On being invited to write about aquaculture and the risks it presents to our natural environment, my intention was to begin with a series of introductory essays presenting the subject to readers whose only experience might be buying a lunchtime salmon sandwich or a packet of the smoked product. As so often with intentions, one can be derailed by circumstances and disclosures which suddenly emerge. Events in recent days mean that I’m now bringing forward a piece that I had originally intended to present later in the series.
In the beginning….
The story starts in 2011, when an application was made to Argyll & Bute Council for permission to relocate a fish farm from a site at Ardmaddy (where levels of pollution had become unacceptable to the authorities), to a supposedly cleaner bay a mile or so away. Unusually for those days, the case attracted a lot of attention locally, with about 40% of the population of the Islands of Seil and Luing objecting, leading eventually to over 800 objections in total.
While this was ongoing, an event occurred that was to lead to a radical and permanent change in how an important aspect of fish farming was to be managed. As a by-product, a new branch of the waste disposal industry was created, with consequences that we see daily on Highland roads.
At the start of 2012, the news leaked out that there had been a catastrophic series of events at Ardmaddy, in the course of which a huge number of fish had died. Ardmaddy is an extremely remote site, with no road access. Residents were alarmed at the possibility that an enormous quantity of waste might simply have been dumped at sea. Even worse, what if the dead fish had been recycled into fish food for fish farms?
Figures were eventually reported to SEPA by the operating company, Lakeland Marine Farm, confirming that 82,663 mature salmon had perished over a few months, ending in December 2011 – a total of 256 tonnes of waste material. Technically, this was Category Two Waste in terms of the Animal By-Products Waste Directive, which meant that special measures should have been taken to ensure safe disposal with regard to the risks to human health and to the environment.
The Directive had been introduced by the EU at the request of the UK, as part of the measures established following the BSE (‘Mad Cow disease’) disaster which had occurred in the UK meat industry many years earlier, as a result of the remains of diseased animals re-entering the food chain.
Locals form a campaign group
A group of local residents then formed the Save Seil Sound campaign group and decided to find out more about what had happened. We were astonished to discover that nobody in officialdom knew! A Freedom of Information request disclosed that Argyll & Bute Council didn’t even know that the disaster had happened. SEPA had learned some months after the event, when Lakeland sent in its mortality figures, but they had not taken any action.
At that stage, nobody outside of Lakeland knew the cause of death, but years later we found that the salmon had been affected by a form of gill disease not unlike the respiratory diseases that spread among crowded human populations. Faced with a problem they had seemingly not met before, the operators tried an experiment by pouring hydrogen peroxide (bleach) into the water, in an attempt to kill or cure, with the former as the result.
To our astonishment, we then discovered that our area, along with most of the west coast of Scotland, had been granted a derogation by the EU, exempting operators from the Directive, on the basis that we were too remote. As a result, there were no protective measures in place, for example, to stop mortalities entering the food chain or being processed into food for use on fish farms. In practice most waste of this type was simply being dumped in landfill sites, causing a great deal of upset among local authority workers and nearby residents.
As a result, in April 2012, we took our complaint to the section of the EU Commission in Brussels with specific responsibility for food safety. We didn’t hear much until, in April 2016, we learned that, in late 2015, the Scottish Government had quietly changed the Animal Waste Regulations. Our complaint had accordingly been shut down on the basis that it was no longer necessary!
The effect of this is that all salmon mortalities must be safely disposed of, either by ensiling, a process which involves treating the waste with formic acid, or by being used in terms of processes which innovative people are developing, for example as biofuel. The result has been to create a new waste sector, involving transporting dead fish in supposedly leak-proof containers to waste disposal sites, which are many miles from the fish farms. To date, there have been several serious road spills in this process.
Now, why is this story suddenly topical?
It seems that we were all incredibly innocent in 2012, when we thought that over 250 tonnes and over 80,000 individual mortalities were rather a lot of dead fish. In recent years, as fish farms have increased in size and number, so have mortalities. In 2019, the last year before inspections and reports effectively closed down because of Covid-19, there was a massive outbreak of a virus, cardiomyopathy salmonis, throughout the farms in mid Argyll. This resulted in regular reports of deaths in excess of 250 tonnes per month.
For example, at Bagh Dail nan Ceann in the first few months mortalities were between 1,583 and 4,149 kilograms, but in June 2019 this rose to 12,851 kilograms and peaked at 518,370 kilograms in October. During the entire run of fourteen months a total of 1114.406 tonnes of salmon died on this site.
At Pol na Gille, the site featured in the video in my previous article, monthly mortalities started at 317 and 3,473 kilograms, but in June 2019 this rose to 5,508 kilograms and peaked at 271,455 kilograms in October. During the entire run of 15 months, a total of 518.688 tonnes of salmon died on this site.
In the last few weeks, figures have been published for the 11-month period to November 2022, showing mortalities across the industry of 14.9 million salmon. In comparison, total industry deaths in 2017 were 5.1 million, already massively greater than when we took our complaint to the EU Commission. Across the industry, deaths are running at around 20-25%, with some sites at 40%, and the worst on Loch Nevis with a cumulative 64%. It’s hard to see how any respectable politician or marine biologist can possibly defend this as “sustainable”, but many continue to do so.
Incredibly, despite this saga, dumping of dead salmon in landfill may be continuing to this day, on a site located on a beautiful stretch of the machair in North Uist, operated by Whiteshore Cockles Limited. The latest news I’ve discovered is from a month ago.