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January 9, 2013


The Burg, Ardmeanach, The Wilderness. All names for the volcanic buttress that guards the mouths of Loch na Keal and Loch Scridain on Mull. It is what I open my door to each morning. One evening as it pulsed terracotta and violet in the reflected glow of the sinking sun, a friend told me that it reminder her of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock). Scotland’s Uluru: wild, pristine, iconic and utterly marvellous.

But such considerations shouldn’t impede good business opportunities…
The Scottish Salmon Company (SSC) is challenging Argyll & Bute Councils decision to refuse their application to situate a ‘super fish-farm’ at the foot of the Burg. (You might remember that I wrote about this in the blog in June.) Not only are SSC appealing for their fish-farm to be granted planning permission but they are in talks with the local fishermen requesting them to withdraw their formal objection to the development. If the fishermen withdraw their objection and the Appeal is successful, SSC will set up a trust fund for them. I think that’s called simple, base bribery.

Even if the fishermen stand up to them, it is not a foregone conclusion that the planning departments refusal for this industrial development will be upheld. The industry is determined, has lots of money for a fighting fund and a significant level of political clout. All over the west coast small communities are fighting a wave of planning applications for ‘super’ fish-farm that make existing farms seem insignificant. The environmental consequences, in terms of pollution / environmental degredation, cross contamination, damage to the wild salmon stocks will be serious. Likewise, the west coast lives (survives) by tourism: cultural, wildlife and environmental. Employment in tourism knocks that of fish-farming into a box, creating around 130 jobs to every one in fish-farming ! The imposition of such fish-farms can only have a negative impact on the local economy. How, after all, can we pretend to promote and show stewardship for our environment when we are home to such a polluting and damaging industry ?

It is not ‘breaking news’ that the fish-farm industry is under increasing scrutiny in terms of regulation, long term viability and pollution. There is a groundswell of opposition growing: newspapers are now regularly reporting on the shortcomings and risks of the industry, the crises in Norway and in Chile are common knowledge and the image of the product, locally, at least, is in decline. The impact of cross fertilisation between farmed and wild salmon, disease, and the impact upon the wider biodiversity is being scrutinised. Regulatory bodies are being challenged as to why an industry that, if land based, would immediately be closed and fined on environmental grounds, is allowed to continue polluting the sea with impunity. (To put it in perspective: a plausable public source suggests that one of these large fish-farms would produce effluent equivalent to a human population of about 50,000 people, roughly seven times the size of Oban. I don’t know if that’s each year or overall, but it’s a lot whatever !) Likewise, the quality of the ‘science’ used to support the industry is increasingly open to question. It seems fair to say that industrial scale fish-farming is now recognised internationally as being highly polluting and ill-regulated.

How did we reach such a dire situation ?

In the ’60’s and ’70’s west coast fish-farming was viewed with optimism. After generations of economic decline and depopulation, it seemed that fish-farming might help address what had become known as the ‘Highland Problem’. It was envisaged that crofting and fishing families would establish small scale operations in their localities, producing a healthy, easily marketed high-end product that would benefit from the fantastic reputation already enjoyed by Scotland’s wild salmon. It was hoped that it might boost the economy and stabilise the population. Market trends, economies of scale, risk, scientific support, the inexorable move towards globalised industry and political meddling have all contributed to the demise of this ideal. Currently we have many fish-farms of an appropriate scale dotted around the Mull coastline, doing a good job. They provide employement and salmon is by far Scotland’s biggest food export. Fish-farms that are appropriately sized and regulated are not the issue here, indeed, they are respected as a part of the wider island life and economy even though ownership (and presumably most of the profit) has migrated elsewhere.

Contrary to the intentions of the industry when it started, ownership has been consolidated so that there are now only about half a dozen companies involved, increasingly owned by investors based in the Channel Islands, Poland and countries such as the Ukraine. Contrary to its name, the Scottish Salmon Company has little to do with Scotland, it being a subsidiary of a Jersey company listed in Oslo.

The fish-farms currently going through the planning process are of an entirely different scale and order of any seen before. They are huge: 14 x 100m plastic cages. Because of the groundswell of opinion against the industry and its almost Victorian industrial practices, I wonder if it is, in part, trying to push through these new developments before the gates of public opinion, regulation and legislation swing shut ?

However, to complicate matters, the Scottish National Party appear to see fish-farming as an economic (thus political) godsend. In preperation for the impending vote on Scottish Independence (upon which the political future of the party presumably depends ?) SNP is desperate to demonstrate that the national economy is bouyant and growing.

There is no doubt about the direction of political pressure. To Scotland’s shame, last year Alex Salmond (Leader of SNP) signed a trade agreement to export salmon directly to China -which had broken off its previous agreement with Norway due to their having awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. At the time, a spokesman for Mr Salmond claimed ‘… even if 1% of the people of China were to eat Scottish salmon, then we’d have to double production in Scotland’. Selling salmon to China is simply too good an opportunity for them to ignore -regardless of wider national considerations and responsibilities.


A hope for the way forward (if this pressure for larger fish-farms can effectively be blocked until sounder, less partisan science is available) is for greater regulation of sea based farms combined with the development of land based fish-farms. Whilst never going to be able to replace the sheer volume of existing 'open cage' systems such as we have, these 'Recirculation Aquaculture Systems' (RAS) hold much promise and have shown considerable growth in England and Wales over the past few years. Environmental, political and social factors are combining to provide favourable conditions for future development of the sector which ticks many of the boxes for environmental and social sustainability. It's still very early days and has lots of teething troubles -rather as the sea systems had forty years ago. Probably the greatest disincentive for the fish-farming companies is cost: it is always going to be more tempting (and better for the share-holder) if it can operate a cheaper, relatively unregulated operation. A middle ground, of course, would be a properly regulated ( that means things like the safe disposal of sewage and fish feed) open cage system. Such regulation will also have huge cost implications for the industry. Until such regulation is in place, however, it is the environment, our communities and our core industry, tourism, that will carry the true cost of farmed salmon.

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