Selective science


Readers of my reLAKSation blog will know that I have repeatedly referred to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy committee meeting of 18 November 2020 in which SEPA’s Head of Ecology said that sea lice from salmon farms are not responsible for the decline of wild fish. I keep mentioning this because the wild fish sector would prefer if this testimony had long been forgotten.

By comparison to this statement, Marine Scotland Science’s summary of the science claims that the body of scientific information indicates that there is a risk of sea lice from aquaculture facilities negatively affecting populations of salmon and sea trout on the west coast of Scotland. Clearly different views are being expressed by the two organisations, but which accurately reflects what is happening on the west coast?

I would argue that the only reason MSS now suggest that the body of scientific evidence indicates there is a risk is because they have been selective in the science they have used. There is plenty of other scientific evidence that indicates the contrary view, but if they choose to ignore it, then they can arrive at their preferred conclusions.

I have tried to discuss the evidence with MSS for at least eight years and on every occasion, they have managed to avoid doing so (and I always thought science was about exploring different viewpoints).

My latest experience highlights the measures that MSS embrace to avoid the discussion. Every scientific paper provides the email address of the corresponding author. Presumably this is to allow anyone reading the paper to correspond, especially if they have any questions or wish to raise any points.

Members of MSS have published a paper about modelling sea lice dispersion from farms. As there are other published papers that indicate that sea lice are mainly retained within salmon farms, I wrote to the corresponding author to ask whether the model had been validated in the wild, ie. did they carry out any research to see if sea lice are actually dispersed as the model indicates?

I was therefore extremely surprised to receive an email from the Office of the Freedom of Information (FOI) section of the Scottish Government telling me that my FOI request was incomplete because I had not included my full name and contact details. Firstly, the MSS scientist in question is aware of who I am and secondly this was not an FOI request. This was a scientific question to the scientific author of a scientific paper. Despite writing to point this out, I received a second email to say that a reply would be forthcoming within the prescribed 20 working days. When did scientific debate descend into becoming an FOI request?

Protecting the official line?

This is not the first time I have received such a response. Yet, I have also written to other scientists at MSS over the years and received helpful and friendly responses with offers to provide further information should I wish. This is how it should work, and it seems MSS even think so themselves as they provide a directory of scientists working for them on the Scottish Government website. This directory includes a full biography detailing areas of expertise as well as contact details. Why provide such a directory if they don’t want the public to contact these scientists directly?

It seems that the common factor between deeming my questions to be worthy of a direct reply from any scientist or whether any enquiry is despatched into some “official channel” is if the question is about salmon farming and especially about sea lice.

In my opinion, it would appear that MSS scientists are now reluctant to answer questions about salmon farming in case any response they might give will compromise the official line that the body of scientific information indicates that there is a risk that sea lice from aquaculture facilities negatively affect populations of salmon and sea trout on the west coast of Scotland. Instead, any enquiry or question is sent centrally for an official response.

The problem for MSS is that SEPA have already undermined the argument that sea lice from salmon farms are negatively impacting wild fish populations. How can MSS now not expect others to question the science they have used when SEPA have clearly stated that sea lice from salmon farms are not responsible for the declines?

As for my own question, the paper does not seem to mention anything about validation of the models used to predict the spread of sea lice from salmon farms. Fortunately, I have now received the response to my FOI request. Rather surprisingly, this comes directly from the scientist, begging the question why this MSS scientist could not have just answered the question in the first place rather than sending it into the FOI process, especially as the answer is just one sentence long.

The response states: “Sea lice distribution validation is outwith the remit of this paper which is concerned with setting out the algorithms for interactions between wild fish and lice.”

I am left wondering how MSS scientists can create a model of sea lice dispersion but then feel it is totally unnecessary to actually demonstrate that the model reflects the actual way that sea lice are dispersed at sea and not just on some computer screen.

If nothing else, the pandemic has shown that algorithms can be notoriously unreliable. Why should we believe the MSS model is any different when there has been no attempt to validate it?

Why this is important is that this modelling is the basis of SEPA’s planned risk assessment framework and so far, there is not a shred of evidence that sea lice disperse as the model predicts, let alone infest any wild salmon passing through the proposed protection zones.



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