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Industrial-scale cod farming poses new threat to recovery of wild salmon

Stephen Khan, Scotland Editor
Sunday October 6, 2002

The Observer

In a medieval castle perched high on the Argyll coast, Robin Neill Lochnell Malcolm of Duntrune spent yesterday plotting. For hundreds of years, his family raised men to fight for Scotland. But now Clan Malcolm is crusading against a new enemy: cod.
Dressed in tweed, Malcolm brandished a map and jabbed his finger at a point on the coastline marked 'approved area'. At the mouth of Loch Craignish, close to his beloved Duntrune Castle silhouetted against the dramatic backdrop of the Isle of Jura, Britain's first large-scale off-shore commercial cod farm will begin churning out the country's favourite fish.
Cod farming is being touted as the last chance to save cod, the creature that dominated the North Atlantic until factory fishing in the 1960s and 70s almost wiped out stocks. The market for cod in the UK is around 240,000 tonnes per year, only 7 per cent of which now derives from the North and Irish Seas.
Processors have become reliant on imports from Iceland, the Faroes, Norway and Russia and the introduction of farmed cod is seen by the Government as an important move towards maintaining independence of supply in an era dominated by quotas.
Fish farmers are delighted by the prospect. Having concentrated on salmon until now, the industry has been rocked by recent controversies about pollution from chemicals and allegations that sea lice in the farmed fish are decimating the wild population. Cod, they say, is clean.
Malcolm and other environmentalists, however, remain to be convinced. His main fear is for the wild salmon of the River Add, of which his family owns the angling rights, the last river in the Mid-Argyll area that wild salmon still return to.
'In the years after the Second World War there were 300 salmon per season caught on the Add; now we are down to about 30,' he told The Observer. The clan chief has little doubt that a new farm close to the estuary of the Add will 'kill the river'.
'They are gambling with something precious,' he added. 'When the salmon return to this river from the sea they will come up against a wall of waste from the site and think, "This is not our river". Quite simply they will be confused, head off elsewhere and probably die.'
Previous attempts to secure the site as a salmon farm in the early and mid-1990s were rejected due to the impact the cages would have on the scenery. 'The planning authorities recommended that this be rejected on the same grounds,' said Malcolm, 'but the council went ahead and granted it anyway.'
In the nearby town of Lochgilphead, the Norwegian-owned company Lakeland Marine Farms, which employs 25 people in the mid-Argyll area, was preparing for the opening of the cod farm.
The fish that will supply Lakeland's six cages are currently being reared by scientists at a research and development centre and hatchery in Macrahanish, near the bottom of the Mull of Kintyre that dangles down the west coast from Lochgilphead.
The director of the centre, Derek Robertson, believes cod can create up to 1,600 jobs in Scotland. The industry as a whole is working to reach a target of delivering 25,000 tones per year of the fish over the next decade. British fish lovers consume nearly ten times that but proponents of the industry say it must develop slowly as a niche, premium product.
Samples of cod farmed in onshore tanks have been delivered to Marks & Spencer and sold seasonally for 2.99 over the past two years, but technology has advanced to the stage where codwill soon be reared offshore in greater numbers on a year-round basis. That is the key to profitability for an industry that has had to deal with plunging salmon prices as production of that fish has outstripped demand.
Speaking as scientists delivered the strongest evidence to date that fish farms were linked to the decline of wild salmon, Robertson said lessons learned as the industry had developed would help keep cod clean.
'I don't think anyone would deny that we have had problems, but we are continually learning and cod offers a number of advantages over salmon. To our knowledge there have been no problems with sea lice infestation and any escaped cod would not attempt to breed with wild salmon.' Dyes used to make salmon pink would not be required, given that cod is a white fish and it could be farmed in areas where salmon could not. 'There are places where cod farms will be more suitable and places where salmon are more suitable. We see them as being complementary.'
Robertson claimed that farming would allow wild stocks of cod to recover as the farmed animal consumed less food than its ocean-going cousin. On that basis, fishermen might be expected to welcome the caging of cod; however, the reality is quite different.
Hamish Morrison, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, said: 'There's a public perception that fish farming is sustainable, but people overlook the fact that all farmed fish are fed on fish meal products. If we put an extra 400,000 tonnes of farmed cod into the equation it means a requirement for an additional two million tonnes of industrial catch. We're talking about trebling the pressure on fisheries. There's no point in talking about cod recovery if there's not enough for them to eat.'
Local fishermen are also anxious. On Loch Crinan, which neighbours Loch Craignish, Chris Browne had just returned from a trip out to net prawns. He said that he stood to lose 20 per cent of his income should the Craignish cod farm go ahead. 'They want to put these cages right where I fish and it isn't just the immediate area that it impinges upon. It deoxygenates the sea bed and fouls it. These people are moving in on my patch and there doesn't seem to be and there doesn't seem to be much we can do.'
Malcolm believes the fishing community is going through a revolution. 'As nomadic hunting was superseded by farming, the nomadic hunters of the sea are being replaced by fish farmers. Can we expect wild fish to fare any better than wild cattle?'