Action speaks louder than words.

In a tribute to Orri Vigfússon on an earlier Update we looked at the challenges for the North Atlantic Salmon – issues around sea lice infestation, disease and viral infection, genetic degradation, and displacement. For Orri words were never enough.

Orri’s action was to buyout commercial nets to try and reduce the pressure on the migratory salmon – salmon don’t respect borders, and know nothing of national territorial waters. Dreamstore will continue to support Orri’s legacy, which has been perpetuated with the support of the Grassy Creek Foundation though the North Atlantic Salmon Fund.

Realistically, buying out nets alone would not be sufficient to make an enormous difference to the North Atlantic Salmon, but that tribute to Orri at the end of 2017 started with the positive news that Norway would halt the development of open sea salmon farms, noting that:

“… it cost the industry 15 billion NOK to combat sea lice last year and it had not been possible to overcome their negative effects of the farm on the environment.”

This, however, leaves the impact of open sea farms on the environment, and not least on wild salmon, unresolved. At the same time, finally, action seems to be taking the place of talking. Elsewhere, action has been more striking.

Robust response in Washington State

In response to some serious sea farm failures, others seem willing to take robust action.

In Washington State, the legislature has made a decision that will in time end open sea farming, by 2025.

“The legislation to phase out Atlantic salmon net-pen farming was the result of an escape last August from Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s Atlantic salmon farm at Cypress Island, where as many as 263,000 fish were released into the Salish Sea. The incident ignited controversy over the industry.”

“Cooke initially told the public and its regulators the incident was just a small release of fish, and primarily a business loss for the company, caused by unusually high tides coincident with the solar eclipse the same week. Three state agencies in a four-month investigation found the escape actually was due solely to Cooke’s negligence, and that the company had misled the public about the size and cause of the escape.”

“Cooke’s Washington operations are already facing reduction by administrative action. Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has terminated two of the company’s leases, at Port Angeles and Cypress Island because of violations by Cooke. The company is fighting the Port Angeles termination in court.”

“While always controversial, the question of whether to retain Atlantic salmon farming in Washington has taken on a new urgency as Puget Sound and its federally listed species — including native Pacific salmon — struggle for survival. Many fear the state’s identity as a place of wild salmon is slipping away.”

In Sweden, impact on environment is taken seriously

In Sweden, interpretation by the Supreme Environmental Court has taken interpretation in respect of the EU Water Framework Directive in respect to projects where there might be ‘deterioration’ of water quality to rule that three open sea farms will close within three years and elsewhere farming will be reduced.  Time will tell whether this ruling might have longer term consequences for open sea cage farming in Sweden.

Significant investment in onshore fish farms has picked up pace

Some fish farming businesses seem to have decided that the direction of travel suggests moving onshore, with one scheme in Florida aiming to produce up to 10 percent of the USA demand for salmon by 2027. This seems to be the most ambitious of a number of plans for onshore fish farm development in the USA that could satisfy up to 20 percent of the USA market, and extend to Europe.

Meanwhile the UK talks, and talks some more

The nature of water contamination by an open sea farming cage is perhaps best exemplified in the recent disclosure that: ‘One fish farm produces waste equivalent to ‘all of Scotland’s west coast towns’

Dr Richard Luxmoore, senior nature conservation adviser at the National Trust for Scotland, said a moderately-sized farm dumped the same amount of sewage as a town twice the size of Oban. He told a Holyrood committee:

“A single fish farm, which currently has a maximum size at the moment of 2,500 tonnes, produces the sewage equivalent of a town twice the size of Oban.

Rightly he pointed out (Update emphasis):

“… you’re not allowed to discharge waste from a single septic tank into the sea without it being treated. And if you were to suggest building two Obans somewhere in the Sound of Mull, saying, ‘Is it alright if we just chuck the sewage straight in the sea?’, you would get very short shrift over it. But somehow putting a new fish farm in seems to be exempt from a lot of these issues.”

He added that there was little regulation over the deadly chemicals used by fish farms – with some, including hydrogen peroxide, used in increasing quantities.

While open sea fish farms may not be the only, or greatest, threat to wild salmon there is clearly a growing and vocal concern on the general impact on the environment. The response to that concern is mixed, though seems headed towards much stricter and more readily enforceable regulation or exclusion. Perhaps.

While many anglers already practice catch and release anyway, the announcement that from April 2018 this would be policy on 122 of Scotland’s 171 salmon rivers has been greeted with little enthusiasm (£). That may be down to anglers feeling that while happy to do their bit for conservation, action in respect to sea farming hasn’t been to the fore of Scottish Government policy. Change in that respect seems slow.

A report on the “Environmental impacts of salmon farming”  in respect of the marine environment has been forwarded from Holyrood’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee (ECCLR) to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee (REC) which is to look at “Salmon Farming in Scotland”, taking evidence to end of May or thereabouts; and finalising a report, eventually….

The status quo is not an option

Meantime here are the two final recommendations from Holyrood’s ECCLR Committee’s report:

  • The Committee is supportive of aquaculture, but further development and expansion must be on the basis of a precautionary approach and must be based on resolving the environmental problems. The status quo is not an option.
  • The current consenting and regulatory framework, including the approach to sanctions and enforcement, is inadequate to address the environmental issues. The Committee is not convinced the sector is being regulated sufficiently, or regulated sufficiently effectively. This needs to be addressed urgently because further expansion must be on an environmentally sustainable basis.

Hardly new. Here is a 2008 House of Commons research paper on Fish Farming.

Even the ECCLR noted in summary that:

  • It is clear to the Committee that the same set of concerns regarding the environmental impact of salmon farming exist now as in 2002.

The issues are known, and have been for more than over a decade – and then open sea cage farming was at nothing like the scale it is today. It is well past the time to take some action on addressing those issues. More talking isn’t going to save a single salmon. Orri took action, and anglers observing catch and release will make a difference too. All that will be for nothing without attention to the increasing evidence of the environmental impact of open sea farming.

If Michael Gove wishes the UK to lead the world on environmental standards post-Brexit, in places he has some catching up to do –  leadership on cleaner seas and improving the potential for North Altantic Salmon sustainability is currently found elsewhere.