Turning a blind eye

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Fisheries Management Scotland (FMS) recently posted a news story from the Guardian newspaper about restoring Finland’s river ecosystems, although it doesn’t mention salmon.

Earlier in January, FMS posted the news that the River Tay fishing season was to be opened by actors Robson Green and Jim Murray, and at the end of December they posted the story from New Scientist about the Norwegian research on introgression from farmed salmon.

Despite their interest in farmed salmon – their response to the Wild Salmon Strategy included calls for a reformed regulatory system that protects wild fish from the impacts of fish farming – they did not post news from any of the press coverage of my new paper (see “Fall in wild salmon numbers ‘not down to fish farms’”, Fish Farmer, January 2022). This was no surprise.

FMS, as well as the wild fish sector, are only interested in stories about salmon farming that support their inherent belief that salmon farming is damaging to wild salmon. They are certainly not interested in news stories that might undermine their long-held narrative about the negative impacts of salmon farming. They hope that if they ignore any such stories that they will simply disappear, and they can continue their campaign against the salmon farming industry.

Certainly, the Atlantic Salmon Trust, which is currently running the west coast tracking project with Marine Scotland Science (MSS), have remained silent, as have Marine Scotland Science themselves. I will be now pushing MSS to amend its “Summary of Sea Lice Science” accordingly, in line with the latest findings. These will also be important evidence in the current Scottish Environment Protection Agency consultation on sea lice management.

Whilst most of the wild fish sector seem to want to ignore my new paper, when asked by the local press, Andrew Graham-Stewart of Salmon & Trout Conservation was keen to voice his opinion. Rather than address the paper’s findings, Mr Graham-Stewart told the West Highland Free Press that I am essentially a spokesman and an apologist for the salmon farming industry. Both these are news to me for I have never been asked by anyone in the industry to speak for them and I certainly would argue that the salmon farming industry has nothing to apologise for.

Mr Graham-Stewart adds that there are numerous studies showing wild stocks are severely impacted by salmon farming particularly due to sea lice. These studies have been written by experts and have real credibility, implying that I am neither an expert nor have any credibility. Of course, Mr Graham-Stewart has never been willing to tell me this in person.

Actually, Mr Graham-Stewart is incorrect, for whilst there are plenty of studies based on mathematical modelling and predicted mortality, there is a dearth of studies that show the actual impact of salmon farming. Just two are quoted in MSS’s summary of the science dating back to 2008 and 2009 and the evidence from these is extremely weak. Sadly, Mr Graham-Stewart is unwilling to discuss these papers.

Both these papers used rod-catch data to illustrate their claims. None of the industry critics have ever argued that the data, collected from river proprietors by the Scottish Government, is unreliable and thus the research can be dismissed, no doubt because the papers appear to support their claims. The keyboard critics have quickly dismissed my paper for a range of reasons, however, including the unreliability of the data, the quality of the journal, the fact it is open access for which a fee must be paid and because I am associated with the salmon industry. Not one, including, Mr Graham-Stewart, has argued that the findings of the paper are incorrect.

The data tells a different story

The reality is that the perceived decline in fish catches along the west coast has masked underlying changes in the two different components of the salmon stock: grilse and multi-sea winter salmon. Whilst numbers of the larger salmon caught have declined, catches of one-sea winter grilse have increased.

For over 30 years, industry critics have argued that the lethal effects of sea lice have caused declines for the west coast salmon stock, yet if grilse catches have increased, they cannot have succumbed to this lethal sea lice infestation. As yet, no-one has explained why this inference is incorrect except to say it cannot be credible because I am an apologist for the industry.

Sooner or later the wild fish sector will have to acknowledge that the claims they make about salmon farming cannot be substantiated, but such claims have become part of the accepted narrative and may take some time to renounce. Meanwhile, they cannot be selective, only promoting the parts of the science that support their claims, nor can they dismiss the science they don’t like with claims that it was commissioned or written by people connected to the industry.

In the case of this new paper, the research is not about salmon farming, but the changes that have occurred naturally in the population of wild fish; changes that can be traced back to 1740. In their haste to dismiss this research, critics are also dismissing the past research of their contemporaries. This just goes to show how much their view of salmon farming has blinkered their attitude to the wild salmon they claim to want to protect.

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