Dreaming of a grey Christmas

It is difficult not to wonder where the spirit of Christmas has gone. The season of “goodwill to all” seems to have bypassed all those involved in the recent fishing dispute between the UK and France.

Indeed, it was hard to know what was more depressing: the sight of flag-bedecked French fishing vessels buzzing around like angry wasps as they attempted to stop cross-Channel ferries from docking in French ports or the arms-folded intransigence of the negotiators from both sides.

This dispute, over the issuing of a small number of licences to French fishing vessels, caused a pre-Christmas headache for Scotland’s salmon producers, who were once again caught in the crossfire of an argument that had nothing to do with them.

Then there was the now traditional festive broadside from French television, which broadcast a programme that was so biased against salmon farming it would not qualify for the term “documentary” here.

The crew did actually interview someone from Salmon Scotland on camera, but then cut every word of the interview from the programme when it was aired.

At home we had the extraordinary decision of a number of galleries to drop salmon from their menus on the advice, apparently, of a group of artists, none of whom had any real connection to salmon farming and certainly not much knowledge.

But what was even worse was the reaction of the gallery bosses who took that decision and then hid, refusing to engage with Salmon Scotland or find out what salmon farming actually entailed by accepting an invitation to come to a farm.

It would be encouraging to see this activity as a blip, the result of Brexit and Covid tensions – a one-off, an end-of-a-bad-year hiatus.

But, unfortunately, that is unlikely to be the case. All the indications are that we are entering an era of polarised and polarising opinions, and salmon farming will be just one of the sectors struggling to get its – rational – voice heard.

The privileged activists who crusade against salmon farming in Scotland represent the crudest manifestation of this tendency.

They demand that they are right, sure that their blinkered determination allows them to do anything, however potentially destructive or threatening.

Just a few days ago, a brave female employee from one of our salmon producers posted a message online making it clear how uncomfortable she felt about unauthorised intruders – “middle-aged men skulking around” as she described them – clambering all over her workplace.

Where is the middle ground?

In the black-and-white world of the activists, there is no middle ground to their righteous crusade against fish farming, but there is and the woman who bravely posted that comment expressed it perfectly.

This isn’t a case of we are right and they are wrong – this is about collateral damage and the effects that actions have on those on the sidelines, impacts the activists never seem to consider.

Indeed, if we look at all the issues that affect us, from climate change to Brexit, there is a middle ground. Just dismissing it as “blah, blah, blah” isn’t enough because that is just going to polarise views still further.

There are too many people who want to simply stick their fingers in their ears, shut their eyes and shout and, if we all did that, nothing would ever get done.

So, it needs the rest of us, those who believe issues are complicated and have many sides to them, to keep reasoning, debating and getting the facts out there.

Every time the French fishermen block our consignments of salmon from reaching market, demanding immediate concessions from the UK, we have to lower the temperature, talk to all sides and make sure the rational view is heard.

Every time a television station decides to broadcast a documentary with sensational exaggeration and without balance, it is our duty to point out the other side of the argument.

And every time a gallery or museum gives in to knee-jerk populist activism without checking out what is real and what is made up, we should make sure the facts are known.

Having spent nearly three decades in print journalism, the demise of the traditional newspaper saddens me – but not because of any rose-tinted view of Fleet Street and its dubious charms.

Newspapers have always provided readers with a wide view of the world. Simply because of the way they are put together, readers’ eyes are drawn to stories they wouldn’t normally seek out.

As a result, readers used to receive a balanced view of the world and its issues.

Now, when the online content people devour is brought together by algorithms, they get more and more of what appeals to their palate,
narrowing their focus and range, and lessening their exposure to the unusual and the different.

This is the route to confirmation bias, to the polarisation of everything and the intolerance of the unknown.

As a livestock protein sector, we are hardly alone in battling the fingers-in-the-ear brigade. Indeed, those in red meat and poultry undoubtedly have to cope with worse than we do.

We are all the victims of the polarisation of politics and, unfortunately, it is going to get worse.

So, as we enter the festive season, my Christmas wish is a slightly unusual one. I want to hear more uncertainty, genuine questions being asked and an acceptance that there is nuance and intricacy in every argument. I want to see a much bigger grey area, pushing back the black and white arguments to where they belong.

So here’s to a grey Christmas – and a happy, healthy and, above all, a tolerant New Year.


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Fish Farmer February 2024 cover, net pens in winter with snow

The February 2024 issue of Fish Farmer is out now online