Originally created 10/25/98

Salmon in danger in Scottish Highlands



OBAN, Scotland -- There's been a farm called Raera since 1294, and a river long before that, filled with salmon that have jumped the rapids and waterfalls since the last Ice Age to swim upstream and spawn.

Once, the "king of fish" was so commonplace in the Euchar River that Raera's landlords promised not to feed salmon to farm laborers more than three times a week.

Now, as Raera owner Jeremy Inglis walks the banks of his isolated river in the Scottish Highlands, he and others fear the wild salmon that attracted anglers from throughout the world are heading for extinction.

"This is an environmental disaster," Inglis says. "Salmon was one of the glories of Scotland."

The river's problem isn't its purity. The water -- which is the color of clear, well-brewed tea, thanks to the peat it absorbs as a mountain stream -- is "pristine," Inglis says.

He blames the problem on the fish farm a half-mile downriver in Loch Fyne, which Inglis says produces multitudes of sea lice parasites that live on the farmed fish and kill salmon when they swim through to the Euchar.

"We had a total catch of two salmon last year," Inglis says. "We used to produce between 50 to 100 a year."

Amid some of Europe's most spectacular countryside, a bitter battle is raging between fish farmers and the river owners and sportsmen worried about saving the remaining wild salmon.

Anglers groups say the fish farms are destroying not only Scotland's wild salmon stocks but also its sea trout. In addition to problems caused by sea lice, they blame chemical treatments used to kill the lice and pollution from the excrement produced by farmed fish.

"There's an almost certain link between fish farming and the decline in western Scotland of migratory fish stocks," said Paul Knight, spokesman for the Salmon and Trout Association, an anglers group.

Fish farmers deny they are to blame.

"In terms of statistics, this decline goes back to 1952. The salmon industry in Scotland did not get going until the 1980s," said William Crowe, spokesman for the Scottish Salmon Growers Association.

The commercial operations produce the Scottish salmon and smoked salmon that sell in supermarkets worldwide -- competing with farmed salmon from countries like the United States, Norway, Ireland, Chile and Canada.

Supporters note the farms have lowered the price of salmon -- once the preserve of the wealthy -- so much that it now is cheaper than many less glamorous fish.

The farms also have created jobs where there were few before. Fish farmers say about 6,000 jobs; opponents say about 1,100.

From the surface, all that is visible of Scotland's 340 fish farms -- located mainly along the northwestern coast -- are large metal hoops and the walkways connecting them to river and loch banks. Below the water, thousands of fish swim in packed cages held in place by the hoops.

While game records, some 100 years old, clearly show that catches for both salmon and sea trout are well down on Scotland's rivers, there are many possible reasons besides fish farms, experts say.

Commercial overfishing, a tripling of the fish-eating seal population in the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, and pollution at sea are all cited as factors in the decline of salmon and sea trout, both around Scotland and off the coasts of Norway, the United States and Canada.

Successive British governments committed support to the growth of salmon farming, seeing the industry as a generator of jobs for the sparsely populated Scottish Highlands. Anglers initially welcomed the development, hoping cheap salmon would kill off poaching.

But the dream that the farms could be developed by the Highland's poor tenant farmers proved an illusion because they didn't have the capital. The industry is now largely owned by British and Norwegian multinational companies.

Scientists employed by the government decline to discuss the fish stock problem, citing governmental reluctance to let them talk in public since a senior scientist said on television last year that fish farms were killing off wild salmon and trout.

"Immense damage is being done to wildlife, and it is being protected by the authorities," said Walter Semple, a Glasgow-based lawyer who is working with riverbank owners who are considering suing fish farmers.

Semple's brother, Jim, said that when he fished along the family's 2 1/2 -mile stretch of bank on the river Shiel as a child, the season's annual sea trout catch would reach 2,000.

"This season, we have had nine," he said. As a result, he said, the value of the riverbank has collapsed.

Mark Vincent used to employ 10 "gillies," or fishing guides, at his Loch Maree Hotel, a former fishing lodge famous both for its sea trout catch and a visit by Queen Victoria last century.

On a tour around the loch, via the island with the Viking graves on it, Vincent shows the shallows where the fish used to be plentiful. But in the past few years, the sea trout catch has all but disappeared and he has let nine guides go.

Vincent blames two fish farms in neighboring Loch Ewe.

"We know the problem is sea lice, because we are catching fish with hundreds of sea lice on them with their fins eaten," he said.

David Windmill, managing director of Marine Harvest McConnell, the company that owns the farms in Loch Ewe, concedes sea lice have "had an impact on fish stocks." But he disputes that the fish farms triggered the collapse in salmon and sea trout populations.

The farms have become targets of angler's anger because, unlike acid rain or sea pollution, they "are a visible case to point the finger at," Windmill said.

Regardless of who is to blame, the real "big fish" -- the fishing enthusiasts who came and spent thousands -- have taken their business elsewhere.

"The rich foreigners, the parties of Wall Streeters -- that market has long gone," said Mark Farrer, a landowner whose River Dionard in the northernmost tip of Scotland still manages to produce a few fish a year.

Wealthy sportsmen now prefer to fish in Iceland and Argentina, where stocks are still plentiful and a good catch guaranteed.

Farrer, who started to fish "aged 5 with a worm and a bent pin," said Scotland is losing one of its great natural assets.

"The message Scotland is sending is: Will the guy who catches the last salmon turn out the lights?"