency) was monitoring the environmental effect of salmon farms. He asked what legislation or regulations should be amended to protect wild fish from any impact and which organisation should be responsible.
Linley-Adams suggested there were several acts that could be amended to address the gaps in the law, while Luxmoore complained that ‘the problem is we have three regulators who deny it has anything to do with them’.
Gibb felt some sympathy for fish farmers, who wanted a more streamlined regulatory structure, and currently had to go through the planning committees of local authorities, which also make decisions on house extensions – ‘you can’t expect the level of knowledge to be there’.
When committee convenor Edward Mountain asked whether, given current rules and regulations, farmed salmon growth targets could be met without detriment to the environment, Gibb alone answered yes, with the caveat: ‘But not in current locations and with effective monitoring prior to going into these new locations, be that temporarily into high energy sites and longer term into recirculation units.’
For the rest of the panel, the response was ‘no’.
The REC committee will next take evidence on April 18, when regulatory bodies, including Scottish Natural Heritage, will give evidence.
Picture: Guy Linley-Adams at the REC committee hearing yesterday