Is Scottish Salmon Really Sustainable? Wildlife activists say no

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“Scottish smoked salmon” – three words that are synonymous with Christmas for many people. In recent years, a fourth word “sustainable” has often been added to packaging, but does it deserve this label?

The foodstuff has been marketed in a myth, conjuring up images of mist-soaked sea lochs and babbling burns. Scotland is still beautiful of course, but the fish on your plate has never jumped much upstream.

If you’ve been to the Highlands and Islands and spotted a fish farm hovering over the surface of the loch, some sort of reverse spell is at work – the idea that these inconspicuous circles are a stylish portal to another world: the supermarket. .

Reality, as those who live nearby know, is much messier, more cruel, and can be dangerous.

It’s a reasonable instinct to want salmon on your Christmas table. Like a satsuma in a stocking, a side of cabbage or a box of chocolates, a smoked salmon breakfast is a tradition handed down in many homes across Europe.

But for such a clearly conditioned export, do you really know where the salmon comes from?

Salmon “choke to death” because of disease

Two summers ago, marine biologist David Ainsley was taking a boat full of tourists around Loch Sunart on one of his wildlife trips, when they noticed a colossal stench coming from a fish farm.

As he guided the boat closer, he could see a barge with a JCB-type shovel on one arm – reaching for the open mesh cage and picking up mounds of dead fish.

An experienced diver, the 64-year-old decided to investigate what was really going on with the salmon. That night he returned to the farm and – after “a cat and mouse game” with the fish farm boat – jumped into the water.

“I’m not an emotional person at all,” he says, “but I got down and there were only hundreds of healthy looking salmon panting to death on the side of the cages.”

Gill disease was the problem here, and it was far from an isolated incident. Net cage farming means that whatever is in the water – the salmon droppings, the nitrogen excreted through their gills, the chemicals used to treat disease – seeps through the entire area. marine ecosystem.

“Fish farming is the biggest polluter of the sea in Scotland,” says award-winning filmmaker John Aitchison.

Chemical seas: the use of pesticides in Scottish salmon farming

As the Scottish salmon industry has taken on its current form – owned mostly by a few Norwegian companies – a rule called an “acceptable area of ​​effect” (AZE) has also relaxed, Ainsley says.

This idea that only a limited area around cages is affected by pollution has been refuted by a number of scientific studies over the years.

Sea lice are ectoparasites – feeding on the tissues and blood of host fish – and they are a huge problem in salmon farming. Industry is tackling the problem by throwing chemicals into cages, but lice have developed resistance over time, leading companies to use increasingly higher amounts of insecticides like benzoate. emamectin.

In 2016, a Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) study found that emamectin caused “substantial and large-scale” reductions in Crabs and lobsters. But it was published in a second report which denied its findings. It appeared that this withdrawal was drafted by reviewers with ties to US drug maker Merck.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) was aware of the company’s involvement but has been dismissed by government and salmon industry officials, The Sunday Herald reported. This is one of the many cases that have led activists to describe the regulator as “toothless”. And emamectin is still used in large quantities by fish farms.

Locals also complained of “blinding headaches” caused by the heavy use of formaldehyde to treat salmon diseases and parasites.

SEPA audited the Kames fish farm in Loch Tralaig and found no evidence that it had violated the conditions of its license regarding formaldehyde.

A spokesperson for the regulator told Euronews Green: “The long-term trend is to reduce reliance on drug treatments and we will continue to work with the industry on innovation in containment, alternatives to it. use of drugs and relocation of sites – with progress underway. in each of these areas.

“I feel like the witness who saw a crime”

Industrial salmon farming has harmed Scotland’s magnificent wildlife in a number of ways. Coastal lochs are important breeding grounds for porpoises, sheltered places where dolphins used to travel too. Ainsley saw fewer cetaceans in areas where Acoustic Deterrent Devices (ADDs) were used by companies to hunt seals from nets.

Wild salmon suffer too, of course, especially when diseased populations escape and mingle with their highly evolved relatives. A farm of half a million people that drifted in a storm last year was “the ecological equivalent of a beached tanker” to wild salmon, wrote activist Corin Smith.

“The Scottish wildlife, under and above the water has been my life,” says Ainsley, who began diving in 1976. of the story. And very few people have dived under fish farms. So I feel like the witness who saw a crime and feels responsible for doing something.

Aitchison, who has filmed films like the BBC’s Planet Earth series, says Atlantic salmon compare to the iconic wild animals they’ve seen all over the world.

Climate change is also impacting cold-water fish like salmon, he explains, but it cannot be controlled quickly enough to protect the species. “We could control the impacts of sea lice and disease on wild salmon here. And we don’t do it as diligently as we should. “

Smoked carrot? Sustainable alternatives to salmon

The good news is that a major recovery effort is underway in Scottish waters. Seawilding, a community-run charity, is one such group that cares about the country’s native species. At Loch Craignish, Danny Renton and co have started a project to reintroduce 1 million oysters – incredible ecosystem engineers who are able to clean almost 40 gallons of seawater a day.

The community also crashes sea ​​grass fields – you can even get involved from afar by to offer someone per square meter for £ 20 (€ 24).

Scotland does not have a monopoly on farming dirty salmon. It was called the “sea ​​battery chicken farming”As far as Tasmania too.

Christmas traditions like turkey and salmon meals put enormous pressure on relatively few species and can prompt irresponsible farming. So expanding your fish options is a good place to start for pescetarians and carnivores. Sardines and mackerel have the fatty taste that we appreciate in salmon.

For vegetarians and vegans there are plenty of alternatives that still put a touch of orange on the table.

Pickled carrot ribbons make a great garnish with cream “cheese” on bagels or blinis, and even watermelon can give the right texture after roasting.

“We want to leave something for the next generation – that’s all about sustainability,” says Ainsley.


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