A break from the norm for me a couple of weeks ago as I ventured west to visit a salmon farm. Controversial for a lifelong salmon fisher like myself? Well, yes perhaps, but how can we judge what we do not know? I repeatedly say that conservation can only be achieved through education, I wanted to speak directly to those involved in fish farming to hear their views and see their practices first hand rather than relying on anecdotal evidence and simply being swept along on the tide of resentment against them from some of my peers.
It was apparent when I asked to visit that my hosts were wary of my intentions. What was my agenda? Was I taking along a well-known very vocal anti-fish farm eco-warrior (who shall for this article remain nameless)? Would I be carrying hidden recording apparatus or underwater cameras to film below the water line? My response, an emphatic NO, but it was clear that there was at best bemusement at my visit and at worst a definite defensiveness. Interestingly, over lunch after the visit it was explained that I was the first person “from the other side” to venture forwards and ask to view the farm and have a chat. I suggested that rather than refer to sides we refer to “one party and the other party”. A matter of semantics but it helps to keep things on a friendly non-confrontational level. I think this is the first hurdle we need to cross, how do we confront the fact that we have very different views, theories and practices but without being confrontational? Firstly, put all past aggression behind us. We will never abolish all fish farms, consumer demand is far too great and people now expect cheap food. Salmon is no longer the luxury dish that it once was, just as salmon fishing is no longer the eye wateringly expensive past time reserved for ”toffs” and so we need to learn to work together to protect ALL salmon, farmed and wild.
I’m one of the first to shout out about the inhumane treatment of farmed salmon but we need to acknowledge that, as in any industry, there are those who operate as ethically as possible and those who don’t. It’s not in the interest of the fish farms to see wild salmon stocks wiped out but I certainly think that there’s more they could be doing to stop the spread of sea lice, disease and damage to the surrounding environment than the self-regulation of their industry currently encourages. It’s too easy though to generalise and to group all fish farmers together and say that they’re ALL bad. The truth is that even the best farm will only ever be as good as its worst competitor. There have, since my visit, been several televised visits to the worst of the worst and it makes for some pretty shocking and upsetting viewing but rather than just judging let’s move on and learn from this and try to change it. Farmed salmon is like supermarket cashmere, it makes a luxury item affordable to those who previously could only dream of it. It makes salmon an everyday food rather than a treat for special occasions or the preserve of the wealthy. We need to educate people that at worst it’s full of toxins, that on the majority of farms the fish are kept in overcrowded cages, overfed by machines to force the growing stage, where disease is rife and the environmental impact of tonnes of faeces, undigested food and chemicals cause untold damage to the sea bed, resulting in less crustaceans, less seaweed and even more poignantly for anglers like myself, the damaging impact on wild salmon stocks. All other livestock farms are regulated to the nth degree, so why aren’t fish farms?
As most of my fishing is done on the east coast rivers of Scotland my concerns over the impact of farming on wild fish were dismissed by The Environment Minister and my local Fishery Board. I was told through a third party who had contacted them on my behalf that sea lice were only a problem for west coast rivers and so had no affect on our salmon here. Most salmon fishers, myself included are not so narrow minded or short sighted that we’re only concerned for the welfare and survival of our salmon in one river!! The impact is Scotland wide, UK wide, Europe wide. We need to stop our governing bodies being so blinkered, so naïve and start doing something proactive before it’s too late for any salmon.
The farm that I visited is the oldest independent Scottish family owned farm so, unlike many of its competitors, their profit is not being scurried away to Norway! They’re on third generation employees, meaning that they really ARE giving employment to the local community. The workers take pride in their work and pride in their products. Things are run on a smaller scale than their competitors and the emphasis is on welfare and ethical farming. The fish are hand reared, no robotic feeding machines here, there are men on the farm every single day of the year, meaning that they can see the condition of the fish themselves, they spot problems as they’re developing, not after they’ve escalated. The fish are fed a natural food source from wild fish trimmings destined for the human food market, wrasse are used to prevent lice (although I’m all too aware that on some farms these are now being intensively farmed themselves in order to be used as cleaner-fish), when disease outbreaks occur approved antibiotics are kept to a minimum and, if necessary, a well boat may be brought in so fish are “quarantined”. Smooth nets are used to keep mucus damage to a minimum which would leave fish open to infection/lice/disease. The diet is low fat meaning that the fish are slow growing (a much more natural approach!) and are grown for around 22 months. I’m reliably informed that you can see and taste the difference. Interestingly the original broodstock for the company came from The Spey. How great would it be if we could reinstate a hatchery here and see the equal numbers of fish in each pool of our rivers as I saw in each cage at the farm?!
So, did my view of salmon farms change after my visit? Not entirely. I’d still like to see closed container farming on land and far greater regulation of the industry as a whole. I also suspect that I’ll still be offending hosts this Christmas when I refuse their smoked salmon canapes at festive drinks parties but if I had to eat farmed salmon, I now know first-hand the considerations to take into account before buying. I’m glad I went to visit, it opened my eyes and it gave me hope for the future. If I was being uncharitable I could say that they’re “the best of a bad lot” but my honest opinion is actually that these are the guys we need to learn from and work with. This is, afterall, a company that rears fry through to harvesting and onwards processing. They have a separate freshwater smolt production unit. We can benefit from the experience that both parties have but we need transparency on both “sides”, we need to look to the future not look behind us and move forwards as two parallel parties working to protect and preserve ALL salmon. An impossible pipedream? Perhaps, but it’s certainly a dream I’d like to see come true.