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THE Ecologist

Cage Rage: An inquiry is needed into Scottish Fish Farming 

Date Published: 22/10/2001
Author: Don Staniford

Unless there is an inquiry into sea cage fish farming in Scotland, a public backlash might blow it out of the water.

In Scotland, 350 sea cage fish farms littered around the Highlands and Islands find themselves in the vanguard of a wave of protest, and under scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament. A petition submitted to the Public Petitions committee in February 2000 called for an independent inquiry into sea cage fish farming. The petition (PE 96) by Allan Berry, of Cannich-by-Beauly near Inverness, accuses the Government of ‘regulatory failure’ in relation to the expansion of sea cage fish farming.

In what is seen as a test for the 2-year-old Parliament, the Government, in the guise of the Scottish Executive, may be forced to appear in the dock themselves. The last inquiry – ‘Fish Farming in the UK’ – by the House of Commons Agriculture Select Committee (1989�) merely gave salmon farming carte blanche to do as it pleased. Over the next decade, production leapt from 30,000 to 130,000 tonnes, leaving a raft of environmental problems in its wake. Now the Scottish Parliament have a final opportunity to rein in the excesses of sea cage fish farming.

Despite cross-party support from the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, the Transport and Environment Committee and Rural Development Committee of the Scottish Parliament, the Government’s own nature conservation adviser Scottish Natural Heritage, and over 100 supporting individuals and NGOs in 17 different countries, the Scottish Executive have refused to support an inquiry. Given the stench of corruption and contamination coming from salmon farming it is not surprising that the Scottish Executive want to keep a lid on an industry reeling from the illegal use of chemicals, mass mortalities and escapes, toxic algal blooms and damning revelations concerning PCBs and dioxins (see ‘The horrors of intensive salmon farming’, The Ecologist Report, June 2001).

Any inquiry promises to open a can of worms, since many fishermen, shellfish farmers and anglers are beginning to realise that sea cage farming could put them out of business. In April the Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers voted ‘for a moratorium on the further expansion of sea cage finfish aquaculture until the outcome of the pending Public Enquiry deems it prudent to do so’. In September, Hamish Morrison of the Scottish Fishermens’ Federation marked a sea change in the fishing industry’s stance when he pointed out:

‘There’s a public perception that fish-farming is sustainable, but people overlook the fact that farmed fish are fed on fishmeal products. If we put an extra 400,000 tonnes of farmed cod into the equation it means a requirement for an additional 2 million tonnes of industrial catch. That has to be compared to the “total allowable catch” for industrial fish at present, which is 1.2 million tonnes, so we’re talking about almost trebling the pressure on these fisheries. There’s no point in talking about a cod recovery plan if there’s not enough for them to eat. It’s really important that Scottish Parliamentary committees looking at fish farming don’t limit themselves to getting quick headlines about sealice and farm escapes. They have to look at the really big issues like this, the strategic issues.’

Far from being a panacea for the decline in wild fisheries, sea cage fish farming can only compound the current crisis. A paper in Nature last year calculated that it takes 3 tonnes of wild fish to produce 1 tonne of farmed salmon (for cod, halibut, haddock and other marine fish this goes up to 5 tonnes). ‘It is high time both public and private interests think of these sectors jointly. Without sound ecological practices, the expanding aquaculture industry poses a threat not only to ocean fisheries, but also to itself,’ says the author Dr Rosalind Naylor. According to Daniel Pauly, speaking at this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science. ‘The new trend in aquaculture is to drain the seas to feed the farms. Meanwhile capture fisheries now focus on what we once considered bait. These two trends – farming up and fishing down the food web – imply massive impacts on marine ecosystems that are clearly unsustainable.’ By farming carnivores at the top of the food chain it’s a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Given the net loss in fisheries resources it is no wonder fishermen feel short-changed.

In June the Research Council of Norway predicted that ‘within three to eight years the lack of marine oil raw materials could hinder the growth of Norwegian salmon farming’. A staggering 80 per cent of all fish caught by Norwegian trawlers is already used to provide feed for the fish farming industry and the International Fish Meal and Fish Oil Manufacturers Assocation (IFOMA) predict that aquaculture may consume 90 per cent of the world’s fish oil by 2010. Such a wasteful form of farming is, according to Dr Becky Goldberg of the Environment Defense Fund, ‘biological nonsense’. Sadly, common sense is not a currency those financing salmon farming are used
to dealing in.

Just as fish oil companies are looking further afield, fishing fleets are sinking to greater depths in search of fish – the new ‘blue gold’. Fish oil prices are currently just over 500 dollars per tonne and rising fast. Feed companies are already harvesting sandeels, sprats, capelin, anchovies, herring, mackerel, blue whiting and even looking to exploit krill. Fish feed is being stock-piled by companies who foresee the scarcity of supply, hence the rush towards finding fish substitutes such as vegetable protein, wheat, and soya. Unfortunately, trying to turn a carnivore into a herbivore
is farcical. Feeding salmon on seaweed is rather like force-feeding a lion on lentils and veggie burgers.

And since salmon farms use the marine environment as an open sewer, imagine the waste from such an operation. WWF calculated last year that waste discharges from Scottish salmon farms were equivalent to those from 9.4 million people. Considering Scotland’s population is only 5.1 million this is hardly a drop in the ocean. Moreover, the flushing rates in sheltered lochs are so slow that the effect is similar to flushing the toilet once a month. The shit may have already hit the fan, with most of the West coast (coincidentally where all the salmon farms are) closed to scallop fishing over the last two years due to the build up of toxic algal blooms. In fact 57 out of 60 areas closed due to shellfish poisoning in 2000 were in the vicinity of salmon cages.

Whilst the UK Government buries its head in the waste effluent under salmon cages, the Norwegian State Pollution Control Agency admitted in April 2000 that salmon farms were ‘now major polluters’. Meanwhile, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency are content to permit salmon farms the use of an arsenal of chemical weapons. Since 1998 they have issued over 500 licences for azamethiphos, cypermethrin, teflubenzuron and emamectin. By comparison, in June this year Norway announced a ban on copper paints used on salmon cages and began re-locating salmon cages from the mouths of salmon rivers. The latter is something the Scottish Office proposed 10 years ago but was shelved due to pressure from the salmon farming industry.