I live at the head of a sea loch in Argyll, in an area which has seen a massive expansion of fish farming. Over the last 20 years or so, along with other local residents, I have been observing and documenting the impacts on the local environment with increasing concern and joining in attempts to halt further developments. On the assumption that objections must be evidence-based to be effective, a considerable amount of research has been undertaken over the period, both through observations on and below the surface and desk-bound.
This has been done by examining the data which operators of fish farms are required by law to provide and the results of occasional inspections by agencies of the Scottish Government, such as the Fish Health Inspectorate, Marine Scotland and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). I am most grateful to Bylines Scotland for giving me the opportunity to share the results of this work more widely. In this first contribution I will briefly set the scene, with an outline of the history of the industry in Scotland.
The beginning of the industry
Aquaculture has been around in various parts of the world for centuries, but the first fish farm in Scotland can be dated to 1965, when a modest unit was established in Loch Ailort. The unit was serviced from a shore base leased from the local landowner, Mrs Pauline Cameron-Heard, probably better known for her support for the war-time commandos who trained on her estate.
At that time, the clean, unpolluted waters of our west coast lochs and rivers were full of Atlantic salmon, sea trout and brown trout, with local hotels reporting catches in thousands each year. The possibility of developing the commercial cultivation of a highly marketable and, at the time, expensive product as an adjunct to the fragile local farming and crofting operations must have seemed irresistible to politicians and civil servants alike.
Almost immediately, problems began to materialise. The capital costs to a crofter of setting up a unit were always going to be high, but virtually nobody had the veterinary expertise to deal with the issues with fish health that started to arise almost at once. From the very start, the impacts of crowding large numbers of naturally migratory fish in cages close to shore became obvious, the main ones being the constant presence of sea lice and occasional outbreaks of viruses. Even routine matters, such as how to feed a captive population, were totally unknown factors.
Despite the help that was on offer from the Government’s Fisheries Research Services and from scientists in various universities, the task soon proved impossible for the pioneers.
Very quickly we started to see companies moving in to take over what still looked like a lucrative opportunity. One or two were locally owned, but mostly they were multinational, such as Unilever, or Norwegian. By the mid 1970s, the new Strathclyde Regional Council had published guidelines for the establishment of units. They outlined that an operator would be required to apply to the Crown Estate for permission to install a unit on the open sea. Despite being termed a “lease”, such a permission was actually a licence to place the required anchors in designated places on the seabed.
The current situation
In fairness to the scientists of those days, the potential for environmental damage was recognised. There was a limit, usually of 100 tonnes, to the “biomass” in a farm, representing at, say, five kilograms per fish, about 20,000 mature salmon. Also, those original leases were limited to ten years, after which, the unit would be required to move to a new location in order to allow the seabed to recover from a decade of pollution from fish faeces and uneaten foodstuffs.
As often with the expansion of aquaculture, this turned out to be purely aspirational and I’m not aware of any site actually having been moved. Instead, the Crown Estate simply extended the leases when the original term expired, with the result that some of the original farms are still in place after many decades of waste deposition. A video showing the condition of the seabed under one of them, at Pol na Gille in 2012, can be accessed here:
This site is still in place and the company, MOWI, have been allowed to expand it since the film was made.
Furthermore, the regulator currently in place, SEPA, has consistently allowed larger and larger farms, so that units of 2,500 tonnes are increasingly common, each representing a population of half a million salmon. If that isn’t sufficiently staggering, there’s currently a proposal to site a new farm in Loch Linnhe with a biomass limit of 8,000 tonnes, more than double the current largest farm. Such figures dwarf the entire west coast population of wild salmon.
Under the original plan, an operator was not required to obtain planning permission to install a farm on open sea, mainly because local authorities were seen as confined to their land boundaries. This was eventually seen as undemocratic and, from April 2007, planning permission came to be required. Little was done to accommodate the different requirements in planning for, say, a house as opposed to a fish farm, the former a permanent building, the latter essentially a process. In both cases, the permission, once granted, is permanent.
The effect of this was that the Scottish Government had, accidentally or by design, turned fish farm sites into a new type of property capable of being traded between companies. This has, in turn, facilitated the concentration of the industry into a handful of foreign-owned companies. Even the remaining locally-owned ones, such as Kames Fish Farming Limited, work closely in cooperation with giants such as, in their case, MOWI.
One thing that the introduction of planning has not done is to introduce any real democratic element. In my area, we saw consent for a massive site at Ardmaddy granted unanimously by Argyll & Bute Council despite over 800 objections and, this week, the Ferret has reported on the Scottish Government overruling Highlands and Islands Council in the rush to expand at all costs.
In 2018, major Parliamentary Inquiries raised environmental concerns, but stopped short of calling for a moratorium to allow problems to be addressed. The result has been companies rushing to expand, with a flurry of applications.
There has been an ambition for some years to double the size of the industry by 2030, without any precise specification of a start date, or details on whether the figure refers to tonnage or retail value. The Scottish Government and the industry itself have each blamed the other for the target, which has certainly not received the environmental and economic impact assessments that an official policy would merit. We have now reached a stage where farmed salmon is Scotland’s major food export, lauded by politicians of all parties, including, since their joining into coalition government, the Greens.
In future posts I shall be looking at the negative impacts in more detail, in particular the extent to which traditional, less damaging activities are being sidelined in the rush to create headlines.