Salmon farming has done ‘enormous harm’ to fish and environment, warns Jeremy Paxman

Sarah Knapton
Farmed salmon - WWF

Salmon farming has done ‘enormous harm’ to fish stocks and the environment, Jeremy Paxman has warned, as he called for an overhaul of the industry to protect wildlife.

The presenter, and keen angler, said many fisheries traded on the image that salmon arrived at the table ‘fresh from the wild seas’ when, in reality most has been bred in cramped, filthy cages in the sea.

There are now 250 salmon farms on the western coast of Scotland, but the surge has coincided with a collapse in the number of wild salmon in the area.

Fish cages are mostly sited near the shore, or in estuaries for easy access, but the overcrowded conditions is a breeding ground for sea lice which infect wild fish when the begin migrating from the sea up rivers.

Jeremy Paxman has called for fish farms to be moved inland or further out to sea Credit: Rex Features 

Although consumers are left with their impression their salmon has been caught in wild lochs, the stock are actually kept in 40 metre cages of around 70,000 fish, Paxman warned in an editorial for the Financial Times Weekend section.

“It’s like a series of floating battery hen sheds,” he said. “Salmon has long been sold on the prospect of cleanliness and health. The impression is fraudulent.

“Only a few decades ago you ate Atlantic salmon if you were lucky enough to be a toff, or one of his employees. Not iw is ubiquitous, piled high in supermarket fridges or lying pink and flabby on plates at wedding receptions and awards dinners.

“But when you rear dish in the quantities necessary to meet growing demand, you start playing with the environment. Confining naturally migratory and carnivorous animals in packed pens produces enormous quantities of faeces which covers the seabed beneath. These cages provide ideal breeding grounds for the sea louse.

“Salmon and trout migrating to the sea or returning to their natural rivers to spawn must swim through clouds of sea lice. Salmon farms have done enormous harm.”

Wild salmon stocks are dwindling in Scottish rivers  Credit: Rex Features

By 2015 the Scottish salmon industry was producing nearly 180,000 tons of salmon and hopes to double production by 2030.

But Salmon & Trout Conservation UK (S&TC UK) say the upsurge has come at ‘considerable environmental cost,’ by triggering a huge surge in sea lice which are threatening trout as well as salmon.

The numbers of the parasites are frequently over the industry’s recommended Code of Good Practice threshold for treatment.

Research by leading fisheries charity S&TC UK indicates that there are some 120 salmon farms in Scotland within regions where the industry’s own sea lice figures exceed the recommended threshold limits.

Lice feed by grazing on the surface of the fish, eating the mucous and skin. Large numbers of lice soon cause the loss of fins, severe scarring, secondary infections and, in time, death.

The sea louse problem has led most fisheries needing to add chemicals to cages, which are harmful to the environment, conservationists have warned.

Migrating salmon in the wild  Credit:  Becky Bohrer

This year’s run of salmon in the most closely monitored river in Argyll is on course to be the lowest on record. The salmon count on the River Awe hit an all-time low after 30 weeks of the season. Last year’s total of 807 fish was only slightly above the all-time lowest count. This year it is running at only one third of the 2016 count. 

Andrew Graham-Stewart, Director of Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland (S&TC Scotland), said: “Since the arrival of intensive salmon farming, numbers of mature west Highland sea trout have crashed.

"The decline in wild salmon numbers has not thus far been as extreme but it now appears that in the southern section of the west Highlands the decline is accelerating into a free fall.”

Roger Brook, Chairman of the Argyll District Salmon Fishery Board, said: “The Scottish Government has promoted the continued expansion of the salmon aquaculture industry whilst added to implement adequate control on the siting of farms and the levels of sea lice on the farms.

"We call upon Scottish Government to insist that future farms are sited away from the probable migration routes. The worst existing farms, both in terms of location and lice control, should now be closed.”

Some producers, such as Loch Duart which supplies upmarket restaurants, has started to breed ‘cleaner fish’ such as wrasse which eat the lice, to avoid using chemicals and keep the problem under control.

But Paxman claimed the only way to solve the problem is by moving cages further out to sea where there are stronger currents to clear away the lice, and less chance of them coming into contact with wild salmon.

He added: “The more radical solution is for salmon farming to be on tanks on land, with arrangements for waste disposal.”

However Scottish fisheries are keen not to allow a move onto land, as it means they can no longer use the romantic ‘loch’ association, and could trigger new farms to grow up elsewhere.

“Salmon farming has a political appeal because it seems to offer employment in Highland communities, that have a powerful romantic hold of Scottish identity.

“Once you use land-based systems, why locate them in the Highlands at all. It could be much more economical to build them somewhere near the markets of southern England or the airports supplying exotic destinations.”

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