Writer’s Note: Following my first contribution, a supporter from England has been in touch to suggest that I had implied that the local landowner, Mrs Cameron-Head, had leased the fish farm site at Loch Ailort to a crofter, whereas the tenants were the international giant Unilever. This was absolutely not my intention; I had assumed that readers would understand that crofting is a form of land tenure special to the Highlands, undertaken by self-employed men and women from various backgrounds, usually alongside other local activities, which range from teaching to delivering the mail.
This article continues our brief look at the history of fish farming in Scotland.
The early years
Those early efforts were entirely experimental and it was several years before the new industry was being promoted as a potential adjunct to crofting. It would be well into the 1980s before locals were getting involved and the jobs that flowed from the early projects involved the hard, low paid work of feeding and tending the caged fish, rather than reaping the promised profits.
Unilever were attracted to a new money-earning possibility precisely because, apart from having the necessary finance, they had sufficient in-house scientific resources at Findon, near Aberdeen and in England. They weren’t the very first on the scene; prior to the unit in Loch Ailort, previous efforts from around 1963 had mainly been on very small land-based sites involving rainbow trout, promoted by local estate owners with varying degrees of success.
Unilever’s operation was set up under a new company, Marine Harvest, a name which has continued in existence in various forms until quite recently. During the first few years, what went on was purely experimental, with a focus on trout. By 1971, the decision had been taken to grow Atlantic salmon, and in that first year, production totalled just 14 tonnes.
By 1976, three sites were in operation and 116 tonnes of salmon went to market. The following year, Steve Bracken, a decent man who was well respected both within and outside the industry, started his career at Loch Ailort and, recently, he was reported as saying about those early years;
“There were no handbooks, manuals or outside experts, nor were there any environmental or fish welfare schemes …. It was a challenge to find equipment that could withstand bad weather.”
This underlines the problems that any small-scale producer, lacking knowledge of marine biology, would have encountered, but there’s no doubt that some were willing to take the risk and invest in the new industry. Within ten years, considerable numbers had taken up the challenge and set up their own farming companies, encouraged by the then Highlands and Islands Development Board, now Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
By the mid-1980s, natural events were taking place within the water column, the reasons for which have been the subject of argument ever since. Toxic algal blooms have always been seen from time to time, but they came to prominence as the farms expanded and the effects were catastrophic. Some scientists argued that the increase in nitrogen nutrients that resulted from the discharge of fish faeces and uneaten food was the cause, but others attributed the outbreaks to warm water in unusual summer conditions. Here is an article that appeared in The Scotsman on 16 July 1988.
Finance and development
At the time of their sale, Marine Harvest were producing a quarter of the total farmed salmon in Scotland – 8,000 tonnes. For perspective, this happens to be the same tonnage now estimated for each of the two new units currently proposed for Loch Long and Loch Linnhe! Also, for contrast, production is currently approximately 200,000 tonnes per annum and Scottish Government Ministers are keen to see it reach 400,000 tonnes by 2030.
We will never learn the nature of the boardroom discussions that went on behind the decision for Unilever, a massive public company, to disinvest from aquaculture. It’s very possible that, on the basis of their considerable scientific research base, they knew that the environmental disasters that had been seen were likely to worsen as production grew. Apart from the algal blooms suffocating the caged fish, two other problems were appearing in the farms.
Problems arise – disease and parasites
With the transfer of ova and smolts between and within countries, new viruses were arriving and becoming established in our waters. The treatment for these was to develop suitable antibiotics, but, in the meantime, the caged salmon were required to be culled early and sent to market undersized. There is, of course, no way to protect wild salmon and salmonids, such as sea trout.
The second problem was sea lice, which were starting to be found in unnaturally large numbers. The obvious solution to these was to kill them by adding pesticides to the fish food. Again, the tragedy from an environmental point of view is that there can never be ways of protecting local fish populations.
Sea trout are particularly vulnerable to sea lice. They have a very unusual life cycle, starting out in freshwater lochs as brown trout, before migrating to the sea lochs, from which most do not return to the waters of their birth. Sea lice do not survive in fresh water, which is how wild salmon can rid themselves of them, but most of the trout have no chance to shed the creatures that are eating them alive.
A retired government scientist, Andrew Walker, has allowed me to share a quote from a memoir he wrote about the early years;
“Roll forward in time to the end of the 1980s and we find a true West Highland sea trout stock collapse and almost a total loss of the older, multi-annual spawning sea trout, hitherto the specimen fish of the sea trout anglers. Not just the big fish were lost, but the overall catches plummeted. Further scale sampling in the Ewe System revealed a clear decline then sudden drop in sea trout marine growth and longevity. Ten years later, I wrote “The Silence of the Lochs,” an article published in “Salmo Trutta,” the annual journal of the Wild Trout Society (now the Wild Trout Trust). My title was prompted by the lack of jumping sea trout heard at spawning time by then compared with the past.”
Andrew and his colleagues became convinced that sea lice were a major factor in the collapse along the aquaculture coast, which has resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs in wild fishing and boat management, and destroyed a way of life.
It’s not only our own wild salmon that are at risk from sea lice. Advanced computer modelling is currently being developed, showing that the cultivation of huge populations of sea lice populations from Scottish fish farms is effectively creating minefields for migratory salmon from all over.
I hope to return to all of these issues in greater detail in future contributions.