Not just another escape

As a moderate late summer storm abated, rumours that one of Mowi’s salmon farms between the Mull of Kintyre and Arran was in trouble were confirmed by a statement from the company:

“On August 20, 2020, Mowi’s salmon farm at Carradale North, consisting of 10 circular net pens containing 550,000 salmon (at 4.2kgs), shifted position after its seabed anchors became dislodged during Storm Ellen that has hit the UK and Ireland. The company’s priority at this time is to secure the fish cages in place until Storm Ellen subsides, and to safeguard staff, contractors and fish stock”.

Soon thereafter dramatic aerial pictures, showing that one of the farm’s circular cages was severely buckled, dominated both broadcast and print media coverage. The images made a mockery of the claim advanced in an ingratiating article about the Carradale farm in the local Campbeltown newspaper two months earlier that new “robust anchoring” renders “the pens more stable and better suited to withstand the most extreme weather”.

The damage to the farm allowed some 48,000 large salmon to escape. When it comes to escapes, the Carradale farm has form, having “lost” 16,000 immature fish in 2015. Mowi’s recent record elsewhere in the region is suspect; 73,000 salmon escaped from its farm off Colonsay in January this year. What differentiates this latest escape is the fact that the fish were mature and they entered the wider marine environment just at the time of year when they are predisposed to run into rivers alongside wild salmon

Sure enough, within days large numbers of flabby farmed salmon were showing up in west Scotland rivers, notably in the Firth of Clyde (the Leven) and Ayrshire. These fish dominated rod catches, an indication that they will likely greatly outnumber wild fish on the spawning redds. Mowi’s position statement that it “continues to engage with local and national wild fisheries groups to monitor and assess the presence or absence of salmonid genetic introgression” is essentially meaningless. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, with farmed salmon of Norwegian origin (alien fish to Scottish rivers) seriously threatening the vital genetic integrity of our already depleted native wild salmon strains. Imagine, if you will, wild wolves interbreeding with poodles and consequently the fitness of the offspring.

It is not currently illegal for a salmon farming company to have an escape in Scotland, so Scottish Government will not intervene. Contrast this with Chile where Mowi has just been fined $6.7 million following a major escape there in 2018.

Indeed, Mowi Scotland is somewhat blasé and on record as recognising that escapes are inevitable (and viewed as just another business expense). In response to the Carradale escape, Ian Roberts, a director at Mowi Scotland, responded thus: "To lose 48,000 fish is extremely disappointing and obviously hits you financially as well... But in the history of salmon farming and... moving into locations that are very high in energy and difficult to farm unfortunately, we have these incidents… it has happened before and it will happen in the future again…."

In these circumstances the only remedy likely to cause Mowi to redouble efforts to retain its stocks within their cages is legal action for damages by District Salmon Fishery Boards and/or their representative body Fisheries Management Scotland (FMS). To date the response by the latter has been muted with no outright condemnation of the escape; they have simply issued advice that the farmed fish should be killed and scale samples taken. Some Boards in the affected area are now looking for FMS to take the lead with robust action.

Considerable numbers of farmed salmon are now also showing up in the rivers of north-west England. There is a growing clamour on the ground for the relevant authorities to instigate appropriate legal action against those responsible. Obviously, no-one can bring a case without the necessary evidence – in this case sample fish. Initially anglers were given the bonkers instruction to release any farmed fish back into the water! Fortunately, this has now been rescinded, at least on the Cumbrian rivers, with the Environment Agency advising that “farmed salmon may be taken and killed” and reported accordingly.