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The Vikings observed this scenery - can they not just leave it alone? A dispute arises on an island regarding the proposal for a salmon farm.
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The Vikings observed this scenery – can they not just leave it alone? A dispute arises on an island regarding the proposal for a salmon farm.


On the small island of Gigha in the Hebrides, which is a 20-minute ferry ride from Tayinloan village on the mainland of Scotland, Marion Stevenson drives along the single main road and highlights the presence of white beaches and newly constructed “wilderness paths.” The Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust has developed 14 miles of these paths to promote eco-tourism. Additionally, a location in the northern portion of the seven-mile-long island has been designated as a “dark sky” site, offering a view of the Milky Way on a cloudless evening.

In the western region, there is a small number of homes, cliffs, and breathtaking sights of the ocean towards Jura and Islay. However, Bakkafrost, a salmon company from the Faroe Islands, intends to place eight 50-meter-wide cages and a feed barge in this area.

Stevenson, the treasurer of Gigha community council, states that the distance to the ocean will be roughly 100 meters as she gestures towards the cliffs below. She clarifies that her words do not represent the views of the council. She questions why the natural view, appreciated by Gigha’s historic Vikings, cannot just be preserved as it is.

The community-owned island situated three miles west of the Kintyre peninsula has benefited from fish farming, providing well-paying jobs and attracting new residents. However, the proposal of Bakkafrost to establish a third farm on this small piece of land has resulted in a divide among the locals.

Even though there was a potential for five new jobs, which is a considerable amount for a population of only 170 people, a community council survey (a mandatory advisor for all planning proposals) showed that 61% of those surveyed were against the farm.

There are worries about the location being considered for the new site on the southern Hebridean island, in the region of Argyll and Bute. These concerns extend beyond just the impact on the scenic view. John Aitchison, who heads the charity Friends of the Sound of Jura, based in Argyll, is concerned that the rising water temperatures may pose a greater danger to the wellbeing of salmon in farms situated in the southern and western areas of Scotland, which is not receiving enough attention.

The man stated that the recent data from the Scottish government regarding survival rates across an entire production cycle to harvest has raised concerns for regional disparities in mortality rates.

According to Aitchison, the mortality rates in the southern and western regions of Scotland were higher than the average, while the northern regions had lower mortality rates. The Western Isles had a mortality rate of nearly 39% in 2020, while the south-western region had a rate of 31%, in comparison to approximately 20% in Orkney and Shetland.

The Isle of Gigha from the airView image in fullscreen

According to him, the discrepancies between the south and north could provide insight into what the future may hold.

Aitchison suggests that the Scottish government should halt the process of approving new salmon farms until they have a plan in place, instead of moving forward without hesitation.

According to Ronnie Soutar, the head of veterinary services at Scottish Sea Farms, the average water temperatures in Scotland have remained above 8C (46.4F) over the past two years. Despite not directly affecting salmon, this has had an impact on other marine life such as pathogens, parasites, and other organisms that may harm the fish. This was discussed during a webinar in January.

Heating oceans lead to the development of large amounts of plankton and micro-jellyfish, also known as hydrozoans. These organisms sting, cut, and clog the gills of fish, resulting in their death or further complications.

Dr Iain Berrill, the head of technical at the industry body Salmon Scotland, rejects the idea that warmer waters could be killing salmon. “Even the abnormally high water temperatures of 2023 are well within the range that Atlantic salmon can thrive in, and warmer waters can even promote faster growth.”

Nevertheless, he admits that the warmth of the waters has a less direct effect. “It is the presence of other organisms, such as algal blooms and micro-jellyfish, that thrive in warmer temperatures and can potentially harm the survival of our salmon.”

Berrill notes that the industry is implementing various strategies such as oxygenation, which involves infusing pure oxygen into the water, and stocking larger fish in the ocean to combat the issue of jellyfish.

Salmon farms on the east side of the Isle of Gigha.

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It is clear why the Scottish government may not want to restrict the expansion of salmon farms. The widespread presence of open-pen salmon farms throughout the sea lochs and rugged coastlines of Scotland’s west and islands is a testament to the success of the aquaculture industry, which is currently the most rapidly growing sector in food production worldwide.

In 2023, farmed salmon from the UK was the leading food export. Over the last ten years, Scotland’s aquaculture industry, worth £1.2bn, has boosted the economy with a 154% increase to £472m, surpassing marine fishing at £321m. Aquaculture is supported by the Scottish government within sustainable bounds and provides jobs to rural areas. It directly employs 2,300 individuals and indirectly supports another 10,000.

Unfortunately, there has been a noticeable increase in mortality rates, causing alarm. Roughly 25% of Scottish salmon do not survive until harvest and information from the Fish Health Inspectorate shows a pattern of predominantly rising death levels in seawater over the past few years, going from slightly over 4 million in 2020 to over 10 million last year.

Advocates mention that Bakkafrost’s salmon operation on Gigha, Druimyeon Bay farm, had the top overall death rate out of all active fish farms in Scotland in 2023, at 82.3%, based on data from the industry. This facility is also located in the southernmost area of Scotland and is known for its salmon production.

Joe Teale, one of the co-owners of the post office and Ardminish Stores on Gigha, recognizes the underwhelming performance of the island’s two Bakkafrost salmon farms lately. However, he believes that they are not the only ones struggling as it is currently a challenging situation for fish farming in the western region of Scotland.

According to him, two groups of employees for fish farms have established residence here within the past two years, and the addition of a third farm would attract even more. He believes that the fish farms have always played a crucial role on this island, just like Jura and Islay are known for their whisky. Our island had a successful halibut farm, which has provided employment for a large portion of households in Gigha.

The renowned onshore fish farm, Gigha Halibut, was compelled to cease operations last year due to increasing expenses for energy production and “ecological difficulties resulting from shifts in climate patterns”.

Tony Philphin and Jayne Millar near their home on the west side of Gigha.View image in fullscreen

Tony Philpin and Jayne Millar, both 70 years old, reside on the western coast of the island. They live in a self-sustaining house that they constructed on land belonging to crofters. Philpin, who used to be a teacher and has experience working on salmon farms on Gigha, claims that the island’s west side is home to a peregrine nest and a porpoise migration site, making it an unsuitable location for a salmon farm.

During the colder months, the wind speed typically ranges from 20 knots. There will be a period of approximately 70 to 90 days where it will not be possible to reach the location. On a fish farm, a single mistake can trigger a series of rapid and unfavorable events.

Various individuals and groups have voiced their opposition to the proposal, currently under review by Argyll and Bute council. This includes Ariane Burgess, Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands, who references the company’s high mortality rate, as well as the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, which argues that the site will negatively impact local fishers, contribute to pollution, and further the spread of sea lice parasites. NatureScot has stated that the project will likely have a notable impact on the harbour porpoise population in the Inner Hebrides and the Minches special area of conservation, but measures can potentially be taken to mitigate these effects.

In 2018, salmon farms had an annual mortality rate of 1.6 million, which was considered too high by a Scottish parliamentary inquiry. The inquiry stated that no expansion should be allowed at sites with high mortality levels unless regulators addressed the issue.

Lobster creel fisher Mark Sheldrake of Tayinloan, Kintyre, Scotland.View image in fullscreen

Mark Sheldrake, a fisherman who catches lobsters, expresses his support for hiring local workers. However, he has reservations about the use of chemicals and the practice of confining salmon in cages.

A representative from Bakkafrost Scotland affirms that the company is dedicated to “hearing and considering input from the local community and relevant parties” and keeping them updated on the advancement of the planning procedures. They stated that they have already addressed the concerns raised by NatureScot and the Clyde Fishermen’s Association. However, they did not provide any explanation for the high mortality rates at their current fish farms.

The company’s representative shared that they are working on creating recirculation aquaculture systems (RAS) to provide the best possible conditions for animal health and growth while in freshwater. This will ultimately lead to less time spent in riskier marine environments, aligned with the company’s sustainability goals.

A representative from the Scottish government stated that individuals interested in establishing a fish or shellfish farm should actively and thoroughly involve the local community, listen to their concerns, and address any questions they may have.

A recent examination of data from the Scottish government suggests that variations in mortality across regions cannot be solely attributed to temperature, and therefore should not be used as a basis for creating policies at a regional level.

The government aims to minimize mortality and is collaborating with the sector, veterinarians, regulators, and other parties to explore the root causes and effects of the climate crisis and find solutions to manage these problems.

The Lochranza Caledonian MacBrayne Calmac ferry arrives on Gigha.View image in fullscreen

Source: theguardian.com