SIFTing the facts

Newspaper

There is a new worrying trend beginning to appear in the world of science and especially in the science relating to salmon farming.

The Sunday Post recently highlighted a new scientific paper detailing carbon emissions produced by the salmon farming sector in Scotland. The research was undertaken at the School of Geosciences at Edinburgh University. The paper is co-authored by a master’s degree student and her academic supervisor.

What is of concern is that a third author is the Chief Executive of an NGO (non-governmental organisation), the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust (SIFT). What a paper on carbon emissions from salmon farming has to do with SIFT is unclear, nor why the Chief Executive is listed as the second author of the paper.

This paper follows closely after the publication of another study from Cambridge University about fish feed that was co-authored by the campaigning NGO Feedback which has regularly attacked the salmon farming industry for incorporating wild caught fish into aquafeed.

This new NGO involvement in seemingly academic scientific research would appear to represent a way for NGOs to gain increased credibility for their campaigns, as well as more widespread publicity. The Cambridge University paper did receive extensive coverage in the mainstream press despite dubious findings. However, this latest paper has not been so successful, probably because the findings were not particularly newsworthy. In fact, it might be that the only reason the Sunday Post took the story is because the way it was written included somewhat stretched facts.

I don’t normally delve too deeply into the backstory of any paper, but I was intrigued to understand the relationship between SIFT, salmon farming and the Geosciences department of Edinburgh University so I contacted the academic co-author, who was kind enough to explain.

Although his specialisation is coral bleaching, he is a supervisor on a Marine Systems and Policies MSc course that attracts students with a very diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines, from law to biology, the environment to engineering, and consequently, students can choose a topic that matches their interests. The students are helped through networking events to match their interests with marine professionals from different areas including NGOs, government, charities, and academics. If they choose, the students can work with these external partners on a dissertation project. Working with their internal supervisor, they can turn their dissertation into a paper.

The external partner, in this case the Chief Executive of SIFT, is expected to hold three to four discussions with the student and their academic supervisor about their project. If the student wishes to produce a paper, then the external and internal supervisors help clarify the edited versions of the dissertation.

Attending a couple of meetings and reading through a draft paper and making suggestions seems a small contribution for a named author on the paper. It would seem that SIFT would have the most to gain from this collaboration to give credibility to their campaigns. The fact that I am now writing about a master’s student’s dissertation demonstrates the benefit that SIFT might achieve from this involvement, even though the paper states that the authors have no competing interests.

In fact, SIFT campaigns against poor management of the inshore waters, which it says has harmed coastal economies and ecosystems. This of course includes salmon farming, even though any evidence is extremely thin on the ground.

A partisan perspective

SIFT’s previous activities against salmon farming includes a collaboration with Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland (now known as WildFish) that commissioned a report that questioned the economic benefit to Scotland of salmon farming.

The inevitable conclusion was that the Scottish Government should consider suspending its support for any expansion of salmon farming in Scotland. The authors argued that the economic data was partial, unreliable, and incomplete, but I suspect that it is much more reliable than any data produced by the wild fish sector, including the annual catch data.

Although SIFT also commissioned a peer review of the study, no-one seemed to pick up that this review of the economics of salmon farming repeated a table based on Marine Scotland data showing the value generated by every person working in salmon farming. However, although supposedly the same data, the values shown in both versions were different.

It certainly brings the accuracy of the whole report into question. Interestingly, the only time that I have seen this economic review quoted, other than by the organisation that commissioned it, is in this latest paper, which given that SIFT has been involved in the work is not surprising.

Of course, the findings of the latest study are not unexpected, given its co-authorship. The salmon farming industry is criticised for its carbon emissions mainly due to the use of imported feed ingredients, but ignores the fact that such ingredients are also widely used in terrestrial farming.

The paper also makes recommendations for policy makers and NGOs including the need to continue raising consumer awareness of environmental issues to help make more sustainable choices.

An email contact for SIFT’s Chief Executive is given in the paper, and I wrote to enquire about his contribution to the research. He has not replied, which speaks loudly about SIFT’s involvement and intentions.  It certainly brings into question how much of the content of such papers is science and how much is NGO campaigning.

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