In recent years, Western countries have seen our law courts used by the very rich and powerful, many (most?) of whom have gained their wealth through means they would prefer the public didn’t know about, to silence those who have been looking at their activities too closely.
Perhaps the most recent and widely publicised case of this recently has been the English case brought by Arron Banks against Carole Cadwallader, claiming damages for libel in respect of some remarks she made hinting that he might have had some Russian connections. What we know about Banks suggests that he is a very wealthy fellow indeed, whereas his target was a well-known and very active investigative journalist, a career that is more likely to get you shot than to gather wealth.
Instead of suing the media who published his target’s remarks, Ted Talks and the Guardian, he attacked her personally. As we know, she has been largely successful in defending herself, but has been left with a gigantic liability for costs.
What is a SLAPP?
The case illustrates a prime feature of a strategic lawsuit against public participation, more punchily reduced to the acronym SLAPP: there is usually a huge imbalance of financial muscle between the two parties.
In addition to this, its other features are:
- The case is brought by an individual or corporation with something to hide.
- The target is public participation in the exposure of wrongdoing.
- The remedy is usually disproportionate and the costs enormous.
- There is often no basis whatsoever for the actual case.
Such a case has now landed in Scotland, which exhibits all these classic features of a SLAPP. Last week the international organisation CASE Europe recognised this and decided to place it on its official register of SLAPPs.
Can the surface of the open sea be controlled?
A thousand years after King Cnut sought to demonstrate to the people of England that no ruler can control the sea, another Scandinavian is attempting to do the opposite to the people of Scotland, in the perhaps surprising forum of the Oban Sheriff Court, with a hearing set to take place on 1 June.
The giant Norwegian fish farm company, MOWI – largely owned by John Fredriksen, one of the world’s richest men with a fortune, per Forbes Magazine, of about $13bn – has raised an action seeking an interdict against the well-known environmental activist and campaigner, Don Staniford. The effect of this would be to place exclusion zones round each and every one of its fish farms on our west coast.
There are over 40 of these, mostly larger than a football pitch, and the effect of the order, if granted, would be to prohibit not only Staniford, but potentially any other member of the public in a boat, a kayak or even a wild swimmer from being closer than 15 metres to a farm. It’s likely that other fish farm companies, operating another 200 sites, would then follow suit.
Staniford is one of a very small group of committed individuals who combine scientific knowledge with boat-handling skills in order to record and document factually what is going on inside the hundreds of salmon cages that we see along our coast, and to provide public reports that the current Scottish government would rather we didn’t hear about.
The impacts of salmon farming
Listening to industry propagandists, such as Fergus Ewing in committee at Holyrood last week, or Tavish Scott, the former MSP who has landed rather a well-paid job as the mouthpiece of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, you would think that everything under the surface is just fine. The evidence uncovered by Staniford, of Scamon Scotland and others, such as Corin Smith, of Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots, shows that the reality is very different.
Below the surface of the cages, where the fittest salmon can be seen constantly jumping, itself an indication of a creature in distress, the cameras show images of fish being eaten alive by sea lice, eyes missing and with gaping holes in their skin. Further down, the weaker fish move more slowly; at the foot are piles of mortalities. Figures released by the industry itself, in reports to the Scottish government, have shown in recent months between 25% and 40% of the salmon on some sites dying through sea lice or viral and other diseases.
With huge populations of fish in close proximity such things are unavoidable, but they come at huge environmental cost. These fish have themselves been fed on other fish harvested from the world’s seas, often far away, depriving local populations of foodstuffs. The current shortage of sandeels, a staple diet for wild birds such as puffins, is also due to overfishing. The costs of transporting these so-called ‘trash fish’ and the safe disposal of hundreds of tonnes of mortalities are enormous.
Very different from organised protest
It’s important to understand that Staniford is a very different sort of campaigner from organisations such as Greenpeace and Ocean Rebellion, who set out to be disruptive. He is an experienced, long-term environmentalist, with a sound academic background in marine biology and years of experience inside and outwith the UK. He argues that organisations such as SEPA and Marine Scotland are failing in their duties to protect the environment and detect and prosecute instances of animal cruelty.
His visits to fewer than a dozen MOWI sites largely took place during lockdown, when these governmental agencies had suspended site inspections. His method of operation was to visit sites, alone, early in the morning before staff arrived, record what he saw and depart, leaving no trace of having been there. Invariably, on finding evidence of animal abuse, pollution, or the use of illegal seal screeching devices, he published his findings and reported them to those agencies.
The gruesome stills and videos and the data gathered have been featured on both BBC, Channel Four and France V and he has been internationally recognised for his efforts. His work is totally non-destructive and an essential part of the process of journalism in a free and open society.
Farmed salmon is not exactly iconic
The material gathered by Staniford and others shows clearly that fish farming has a lot to hide; it uses the image of the wild Scottish salmon leaping in a Highland river to advertise a product that often isn’t even produced from Scottish stock. If everything was just fine, simply giving the public access to cameras in the fish cages, which are often already there, would make activism unnecessary.
But this case isn’t only about environmental activism. It’s also about our freedom as members of the public to access our own coastal waters. We don’t need to go back to the days of King Cnut. Just 400 years will suffice to take us to the debate between the Dutch jurist and diplomat Hugo Grotius and the Scottish law professor William Welwood of St Andrews University.
Welwood was complaining about the huge fleets of Dutch fishing vessels hoovering up the herring from Scottish inshore waters, a story that resonates today. King James VI initially wanted to place a tax on the herring, but was eventually persuaded that attempts to control the surface of the seas would feed into the narratives of those dastardly Catholics, the Spaniards and the Portuguese, who wanted to control the wider oceans, so the argument presented by Grotius prevailed, and the seas of the world have been open to all peoples and all nations ever since.
This matters to all of us!
In law, the Crown Estate holds the seabed, a public asset, in trust for all of us and they cannot violate that trust. Indeed, the licences they give out expressly reserve our rights, which are not just to navigate, but to fish, to swim, and to use the sea for recreation and leisure. By granting over two hundred permits to anchor massive floating installations along the ‘Aquaculture Coast’, often in inshore bays, they have already gone a long way to violate that trust.
That trust will be totally destroyed if this foreign owned multinational is allowed to colonise the sea surface around these farms as well. Make no mistake, we’re seeing an attempt at a 21st century land grab!
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