Zero Nets! Scotland’s coastal communities support calls for pause to fish farm expansion

By James Merrywether, Scottish Salmon Think-Tank

This week the Scotsman reported on a call made by a cross-party group of MSPs (and MPs) for a pause to the expansion of fish farming in Scotland until the long-term sustainability of the industry has been addressed. 

It reminds me of a similar article in the Scotsman on 10th May 1974, which headlined: FISH FARMS HINDERED BY DISEASES AND COST. It went on to report: “In Scotland the expansion of fish farming is being restricted by the fear of major diseases which could wipe out almost overnight …”

The aquaculture industry must have known it had the beginnings of problems then. Yet now, half a century later, it continues to struggle with pests and diseases, reacting as if surprised by each outbreak. Epidemics inevitably infest monocultures, animal stock or crop plants cultivated in huge numbers packed together, raised under unnatural conditions.

What response might we have expected as the lesson sank in? Would it be: “This is going really badly.” or “We must do something about it.”? No. The plan, sanctioned by the Scottish Government, has long been to double production by 2030. The trouble is that, even at pre-growth production levels, farmed salmon die in prodigious numbers and attempts to control the causes of mortality fail catastrophically while having a range of devastating environmental impacts.

During the past decade or so, residents of coastal communities have recognised the problem and formed groups through which to learn about salmon aquaculture and argue competently for its reform. It has seemed like hammering on a locked door until now, when all of a sudden, a significant number of politicians have realised that there is public concern outside the industry, telling a chillingly different story from the claims and denials of the fish farmers.

So, at last, with this unprecedented call for a moratorium on growth of the aquaculture sector, it seems our political representatives are beginning to listen to Scottish coastal communities’ hard-won expert advice.

Having been informed, we hope that the Rural Affairs Secretary, Mairi Gougeon, will also appreciate the desperate state of the situation and the need for reform. This was clearly advised by a 2018 Parliamentary Inquiry, the very plain advice of which seems to have been overlooked ever since. Only we, the public, routinely proclaim the inquiry’s 2018 concluding statement that “The status quo is not an option”.

The salmon farming industry cannot continue allowing annual doubling in fish mortalities, a whopping fifteen million last year, as well as callously sullying Scotland’s once pristine seas. The problems have been acknowledged by the Norwegian, United States, Canadian and other governments where salmon farming in nets at sea is disallowed.

There is a single factor in salmon farming that underpins most of the problems experienced by salmon famers and the natural environment; those cages made of nets which permit the exchange of serious problems in both directions to the intense detriment of a farm, its stock and its surroundings. The answer is straightforward. Convert from sea to land, from nets to tanks. How the industry converts is the responsibility of the industry. It cannot keep ignoring the fact that land-based closed containment salmon farming is proliferating around the world or denying its efficacy.

During its residence in Scotland, salmon farming has barely refined its practices, and then usually for the benefit of the industry, not Scotland. Now Scotland must act to mandate the change in practice that is being imposed upon salmon farming around the world. Conversion is under way, and if the Scottish government’s only vote-catching concern is the jobs aquaculture provides, please ask: what is the difference, land or sea?

Scotland has ambitious objectives for environmental improvement, including the mitigation of climate change. No matter what industry proponents protest, the sea has been and is constantly being harmed by salmon farming.

Now it is time to upgrade salmon farming so that the coastal marine environment may be restored. Our national ambition for Scotland’s coastal seas should be Zero Nets.

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