When I set out on the task of briefing readers new to the environmental disaster that is Scottish aquaculture, my intention was to present the history of fish farming in some sort of logical order. Once again this aim has been disrupted by an event, this time the ending of a sad voyage that started in Portree Bay in late 2021 and ended last week at Ardyne Point, near Rothesay in the Firth of Clyde.
The truth is that the history of fish farming in Scotland has been punctuated by a series of accidents, large and small, that have taken place on the west coast, largely unseen by the urban populations who are still buying fresh and smoked salmon in supermarkets, reassured by labelling that tells them the product is “responsibly sourced” or “assured”.
We can start with a brief history of one company, which is actually typical of many. The company is now called Bakkafrost and owned by Faroese investors, started out as a Scottish-owned business called Lighthouse of Scotland in the late 1980s. It went through various changes of ownership and names, becoming, for a while, Pan Fish, then Lighthouse Caledonia and latterly, from earlier this century, Scottish Salmon Company Limited. By the time of that last change, it belonged to a holding company registered in St Helier, Jersey and was understood to be the personal property of a Ukrainian named Yuri Lopatinsky. Late in 2021, the company changed hands again and was given its present name.
Mr Lopatinsky still owns some estates in Scotland, a house next to the First Minister’s residence in Charlotte Square, the former employee-owned Loch Fyne Oysters and, for variety, a vineyard in France. He claims to be a British citizen with his ordinary residence in Luxembourg. Those interested further can see a report on the Ferret, here.
How the sinking happened
Originally, the salmon in fish farms were fed manually, but in recent years, workers have been replaced with mechanised systems. Huge quantities of dry fish feed pellets are stored in barges before being propelled by compressed air down polypropylene feeding tubes to the cages. When, on 26th November 2021, the barge in Portree Bay sank during Storm Arwen, there were 320 tonnes of pellets aboard and, in addition, it was reported, containers full of mortalities (dead salmon) piled on top at deck level.
What happened next was shrouded in secrecy. It was only after eight months, including most of the tourist season, that the news emerged that the material in the sunken barge was producing quantities of hydrogen sulphide, a highly toxic gas that smells of rotten eggs and, in high levels, can be fatal to humans. In August 2022, the BBC announced that a 500 metre exclusion zone had been placed around the site. Police Scotland denied that there was a risk to public health and Marine Scotland announced that they were “liaising” with other bodies to identify the risk to the public.
Months later, the truth quietly emerges
Now, thanks to the report of a court case on the Scottish Courts’ website, we know why there was this inexcusable delay in letting people know about the risk on their doorstep. Some months after the barge sank, Bakkafrost engaged the services of a diving company, Briggs Marine, to raise the wreck, but on 28 July 2022 their divers reported that the levels of gas were so high that it was too dangerous to continue. Briggs Marine withdrew their workers and, after some fruitless discussions, raised an action for payment of a balance of just over £500,000 that they claimed to be due. It’s unlikely that the public will learn anything more, as the judge has accepted an argument from Bakkafrost that matters should be resolved behind closed doors in an arbitration.
After the revelations of August, while Bakkafrost sought the services of another diving company, public agencies began to take notice of the risk to public health. On 17 November, The Times reported on secret plans to evacuate people and quoted an information disclosure from the Scottish Government as saying:
“Should the barge explode, mitigations are in place to protect public health. A rest centre for those inside sectors that could be impacted should the gas come to shore will be set up at Portree High School.”
Council offices would be used for emergency response centres.
The final cost
At the end of November, a Rotterdam company arrived with the crane ship Matador 3 and raised the sunken barge. It spent a few days moored off Plockton, before being beached on the shore at Reraig, on the edge of the Loch Carron Marine Protected Area, for what was reported to have grown to 690 tonnes of now wet, contaminated waste to be removed. The Scotsman duly reported on the upset caused to local residents over the Christmas period.
The final leg of the voyage of the Bakkafrost barge has seen it travel behind a tug to Ardyne, where one assumes its future will be assessed. One hopes this will involve consideration of the obvious factor of design, as well as operation. When it sank, the barge was on station at its intended site, which, despite being close to shore, is notorious for extremely severe squalls in stormy weather. The cause of the sinking has not been disclosed and there will be no public inquiry, as, mercifully, no lives were lost.
The episode is reputed to have cost Bakkafrost about £7 million, put the public at significant risk, caused a great deal of upset locally and polluted the previously clean Reraig Bay.
Quite a cost, I think many would agree.