The Scottish salmon industry is booming. It has marketed itself on everyone’s favourite image of Scotland: breath-taking scenery, atmospheric lochs embraced by gentle hills and sleepy glens, where a proud muscular fish leaps out of a rushing burn. The key messages are ‘pristine’, ‘quality’, ‘prime’, ‘healthy’ and ‘provenance’. But for how much longer can the industry maintain this image, in light of increasing controversy around fish health, environmental degradation and doubts about the quality of its product?
Over 250 salmon farms operate throughout the west coast of Scotland and on the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Despite names like the Scottish Salmon Company or Scottish Sea Farms, they are mainly owned by Norwegian multinationals, some of them registered in tax havens. Farms producing 2,500 tonnes, the equivalent of approximately 700,000 fish, sit ominously on the surface of sea lochs and coastal waters, usually in symmetric arrangements of 12 cages, each 120 metres in diameter, like a silent occupation of visiting aliens. The cages are connected by rubber tubing which deliver the feed containing toxic chemicals and antibiotics used to fight sea lice and other diseases.
Around 170,000 tonnes of salmon are exported to markets in Europe, the US and China, at a value of around £600 million. And why stop there? The industry intends to double its production by 2030 to between 300 and 400 thousand tonnes per year, a plan which has the seal of approval from the Scottish Government, keen to showcase Scotland as a leading international player in the Food and Drinks sector.
However, anyone following the news will know that the industry has lurched from one scandal to another in recent years and was the subject of a damning report by the BBC’s The One Show in December last year, watched by five million viewers. Salmon farms are infested with sea lice which literally eat the fish alive. These weakened fish are susceptible to a host of other diseases, such as Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA), Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI), and Pancreatic Disease (PD). Antibiotics and chemicals, such as emamectin benzoate, a pesticide used to treat sea lice, are added to the fish feed but have been used in such quantities that some fish have become resistant to them. As a result, the industry loses around 25% of stock annually, a ratio unheard of in any other livestock industry. Residents in the highlands are now familiar with trucks transporting millions of rotting fish for incineration many miles away in northwest England.
Each year, thousands of tonnes of fish farm effluent flow into the sea through open net cages. It is estimated that the sewage from fish farms is roughly equivalent to that of the entire population of Scotland. There are 45 sea lochs that have been contaminated by the toxic chemicals emitted from fish farms. Emamectin benzoate, a pesticide toxic to birds, mammals, fish and other aquatic organisms, also has dangerous long-term impacts on crustaceans, with dramatic consequences for creel fisheries, a key economic driver and employer in coastal communities which provide Europe and the world with lobster, prawns and crab. More poignantly perhaps, is the fact that Scotland’s own wild salmon and sea trout stocks are dangerously in decline – and in some rivers even close to extinction – due to parasitisation from the high numbers of sea lice associated with fish farms, past which other fish have to swim. This has prompted an inquiry by the Scottish Government which will take place later this year.
So why is the Scottish Government so keen to increase production without first addressing well founded and serious concerns? How can it reconcile its pride in a polluting industry with the many good things in its green agenda on climate change, bans on fracking and plastic straws, and the introduction of bottle return schemes? And how does farmed salmon fit into the Government’s Good Food Nation Bill, designed to promote healthy food and food production?
Quite simply, it can’t. But politicians will buckle if pressured on the loss of jobs, and the fish farming industry has used this argument relentlessly and shrewdly, spinning job numbers that give the impression there is no other form of employment in rural areas. A closer look shows that the number of people employed on fish farms in 2016 was approximately 1,800, not the thousands the industry regularly cites by cleverly including the wider supply chain. Compare this to the tourist industry which employs around 200,000 people and in 2015 generated £8.9 billion – revenue which remains in Scotland.
Now the industry has come up with another argument, designed to appeal to the zeitgeist: that industrial fish farming is contributing to global food security. As we know, overfishing has depleted the world’s wild fish stocks to an alarming degree, therefore, so follows the logic, breeding fish in farms is a way of redressing the balance. But the reality is that salmon farming actually exacerbates food insecurity – it further depletes wild fish stocks by using them as feed. In the wild, salmon naturally feed on krill, prawns and other marine organisms. This gives them their pink colour and the omega-3 that bestows the salmon with the health benefits it is so prized for. Therefore, wild fish are caught in colossal numbers to feed the farmed salmon, although, in order to increase profits, only about 30% of fish feed actually contains fish. The rest is made up of grain, vegetable oils and other ingredients.
In addition, so-called ‘cleaner fish’, such as wrasse and lumpsucker, which the industry uses to eat the sea lice off the salmon, are now being fished in such vast quantities that it has sparked outrage among fishermen in the south of England from where they are transported by the lorry load to Scotland. In anticipation of a rapid depletion of wild wrasse stocks, the industry has already begun farming wrasse, only to find that these fish are also just as prone to diseases, which they then transmit to the salmon. As the industry endeavours to stay one step ahead of nature, it is now looking to GMO plant-based feed for the many millions of fish it is breeding across the globe.
A growing number of consumers are now questioning whether farmed salmon is as healthy as the industry claims. Some Norwegian doctors don’t think so and have advised expectant mothers against eating it due to its high concentration of PCBs and toxins. A Freedom of Information (FoI) request found that the Scottish Salmon Company had breached safety levels for emamectin benzoate on a number of occasions and that it was present in samples of their salmon. Studies carried out in Canada confirmed that over 90% of farmed salmon on sale in supermarkets tested positive for Piscine Reovirus and research is ongoing into what implications fish viruses could have for human health. Seafood Watch recently gave Scottish farmed salmon a total of 2.65 points out of ten on the basis of the prevalence of toxins, disease and fish escapes. If the salmon industry has succeeded in one thing apart from making huge profits, it is in diminishing a fish, long regarded as a precious natural resource, to little more than posh junk food.
By wreaking havoc on the environment, the salmon industry is in the process of destroying its own marketing strategy along with Scotland’s image as a quality food producer. Brand Scotland has been ruthlessly exploited by one single industry, reversing the efforts of those who have built it over decades. To devalue the brand jeopardises a burgeoning food and drinks sector, potentially compromising conscientious producers, retailers, restaurants and hoteliers, many of them family and artisanal businesses, whose livelihoods depend on the reputation of that brand.
If the Scottish Government proceeds with the expansion of an industry without due consideration of the long-term impact on the environment, local economies and brand reputation, it would not only be short-sighted, but utterly reckless.
So, what’s the way forward? In response to similar criticisms and concerns, countries such as Norway, the US and Canada are moving towards land-based closed containment, also known as Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS). Industrial-scale RAS sites have recently begun operations in the US, while Norwegian companies have invested €72 million in RAS production in China. Although sites of this size won’t address concerns around the sourcing of feed or the industry’s unacceptable carbon footprint, they can at least ensure that wild and farmed fish are separated, and allow effluent to be controlled, filtered and neutralised. RAS can also be developed for aquaponics, a methodology combining aquaculture with hydroponics, using the nutrients from the fish as fertiliser to grow fruit and vegetables. Such projects are scalable, can be located in cities as well as rural areas and can play a complementary role in crofting, fishing and tourism, sectors which are truly sustaining Scotland’s remote areas. Given that a blueprint for urgent radical reform of Scotland’s salmon industry already exists, all we need now is the vision and political will to implement it.
Lynn Schweisfurth is a member of the Salmon Aquaculture Reform Network Scotland and argues that the Scottish salmon industry is in need of urgent reform. We would be pleased to publish a response from the Scottish Government or Scottish salmon farming industry.
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