New year, new beginning?

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It’s hard to believe that here we are in 2022. Despite the continuing pandemic, the year that has just passed appeared to vanish as quickly as it started.

Regardless of ongoing problems, farmed salmon was the year’s star performer in the fresh meat, fish and poultry sector of retail. Trade magazine The Grocer reported that this growth was driven by supermarket sales of an extra 21.1 million packs of salmon. Could 2022 see even greater growth? There is no reason why not.

Without prejudging any announcement, 2022 may be the year that salmon farming can start a new phase after Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Mairi Gougeon, commissioned Professor Griggs to undertake a review of aquaculture regulation. Industry critics immediately condemned the process, asking how many reviews are required before action is taken.

However, while past parliamentary inquiries recommended some changes, they did not propose how those changes would be instigated. Professor Griggs has been asked to consider how a new regulatory system can be made both efficient and transparent, but most importantly it needs to be workable. The critics, mostly uninformed, are unlikely to accept any findings as they just want to see the industry closed down and put on shore. It can’t be said that Professor Griggs will hear only one side of the debate – he has been provided with a list of consultees, which appears dominated by those who are not involved in the aquaculture industry.

Professor Griggs’ review is not the only consultation happening in 2022: the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) launched a consultation into the establishment of wild salmon protection zones on Scotland’s west coast. SEPA has been given the role of lead body responsible for managing the risk to wild salmon from salmon farms.

This is a new role for SEPA, having only taken up the challenge in October 2021. However, it does seem that it is having some difficulty understanding the task because at the launch of the consultation Terry A’Hearn, SEPA’s Chief Executive, said: “We know that sea lice from marine finfish farms can be a significant hazard” to wild salmon.

The consultation document goes further saying: “Substantial impacts on the survival of wild salmon” result from sea lice. Yet a year previously, SEPA’s Head of Ecology, Peter Pollard, told the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee that sea lice from salmon farms were not responsible for the decline of wild salmon. A’Hearn attended the same meeting. Clearly one of these statements is wrong and SEPA must clarify which it is before the consultation can be taken seriously.

The primary aim of the consultation is to assess support for ambitious proposals that would create a series of protection zones around the west coast. This is intended to control sea lice numbers, to protect wild salmon post-smolts as they migrate away from the coast. Presumably, the idea is to ensure the maximum number of fish can migrate to their feeding grounds and then return to west coast rivers to breed and propagate the next generation.

It seems ludicrous to go to all this effort, however, if returning fish fail to get far enough up the rivers in order to breed. In 2020, this happened to 149 returning salmon in areas covered by the proposed protection zones. These are fish that were caught and killed by anglers for their sport.

SEPA says that wild salmon are now “a national priority” so it seems rather pointless if salmon are only going to be a priority for parts of their life cycle. Surely any protection should always cover salmon for all their life cycle. Thus, any form of angling should be banned in areas deemed to be a protection zone whether in the sea or in freshwater.

It is already clear that partial protection does not work. Take the case of the biggest salmon rivers in Scotland, such as the River Tay. In recent years, catches have largely collapsed, despite being much quoted as a Special Area of Conservation. However, this protection for conservation does not extend to catching and killing salmon because the protection relates only to the river habitat not to the fish.

SEPA’s proposals only seem to relate to trying to keep salmon farming away from wild fish, not any other of the key pressures identified as impacting wild salmon. Clearly, any protection must safeguard salmon from every influence, not just those that anglers claim is causing the decline of wild salmon.

SEPA’s consultation will only have any validity if it goes beyond the questionnaire that has been provided for interested parties to complete. Professor Griggs has been out and about talking directly to a whole range of consultees to garner their opinions and views. SEPA must do the same and not restrict its consultation to those selected voices that suit its desired narrative. This is already apparent from the statements made at the launch, which are clearly based more on preconceptions rather than known facts.

Professor Russel Griggs