OPINION: Don’t blame farms for nationwide decline

THE first proper spring salmon I ever saw was pulled from the icy waters of the Tay on a bitter March day 20 years ago.

There was snow in the air, the water was barely above freezing – it actually felt lower than that even through a pair of neoprene waders – and the sky was glowering threateningly above the long salmon rods flicking lines out across the black river.

But what I remember most vividly was the ghillie nodding approvingly at the sea lice clinging to the side of that particular salmon as he lifted it gently from the net (these were two big gravid female lice, I now know).

The ghillie argued that the presence of the lice showed that the fish was fresh: very fresh given that it had swum all the way from the mouth of the Tay at Dundee up beyond Perth without losing all the lice it had picked up in the sea.

There was no talk of salmon farms that day, nor was there any suggestion from anybody fishing along the Tay that somehow fish farms were to blame for any of the problems they were experiencing, let alone the sea lice locked on to the salmon’s side.

On the contrary, the lice were seen as a good sign, a recognition that even strong salmon pick up lice in the sea but lose them again in fresh water.

Since then, however, some of our critics have become more aggressive, less accommodating and angrier, sparking a trend for intolerance which has tainted the vital debate about declining wild fish stocks.

They insist salmon farming isn’t just to blame for infecting wild fish with sea lice as they swim past open-net cages on their way to their home rivers; no, the farmed salmon sector is responsible for destroying wild salmon stocks, wild sea trout stocks and just about everything else they can think of.

I have been an angler my whole life. I live within touching distance of the Tweed. I spent my Easter holiday this year fishing for wild brown trout on Islay and I am not alone.

There are enthusiastic anglers in every salmon company in Scotland, none of whom sees any contradiction in spending their working hours with farmed fish and their down time in pursuit of wild ones.

Yet they are being alienated from their hobby and, with every unfounded claim about the supposed evils of farmed salmon, another wedge is been driven between the two sectors.

This is a shame for a number of reasons, not least because of the distance and distrust it puts between anglers who farm and farmers who fish.

It is a shame because the farmed and wild sectors share common enemies –Scotland’s ever expanding seal population being a case in point.

But it is also a shame because Scotland’s farmed salmon sector has the expertise and the science to ensure fish survive in the best possible conditions from egg to smolt, and this is one of the areas of greatest concern for the wild fish sector.

Indeed, if the two sectors managed to put the distrust and resentment to one side and really work together (as some on the ground already do), they could achieve so much, for the benefit of both.

However, to do that, the extremists in the wild fish lobby would have to row back from their claims that salmon farming is the root of all evil as far as wild fish numbers are concerned.

They would have to acknowledge that while salmon farming may present a hazard to some wild fish returning to Scotland’s rivers, the more influential factors include rising sea temperatures, climate change, loss of feed, hydro schemes, pesticides run off, forestation, animal and bird predators and over fishing at sea.

The chances of such a shift in attitude may appear slim but I actually think it is not that far-fetched.

Last month, when the salmon and sea trout catch figures were released (showing the worst returns since records began in 1952), there was – at last – a recognition that salmon farming was not the root cause.

Almost all the media coverage of the catch figures was balanced and fair. Journalists and publications pointed out there were a range of different factors affecting wild salmon and sea trout in our rivers, one of which might be salmon farms.

There was also a general acknowledgement that, given that wild salmon numbers are falling dramatically across the east coast of Scotland (where there are no farms), it is becoming increasingly difficult for anybody to blame fish farms for this overall, nationwide decline.

There is still a long way to go, not least because the myths about the evils of salmon farming have been anchored so deep into the minds of many anglers that it will be a job to shift them.

But minds are beginning to change, attitudes are beginning to shift and more sense and thoughtfulness is starting to creep into the debate.

The prospect of ghillies applauding the sight of sea lice on a caught spring salmon once again may be a little way off, but I really do believe that is not as far away as the doom-mongers – on both sides of the debate – fear.

Hamish Macdonell is the SSPO’s director of strategic engagement