A salmon farmer holds a fish in Oban. Farms have proliferated off the west coast of Scotland.? Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
One of the world’s most influential conservation bodies has accused the Scottish government of ruining the country’s lucrative salmon-fishing industry.
In a strongly worded letter to all of Scotland’s MSPs, Orri Vigfusson, chairman and founder of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF), accuses Holyrood of contributing to a catastrophic decline in salmon stocks on Scottish rivers.
Vigfusson, who is lauded in Iceland for his work in salmon conservation, writes: “Your country encourages and supports the proliferation and expansion of unsustainable fin fish farms. You overfish your fish stocks and you encourage interceptory mixed-stock salmon fisheries that target the fish we have protected while they feed in our waters.
“We have given these salmon safe passage in the belief that they will be allowed to spawn and help restore Scottish rivers. Instead, far from being rebuilt, your salmon abundance has declined by 80-90% in recent decades. This is principally due to the failure of your authorities to manage them properly.”
The letter, which is supported by organisations representing Faroese and Icelandic fishermen, contains the strongest criticism yet of Scotland’s management of its fisheries. It also overshadows the announcement last month by Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, of an independent review into how Scotland’s wild fisheries are managed. The industry is worth around £200m a year to the Scottish economy.
The unprecedented warning encapsulates fears long expressed by stakeholders in the industry. The proliferation of salmon farms off Scotland’s west coast has led to fears about contamination of the species through sea lice. Meanwhile, the indiscriminate netting of mixed stocks off the north-east of Scotland and the Northumberland and Yorkshire coasts has prevented mature salmon from returning to spawn in rivers that are already running low.
An editorial in the current issue of Country Life warns of the disastrous effects of intensive farming to meet an insatiable demand from China: “As the pesticides used by aquaculture to battle the sea lice grow ever stronger, wild salmon are exposed to infestations as their migratory routes take them through sea lochs bursting with farmed fish. Setting up more of these highly-intensive farms is looking increasingly unsustainable, as both wild and farmed fish will suffer.”
Salmond stands accused of overheating production of Scottish farmed salmon to meet China’s insatiable demand for sushi in return for its loan of two pandas to Edinburgh Zoo.
On the River Tay last week, the chief ghillie of the Tay Salmon Fisheries Company described his craft as he urged help for the industry. David Godfrey has been working his beat for 10 years, teaching the art of freshwater fishing in the world’s wildest and oldest open-air school. His only competition comes from ospreys, which in springtime will occasionally swoop within 10 feet of him to deprive a client of his silver prize. “You don’t do this to get rich,” said Godfrey, “but to watch a soul catch his first salmon is to witness pure contentment.”
The Tay is the pre-eminent salmon fishing river in Scotland, ahead of the Tweed, Spey and Dee.
Godfrey described the life-cycle of a salmon in reverential tones. After two years or so on the river of its birth, it turns to silver and heads out into the Atlantic to feed for another three years before returning to its birth-river to spawn. “Farmed salmon, on the other hand,” said Godfrey, “can complete that process in just 18 months.”
The process by which they do that can be seen mouldering at the bottom of cages off Scotland’s west coast and it turns Godfrey’s stomach. “There can be a place for them if they are better regulated and brought inland in closed-off waters. This way they don’t pose a danger to our wild Atlantic Scottish salmon. But there are about 85 of these off the east coast or on sea lochs.”
The veteran Tay ghillie also believes the government could do more to help the industry. “If the Greenlanders start using nets again in their waters it will prevent multitudes of Scottish salmon returning to their rivers. But now they are questioning why they are tying up their nets when the Scottish government is encouraging interceptor mixed stock fisheries off its own east coast.”
The Scottish government points to recent agreements to show that it is not dragging its feet. “We operate a robust, internationally recognised regulatory system which the Aquaculture & Fisheries (Scotland) Act 2013 will enhance,” said a spokesman. “We are already taking action to improve sea lice control on marine fish farms, including measures to require all operators to enter into farm management agreements which set out arrangements for managing fish health and parasites.”
The fisheries review process starts next month. At stake is the survival of the precious silver beneath its running waters.