Scotland’s Murky Waters

Words by Mark Dawson
Images by Corin Smith

Pressure on Scotland’s wild salmon population has been growing for decades.

Throughout the 1960s to the 1980s the main threat came from coastal and estuary nets, which caught and killed up to 500,000 fish (at least, that was the declared catch) each year.

Despite this, it was calculated that at least 20% of the fish that left their spawning grounds as smolts were returning to the Scottish coast as adults to spawn.

A successful campaign led by Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland (S&TCs) led to the prohibition of mixed stock netting in 2016, first on a trial basis, now made permanent.

However, the number of fish returning to spawn, from what is already a dramatically reduced population, is now no more than 5%. It is therefore no great surprise that the last 25 years have seen a decline of almost 70% in the number of Atlantic salmon returning to our rivers. At the same time, sea trout have seen a similarly dramatic downturn in numbers. For example, in 1987 on the River Ewe and Loch Maree – historically one of Europe’s most celebrated sea trout fisheries – 1,700 fish were caught by rod. In 2016 that number was 13. The first date, 1987, is of some significance: it was the last year before salmon farming began in the sea loch Loch Ewe.

Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC) is the only independent organisation working specifically to protect these two species, and with them those others that share their ecosystem. S&TC was previously known as the Salmon and Trout Association, which had been in existence for well over 100 years before S&TC UK and S&TC Scotland were established as registered charities a few years ago. Originally  it concentrated its campaigning efforts on counteracting the widespread damage done to rivers by pollution following the industrial revolution of the mid to late 19th century. 

Andrew Graham-Stewart, Director of S&TCS, explains further:

“The perception that salmon and trout conservation is only supported by anglers is a hangover from the fact that anglers, historically, were those most concerned with pollution in rivers. We don’t actually represent anglers, rather we campaign for the conservation and protection of wild fish and the  unpolluted ecosystems they need to be able to thrive.The clean-up of rivers has really gathered speed since the second world war. The Clyde, for example, basically had no fish in it except for its upper reaches, from about 1840.”

Loss of industrial capacity clearly has had ecological benefits, and by the late 20th century water quality throughout the UK has been vastly improved, with salmon returning even to the Thames which had for over a century been effectively an oxygen-free watery desert. Andrew points out that salmon are an extremely accurate indicator species for water quality, and points to the success of the post-industrial regeneration.

“In Scotland, the rivers are now relatively clean. The two rivers worst affected were the Clyde and the Forth. The demise of shipbuilding on the Clyde, and the demise of heavy industry, means that both are now pretty clean. Equally importantly, so are their estuaries, the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth.” Further north, most of the agriculture is on the east coast up and around to Inverness, but it is nothing like as intensive as in other regions of the UK. “It’s basic geography; anything close to that level just isn’t possible in upland areas.” For the same reason there’s very little arable farming on the west coast, so the headwaters and rivers are among the cleanest in Europe. It is here, however, among the west Highlands and Islands, that almost all the marine salmon farms are located. 

S&TC recognise that many, if not most, of the factors driving population decline are beyond our capacity to address. Accepting this fact makes it all the more important to tackle those issues affecting salmon abundance in which human intervention can play a part. And today, one of the biggest such issues for our wild salmon and sea trout stocks is the industrial-scale salmon farming taking place in the west Highlands and Islands. 

The overwhelming problem for wild salmon and sea trout in the west of Scotland is sea lice. Sea lice are naturally occurring parasites that have coexisted with wild fish for millennia, with an equally natural balance maintained to ensure the continuation of both species. But once the lice get into a salmon farm all previous constraints are off. They’ve reached captive hosts, and found their perfect breeding ground. As a result their numbers have exploded, and spread through the wider marine ecosystem. “The young salmon, smolts, come down the rivers in the spring, and basically have to swim through sea louse soup before they can get out into the open ocean. If a smolt picks up ten or so sea lice on its journey through the coastal margins, it will perish.” 

If a salmon smolt manages to defy the odds, run the gauntlet, and enter the ocean relatively unscathed, it will be able to continue its normal life cycle. Sea trout have a different MO, spending many months in coastal waters waters and therefore consistently vulnerable to infestation. Even for those smolts that survive passing the farms, life has become vastly more precarious in recent years.

“There’s been a general decline in wild Atlantic salmon survival rates right across their range in the northern hemisphere. Marine survival has declined over the last forty years or so, and this is almost certainly to do with climate change, its effect on the availability and location of food.” 

The delicately balanced complexity of ecosystems that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years means any change, however slight, presents a major challenge to those species that are part of it. Not that recent changes have been slight. “You’ve got quite extreme changes in the marine distribution of fish. Not long ago, for the first time, the Greenlanders were finding mackerel in their catch. And they didn’t know what they were, never seen them before.

Global phenomena on this scale are clearly beyond S&TC’s compass, hence the need to focus all the more energy on what can be achieved. “Most salmon farming, particularly in Scotland, is carried out in open cage systems, so that anything in the wider environment, such as of course parasites, can get into the cage. Where you’ve got up to a million fish in close quarters, this is louse heaven.” Once inside, parasites and disease will multiply unnaturally, and enormously. At the same time, the caged salmon dispose by weight of more faecal matter – that’s shite to you and me – than that produced by (I’m sorry about this, bad mental image) the entire human population of Scotland, with an obviously deleterious effect on the immediate environment. As of course do the chemicals used by farmers in attempting to limit louse numbers.

The alternative method, closed tank systems (the use of which is growing in many countries – but not Scotland), as the name implies, have a physical barrier between what’s inside and outside the tank. Generally, these operate on land, although there are some in the sea. Closed containment systems eliminate many of the issues presented by open cage farming, particularly the environmental problems. “They keep out parasites, they keep out diseases. The fish faeces can be collected, they don’t just fall to the sea bed, you don’t get the chemicals trying to control the lice used in open cage farms, which of course disperse throughout the wider environment.

“Closed containment is an improvement, but it doesn’t solve all the problems. It’s not our remit, but the welfare of fish is an issue. Farmed salmon, whether it’s bog standard, ‘organic’, whatever, are reduced to swimming round and round in aimless circles for two years or so. And with closed cages, because the farmer is constrained by the size of the tanks, and the extra cost of adding more, there’s a temptation to try to get more fish per volume of water and stock density is generally higher in closed container systems.” We’d argue this is a massively important issue, on a par with battery hens and pigs. To visualise, many farms operate on a density of 20kg per cubic metre of water. That’s three to four fish – living beings, probably not that bright but nonetheless conscious – reduced to swimming flank to flank endlessly in a circle. As Andrew puts it with considerable understatement: “It’s a pretty wretched existence”.

Equally importantly, the mechanics of feeding farmed fish are totally unsustainable. “You’ve got fish being taken in very large quantities from developing countries in South America and West Africa, caught in huge factory ships that just hoover up everything. That’s then converted into fish meal and fish oil. These industrial concerns are depriving local communities of desperately needed protein, a completely sustainable resource on which they’ve depended and relied for centuries.” A study by Cambridge University completed in February 2022 found that in 2014, in Scotland, 460,000 tonnes of wild caught fish were used to produce 179,000 tonnes of farmed salmon. Pure ecological madness, particularly as the same study found that 76% of the wild caught fish were species commonly eaten by humans, such as anchovies and sardines. “This utterly destroys any idea that this industry is sustainable.”

Any political will to effect change is hard to find. In 2016 an S&TCS petition to the Scottish Parliament led directly to an investigation into salmon farming impacts and the industry’s regulation by two parliamentary committees; their reports and findings were scathing, concluding that the “status quo is not an option”.  Since then the Scottish Government has only kicked matters further into the long grass. In 2021, in the face of continuing Scottish Government prevarication and failure to introduce effective regulation of the salmon farming industry, Andrew issued the following statement through S&TCS:

“We have engaged with successive Scottish Governments and regulators for over 20 years in efforts to persuade them to introduce effective regulation of salmon farming, particularly to protect wild salmon and sea trout from the devastatingly negative impacts of sea lice proliferation.“The response has been little more than lip-service whilst enabling the industry to expand production exponentially, exacerbating all the environmental problems associated with open-net farming. Scottish Government’s recent announcement of a two-year review of regulation, yet another delaying tactic, and its endorsement of the fundamentally inadequate Salmon Interactions Working Group’s report amount to conclusive confirmation that it has no intention of introducing meaningful reform. We have reached the end of the road.”“In the meantime, the unequivocal recommendations of the comprehensive reports of the Scottish Parliamentary Inquiry into salmon farming in 2018 by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and then by the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, are being ignored.”

Elsewhere in the world – Washington State, British Columbia, Denmark – it is now accepted that open-net salmon farming is unsustainable and in consequence the industry has been reined in. Argentina has announced that it will not permit open-net salmon farming in its waters. The Falklands has now followed suit. And yet: “The Scottish Government has somehow decided that salmon farming is good for the country as a whole, so supports it unstintingly. It’s almost certainly linked to the idea of Scottish independence, particularly as the oil industry has become less and less significant.” 

There is, one supposes, the argument of supporting local economies. “Each farm employs about six people. Now these are good jobs for those six, but the impact on the other people in those communities is almost entirely negative. Local communities in the west highlands are ambivalent at best about salmon farming, and they’re certainly against any further expansion. And it’s interesting that, despite the best efforts of ourselves and others, the Scottish Government has consistently refused to do any kind of cost/benefit analysis as to the effects of salmon farming on local communities.”

From time to time one hears from anglers about the increased threat from predators such as otters, goosanders, and seals in the estuaries. “Yes, predators take some fish, as they always have, but I think that simply blaming predation is naïve. It’s really an indictment of the way we’ve managed our seas that we’ve so dramatically disturbed the historic natural balance. For instance seals never used to go into rivers. Now, because there’s less and less for them to eat in the sea, a few rogue seals will go up rivers. And if things continue as they are, more will follow. Quite apart from this, those who suggest widespread culls of predators are shooting themselves in the foot. Politicians are never ever going to sanction culls to protect the interests of anglers. 

“And we really don’t want to go back to what happened 150 years ago, when the estates – and I’ve seen some of the records – gave bounty payments for killing species they thought were preying on salmon. Back then this was primarily to support the netting industry. As a result, kingfishers were basically eliminated in the north. They used to be widespread, right up to the north coast of Scotland. They were eliminated because they were taking the very young fish. And dippers, because they were taking salmon eggs. Anything that they thought might impact on salmon numbers was seen as a threat.”

Andrew is firm in his view on the purpose of S&TC and S&TCS.To continue the work begun in 1903 by the Salmon and Trout Association in locally conserving two of the world’s most iconic fish, a task made even more important by what is now a global diminution of wild stocks. But to do so not on an exclusive or blinkered basis but in the context of the wider environment, recognising the deeply inter-dependent organic web in which they live.And there is one final point he wishes to get across to those buying (farmed) salmon in supermarkets or ordering in restaurants.

“Only the fittest, healthiest wild fish will grow to adulthood. A wild salmon will travel thousands of miles across oceans to and from its feeding and spawning grounds. These are majestic animals, that deserve our utmost respect. They should not in any way be confused with farmed salmon.”

Thanks to Andrew Graham-Stewart, Director of S&TCS for his invaluable contribution.
More info on the work of the S&TCS can be found here 

Special thanks to Corin Smith for his striking images of Salmon in Scottish Farms.
More of his work can be found here