On a remote stretch of the highlands and islands of Scotland is Cour Bay. The water is submarine-deep and it is silent here except for the sound of gulls and terns and the siren noises of the seal colony. On the evening of August 20, the winds picked up from the south and a storm blew across this Kintyre peninsula.
Harry Nickerson, a former commander of the Scots Guards who farms 3,000 acres of this stretch, watched the wind whip up the waves as he stood behind the rattling windows of his family’s ramshackle Arts and Crafts house. He checked the sheep and judged they would tough it out. Nickerson, who served in Iraq and whose grandfather won the Victoria Cross, is not easily spooked.
Further up the peninsula in his Argyll cottage, the Bafta-winning nature documentary-maker John Aitchison was also watching the storm. He has worked with Sir David Attenborough and filmed around the world, but settled here more than 25 years ago because he fell in love with the otters. He remembers the wind on the night of August 20, but says otherwise the storm was remarkable only for being unseasonal.
Nicola Sturgeon, pictured, believes fish farming could provide an excellent source of revenue for an Independent Scotland, now that oil revenues are less attractive
Climate change and more violent storms are threatening wild Atlantic salmon, pictured, who might inadvertently breed with escaped farmed salmon who break out of their cages in storms
Some 50,000 farmed salmon recently escaped from a fish farm in Cour Bay in Kilbrannan Sound in Scotland during Storm Ellen
He reckoned it was force eight: ‘It was a storm, but it was not a once-in-50-years storm.’
Yet Storm Ellen, as it became known, created a natural calamity.
South of Cour, in Kilbrannan Sound, is a little harbour called Carradale. Located there is an open-sea salmon farm, and in the rough waters it came adrift. Four of the ten cages slipped their moorings and about 50,000 salmon escaped into the path of migrating Atlantic wild salmon.
Mowi, the farm’s Norwegian owner, said the storm had been an extraordinary event and that the farm was secured again within a couple of days.
Aitchison, 54, is not convinced by such attempts at reassurance. He fears these beautiful, remote waters will become polluted by faecal waste and chemicals from the farms and is worried about problems caused by escaping fish.
The truth is Kilbrannan Sound has become a symbol of our insatiable appetite for salmon, for the Scottish Government’s route to independence and of the potential harm to that noblest of fish – wild Atlantic salmon.
The effect of the escaped salmon mixing with wild salmon in open waters is unknown, but evidence from Norway suggests it can threaten wild populations. In fact, environmental researchers say the consequences of farmed salmon breeding with wild ones is the worst threat they face, and a recent study shows wild salmon with farm genes in them change size and appearance.
The mixing of the breeds is distasteful at best and tragic at worst. A report for a Scottish parliamentary inquiry stated: ‘Escapes average about 146,000 per year, less than half of one per cent of the 30 million or more salmon harvested each year. However, this number equates very roughly to about half the total numbers of adult salmon in Scottish rivers.’
The cause of escape or injury may be holes in nets, human error or storms. And global warming means that storms are likely to become more frequent.
This is the time of year the salmon return from their extraordinary journey across the ocean to their breeding ground. Sir David describes Atlantic wild salmon as the ‘king of fish’, and, indeed, it is the fish of kings. The salmon of Kintyre, while at sea, quite rightly come under the jurisdiction of the Crown Estate.
Aitchison has filmed them, and his eyes glisten at the thought of how they swim thousands of miles back to Scotland every year, often jumping up weirs and waterfalls to get to the gravel-bottomed headwaters where they breed. He says: ‘They go to the most unimaginable place and come back. They sum up the wilderness. They are so streamlined and athletic, with beautifully formed fins.’
Many anglers, too, respect salmon above all other fish; their size and their strength and the way they fight back, thrashing against the water.
However, since the 1970s, large salmon have declined by up to 88 per cent, according to the conservation group Missing Salmon Alliance.
Prince Charles last year gave a melancholy message, saying: ‘The very future of a species that has been swimming in our oceans and seas for over six million years will be in jeopardy. We simply cannot allow this to happen in our lifetime.’
As wild Atlantic salmon numbers have declined, though, the supply of farmed salmon has grown, but still it is not enough to meet consumer demand. Britons eat a million meals of salmon a day and a million meals a week of smoked salmon. Scotland is the world’s third-largest producer of farmed salmon, behind Norway and Chile. What was once a rare delicacy is now almost as cheap as mince.
Not surprisingly, the Scottish Government is delighted by its export market. Whisky and salmon are national symbols, and the so-called ‘blue economy’ – based on stewardship of the seas – could be a route to independence as North Sea oil income falls. Indeed, with salmon dubbed the ‘new oil’, Nicola Sturgeon’s Government is determined to double the value of farmed salmon by 2030.
The Scottish Government is delighted by its export market. Whisky and salmon are national symbols, and the so-called ‘blue economy’ – based on stewardship of the seas – could be a route to independence as North Sea oil income falls. Indeed, with salmon dubbed the ‘new oil’, Nicola Sturgeon’s Government is determined to double the value of farmed salmon by 2030
Weeks after the Carradale farm disaster, Mowi applied for permission for a new fish farm at Cour Bay. It is modelled on the same design: floating net cages with hoses that shoot feed pellets from a central barge.
Harry Nickerson expects the proposal to be approved. He notes ruefully that Magnus Barefoot, the King of Norway, conquered the isles in the 11th Century and that Norwegian expansion into the area seems likely to continue. The Mull of Kintyre, celebrated in song by Paul McCartney, is set to be a hub of multinational farmed salmon. ‘The peninsula is even shaped like Norway,’ says Nickerson.
Aitchison and I wander down over the rocks to look at the site. With a mop of grey hair and the patient manner of someone accustomed to spending long hours observing wildlife, he points out otter tracks and we watch seals flop on to the rocks. Behind us, the mist rolls off the sheep fields and the sun turns the bracken gold. It is a gloriously bright day.
Aitchison’s gentleness makes his indignation about the increase in the number of salmon farms all the more striking. He is concerned that too many salmon die in the cages, which he believes are incubators of disease and particularly of sea lice – a crustacean that feeds on the fishes’ mucus, skin and blood. If smolts – junior wild salmon – swim through clouds of sea lice while making their way from the rivers into the open sea in the spring, they risk being attacked and, eventually, destroyed.
Aitchison took part in a Scottish parliamentary inquiry two years ago which resulted in an environmental report that raised concerns about the farms. The Rural Economy Committee stated: ‘There has been a lack of progress in tackling many of the key issues previously identified and unacceptable levels of mortality persist. The planned expansion of the industry over the next ten to 15 years will place huge pressure on the environment.’ It concluded: ‘The status quo is not an option.’
There is something else, potentially more serious, which Aitchison has exposed. Through a Freedom of Information request, he uncovered a document from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency which said: ‘Fish farming is unique in that it is a sector which is allowed to discharge substantial quantities of biocides.’ Biocides are products used against pests and bacteria, and often contain hazardous chemicals. According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, 11 such substances were on an old EU ‘dangerous substances directive’.
Aitchison also highlights a statement from the Fish Health Inspectorate of Marine Scotland: ‘Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, there was around 20 per cent mortality of farmed salmon throughout the production cycle. This seems to have increased from 2014 to the present day.’
Aitchison wonders why there is not more public concern, saying: ‘If a fifth of your sheep were dying, you would want to know why.’ He has given up eating salmon until he has an answer.
The documentary-maker is not alone in his fears about toxins going into the sea. On the Isle of Arran, there is a doughty pair of retired scientists who also have salmon farms in their sights. Literally. For John and Sally Campbell look out from their pink house across to Holy Isle, where Irish monks first set foot in Scotland. East of this is a salmon farm.
Sally, an ebullient marine ecologist in her late 70s, is most forthright about her views of farmed salmon: ‘The real problem is that these are not Scottish salmon. They are Norwegian, with lousy tails and poor fins. They taste of fat and slime. Their colour comes from a colour chart. Would you like to choose pink or orange?’ She’s not exaggerating. Fish farms use colour grading charts to check they’ve got the shade right, rather like a decorator choosing paint. They can increase or reduce the salmon’s pinkness with colouring pellets.
More worrying than their nationality is their susceptibility to disease. In order to deal with sea lice, an organophosphate nerve agent called azamethiphos is used. It attacks the lice – but also lobsters and prawns in the vicinity.
Sally is worried about disease and mortality rates, quoting a report for the Edinburgh Parliament which says Scotland’s target of producing 200,000 tons of salmon this year will ‘likely emit organic waste equivalent to that of about half of Scotland’s human population of 5.3 million’.
Her mild-mannered husband John, a chemist by background, interrupts her. He says it is vital we learn the lesson of Covid – that disease spreads in overcrowded places.
‘I think disease will eventually defeat this industry,’ he says. ‘Salmon farming is in a constant battle with disease and, as we know, diseases become resistant to the warfare we practise. So we have to use more chemicals or find different ones. And all this is excreted into the waters.’
He sighs, gazing out at the Clyde. ‘Look at the beauty of these isles. There was once herring, haddock and cod here. We had basking sharks. Now it has become so depleted by dredging and over-fishing.’
Being cold-water fish, salmon are also at risk from rising sea-water temperatures. The Clyde has already warmed by a degree in the past decade.
There is a solution to this, many believe. The farmed salmon cages could be moved from the open sea to inland sites.
The governments in Canada and Denmark are lobbying for a ban on open-sea cages because they are fearful of their wild salmon stocks. Canada’s Prime Minister has vowed to ban such farming in British Columbia by 2025.
But onshore farms use more power and are more expensive to run, and the industry fears that consumer demand for salmon might drop.
Whatever happens, the fact is that the world is being sold a myth about Scottish salmon – that it comes from pristine waters against a backdrop of castles with joyful fish leaping upstream to spawn. That is why Americans and the Chinese particularly love it.
If it were produced in a shed in Wuhan, though, we would think very differently.
No wonder producers are desperate to challenge stories about parasites, disease, pollution and high death rates. The last thing they want is a reputation for battery farming by another name.
As she looks from her Isle of Arran window out at the water, Sally Campbell wipes her hand across her forehead and says with a passion: ‘It is imperative that we all start thinking much more about what we eat.’