Our favourite seabirds are facing a shortage of sand eels, but please don’t blame the fish farmers.
On 15 May 2021, the Herald newspaper included a two-page commercial feature placed by the Coastal Communities Network who claim that the safety of Scottish water is being compromised as the economic drivers of open cage salmon farming are given more import (sic) than ecological integrity.
This is their take on the impacts of salmon farming, but I would suggest that this feature would be better described as nothing more than a NIMBY whinge. I say this because of the eight people who appear in this feature, not one originates from the west coast. As far as I can ascertain, five of the complainants are from outside Scotland and two are anglers from the East coast plus one other.
One of the people featured is Katie Tunn, a Skye based artist and ocean advocate who moved up from London about six years ago. Interestingly, she recently appeared on a BBC TV programme called Wanted: A Simple Life in which she advised another young single female who also wanted to move to the Isle of Skye from London (available on iPlayer).
Among some of the issues Ms Tunn raises in this feature is that seabird populations are in decline. She says: “Few people are aware that the main cause of this is a lack of food generated by overfishing.”
She adds that “These fish aren’t even used for human consumption. The capelins and sand eels that go into fishmeal are vital for wildlife like puffins – just one species that suffers a knock-on effect from these expanding salmon farms.”
The Scottish Government’s Fishery Statistics for 2019 do not show landings for either sand eel or capelin. Looking back at historic reports, capelin is never mentioned, and this is likely because most capelin is caught north of Iceland and therefore unavailable to UK boats. Sand eel also does not feature in the 2019 statistics as a separate species and is likely grouped together with other species because catches are now so small.
Ms Tunn associates the sand eel fishery with salmon farming but looking back at the historical record, the first landings of sand eels were made in 1974 with a total of 173,556 hundredweight (cwt) (8,817 tonnes). This does not mean that sand eels were not caught prior to 1974, it just means that they were not recorded separately before then. This is not unusual as tracking other species in these reports can also be difficult.
The first salmon smolts were put to sea in Scotland in 1967 at Lochailort. However, it was not for another twelve years until harvests were recorded. In 1979, this was 520 tonnes. It is hard to believe that five years earlier, 8,817 tonnes of sand eels were destined to feed this fledgling industry.
Of course, sand eels have been used for salmon feed but generally this has been phased out, not just because there has been recognition that they form the food of some important wildlife but also because fishmeal in salmon feed has been greatly reduced. It is more likely that fishmeal made from offcuts will be found in much of the salmon feed rather than sand eel.
The trouble with critics of the salmon farming industry such as Ms Tunn is that they assume that all fish caught at sea for non-human consumption are destined for the salmon farming industry. The reality is that fishmeal is a commodity traded across the world for a whole range of uses. Many years ago, forage fish were caught and made into fertiliser and it is still possible to buy garden fertiliser that includes fishmeal, yet critics never seem to blink an eye at the practice of catching wild fish to help garden flowers and vegetables grow.
Equally, fishmeal has been widely used to feed pigs and poultry. I remember when it was common knowledge that chicken often had a slight fishy taste because of the amount of fishmeal used in their feed. The use of fishmeal in these animal feeds has also been reduced primarily because of cost but globally, about 20% of fishmeal still goes to feed terrestrial farm animals.
Wild fish is also fed to other animals but not typically as fishmeal. Fish is widely used to feed pet animals, and this is now approaching 3 million tonnes a year globally. Rather strangely, critics never seem to suggest that we should stop this use of the wild fish harvest. Pet cats and dogs do not normally eat fish in their diet and doing so is only a consequence of vanity purchases by their owners, who of course want only the best for their animals. It wasn’t that long ago when US pet food manufacturers offered a bluefin tuna variety of their cat foods. This would be now considered totally unacceptable so why is it acceptable to feed everything from wild salmon to herring and cod to haddock to pet cats? Salmon farming is such an easy target, especially for those who have chosen to live in their vicinity.
Perhaps, rather than criticise salmon farming and work to close the industry down, these NIMBY critics might consider that if they don’t like being around salmon farms, then it is they, who should move elsewhere.