Salmon farming is on the face of it a godsend to rural communities. Remote sea lochs in the Highlands can, in a relatively short space of time, be transformed into genuinely profitable economic enterprises. This form of aquaculture is easy to implement and it serves a booming market with a high value product which is tasty, healthy and fashionable. It’s the sort of situation that businessmen and politicians dream of being a part of. Indeed, in recent years it has become Scotland’s largest food export and it has been held up by Scottish politicians to be a beacon of light in an otherwise largely faltering economy.
Yet there is a stench that lingers once the hype has ceased to dazzle. Over the last decade it has become increasingly clear that a lot of fish farms have a massively detrimental effect to native salmon and sea trout populations. Essentially this happens for two main reasons. To start with, disease and parasites (like sea lice) boom in areas where fish cages are present. On top of that you have escaped fish breeding with native fish, thus damaging the purity of the gene pools in Scottish rivers.
So what’s the solution? How can people continue to profit financially from salmon whilst leaving our waters in peace? The answer is simple: bring the entire farming process onto land. This may sound odd, but it can be done successfully as the video shows below. If it can be done in a desert then it can be done in Scotland!
The main benefit of this is that the natural ecosystem is left untampered with. As well as that, though, there’s the obvious benefit that production can move nearer to the ports where it is being shipped from anyway. So transport costs decrease and profits increase. The only downside I can see relates to the marketing of the product. You see, it’s a very quaint and serene image of a worker getting in his little boat to go and feed the salmon in a stunning sea loch on the West Coast of Scotland. Indeed, supermarkets like Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have been quick to capitalise on this and these sorts of images have played a big part in elements of their overall marketing which is trying to depict them as champions of the canny and passionate British farmer. By raising the fish in tanks on land the process loses that element of romanticism and it becomes much more clinical, much more industrialised and really much less Scottish. After all, if we could do this next to our big ports in places like Aberdeen, then surely the Chinese and Americans would quickly realise that they could do the same.
Yet that is no excuse to continue trashing our waters. So what if some of the glitter is wiped of the perception of Scottish salmon as it became a land based industry? Well, I imagine that two or three things would happen. Firstly, the amount of salmon being produced would rocket. As light levels can be controlled and as you can have total control as to what is actually in the water, the amount of fish being produced would increase. As the global demand for this wonder product is insatiable, the amount of jobs being created would grow. I genuinely believe that salmon farming could one day be just as important to the Scottish economy as whisky is now (which exports £4.27 billion worth of product annually).
Secondly, salmon angling would thrive once again. The economic impact of this would be huge. Salmon and sea trout fishing brings in at least £74 million into the Scottish economy annually and this would only increase as the quality of the fishing on offer regained the legendary status it once had 70 years ago. Is it presumptuous to say that this would certainly happen? The reality is that it’s not, as we have seen time and time again that when fish farming temporarily stops in an area that the natural fish stocks benefit greatly. Not only do catches increase, but the actual quality of the fish on offer is also noticeably better. What’s so frustrating is that clear evidence just seems to be ignored by government. Perhaps it’s because the socialist SNP misguidedly perceive salmon fishing to be solely the preserve for the rich, or ‘Tory toffs’ as they call them, when in actual fact for the price of a football ticket you can fish for salmon in Scotland. For whatever reason, though, the negatives are being brushed under the carpet, with only token measures taken designed merely to appease growing discontent.
The third thing that could occur as native salmon stocks recover is the reintroduction – albeit on a small scale – of commercial netting (this does still happen in one or two locations). I say small scale with good reason as it would be counter-intuitive to help wild stocks before scooping them all up with nets. I would personally think that those caught in this manner would easily become the premium product in the portfolio of the industry; the ones which sell in the finest restaurants in the world. The romantic element lost in bringing the process on land would be recaptured here. As well as that, the rural cage focused jobs lost to the land based production nearer the big population centres could be reformed to become netting focused. However, in order for this to be considered a reasonable action then stocks would have to be much, much greater than they are now.
Fortunately there are some very good organisations pushing for radical changes. The Atlantic Salmon Association campaign for land based aquaculture, the Salmon & Trout Association also highlights the intrinsic problems with cages and the Atlantic Salmon Trust do the same. Maybe once the independence brouhaha is over then politicians can start acting upon evidence and finally get round to improving our waters. It will also please you to know that some of the profits generated from the sale of Malcolm Mowat's Scottish wool scarves go into supporting these types of organisations.