Scottish Salmon: What dead fish I’ve seen tells us something about the sector

The occasional elimination of animals due to disease or gill health problems is a matter of routine. But elsewhere there were signs these fish were part of something extraordinary — a larger, more worrying mortality event.

Last year was a record for mortality across the Scottish salmon industry, with the death toll doubling to 15 million. This year promises to break those records, if the early data is to be believed. June losses were higher than any previous June: 1.46 percent compared to 1.33 percent in June 2022 and 0.54 percent in June 2018.

Conservation group WildFish recently pointed out that more than 5.6 million salmon have died on Scottish farms so far this year, 1.6 million more than in the same period last year.

HeraldScotland: Vicky Allan on the cliffs of Ulva overlooking Geasgill

Vicky Allan on the cliffs overlooking Geasgill Salmon Farm

What brought me to the Isle of Ulva and Geasgill farm was the veteran anti-salmon farm activist behind the campaign group Scamon Scotland, Don Staniford, who invited me after local intelligence indicated he was suffering from a high mortality rate suffered.

“A local said there was an extraordinary mass mortality rate,” Mr Staniford told me. “Last year, 2022, was the worst on record for mortality rates across the salmon industry.” In 2023, with rising summer temperatures and jellyfish blooms, it looks like things could get even worse. What we’re seeing on the ground suggests we’re seeing the beginning of it.”

I met this local source and spoke to him although he declined to be named as the issue is so sensitive on the island where salmon farming provides many jobs (500 direct jobs across the Argyll and Bute region).

The source said: “I had noticed that there was very unusual activity in Geasgill. Then I heard workers talking about a very high mortality rate on the site. I’ve heard it’s looking bad in the face of diseases, lice and jellyfish.”

From the cliffs on Ulva we watched boats of various sizes maneuvering around the farm. One, little red Naomi Jennifer, floated by one of the pens while her crane tossed a braille net into the water and then brought up its load of dead salmon before turning and dumping them into containers. What struck me was how big the fish were; now just a waste.

Another larger ship, the Ronja Star, a so-called ‘well boat’, ran the fish through a hydrolicer, whereupon they were spit back out into the bays.

Footage filmed by a drone cameraman offered a close-up of the aftermath of the treatment: dead salmon floated to the surface, were fished out by a staff member and thrown into a container.

“They call them good boats, but they’re really sick boats,” Mr Staniford said. “It’s an ambulance. And I call the Bakkanes ‘the boat of death’.”

Not long after my arrival, the Bakkanes left the site after visiting for over five days. A 2021 Fish Health Inspectorate report described this boat as carrying a “hydrolicer” as well as a “macerator/ensiler” (a dead fish processing system) and noted that it could hold “1,000 cube morts”.

WATCH: Vicky Allan visits a salmon farm on Mull – and sees bodies

It wouldn’t be the first time deaths have plagued a farm now owned by Bakkafrost. In 2019 Faroese company bought The Scottish Salmon Company, which has one of the worst records in Scotland – with the highest cumulative mortality rate of any salmon company between September 2021 and September 2022. At the Druimyeon site the mortality rate was 82.1% in 2021, in East Tarbert at 80.2%.

“Nevertheless,” Mr Staniford pointed out, “Bakkafrost is RSPCA-safe.”

Even Bakkafrost does not call 2023 a record year. Last week the company presented its financial results for the first half of 2023, including coverage of forecasts in Scotland, where mortality figures rose at the end of the second quarter of 2023 and into the third quarter after a good start.

I interviewed the company’s CEO, Regin Jacobsen, and he admitted that there had been serious problems, not only at Geasgill but at two other farms as well.

“As you know,” he said, “we acquired the Scottish Salmon Company back at the end of 2019. We saw that the company’s activities were severely underinvested and we committed to doing everything we could to improve the level of activity at the same level as in the Faroe Islands. However, this requires high investments. We had a number of issues to deal with in Scotland. Unfortunately it takes time to change it.”

“What we’re seeing right now is mostly jellyfish swarming in huge swarms, or blooms. They come with the tide. It seems that certain locations are more vulnerable than others, and there is also a common factor: if the salmon are in the sea for a very long time, say two years, they become more vulnerable after the second summer. We have three sites that have been hit – Geasgill is one of them – and what these three sites have in common is that this is the second time the fish have been there.”

The jellyfish species that cause this problem are less than 1 cm in diameter. One of the ways they affect the health of salmon is believed to be by passing through and burning the fish’s gills as they breathe.

WATCH: Drone footage filmed by activists at Geasgill Farm

READ MORE: Why tiny jellyfish are such a huge threat to salmon farming

For five days Don Staniford watched the pens at Geasgill, visiting them by kayak and also looking down on them from the cliffs. Once he watched three of these large nets full of dead fish being ripped out in just twenty minutes.

It was a place he had visited before and seen jellyfish. Mr Staniford also recently shot viral video of what he calls a ‘zombie salmon’ at another Bakkafrost farm in Portree. The fish was missing such large pieces of flesh that it hardly seemed possible that it would still be able to swim.

Although there have been some serious deaths in Bakkafrost in recent years, they are not the only ones. On its website, Salmon Scotland puts the annual industry-wide mortality rate at 14.5%, a figure put to the Scottish Parliament in 2020. But the situation has worsened, and indeed the current annual mortality rates are closer to 23 percent based on numbers the panel has released over the past two years, and 25 percent if we only consider figures for the 12 months leading up to June 2023.

Bakkafrost isn’t the only one who has downgraded his crop forecasts for this year. The Norwegian company Scottish Sea Farms also reduced its estimated crop volume for 2023 by more than a quarter due to “biological problems”.

In any form of farming, some fatalities are inevitable. What is striking, however, is how much higher the mortality rate is in salmon farms than in any other sector.

It is not easy to make direct comparisons. Prices vary and are often broken down differently. However, data compiled by Compassion in World Farming shows that the mortality rate is much lower in hens and hens in general: around 5% in hens raised for meat, and 3-4% in hens. Most pig deaths occur in the pre-weaning period. Later, the “final mortality” is only 3%. In the UK the rate in dairy calves under the age of three months is 6%.

A spokesman for Compassion in World Farming said: “It is important to note that salmon mortality rates are usually only given from the moment they are put into the sea – early mortality rates are not taken into account.” This life stage is where mortality on land farms is tends to be low, falling nowhere near the 25% found on salmon farms.”

With mortality rates this high, the salmon industry is already experimenting with new methods.

HeraldScotland: Bakkafrost's Geasgill salmon farm with boats tending to mortals

Tavish Scott, Managing Director of Salmon Scotland said: “Scotland’s salmon farmers have been open and transparent about the challenge we face from sea warming which is likely to impact survival rates in the coming months.” As has everyone else Farmers, our salmon farmers work hard every day to offer the very best conditions for the fish they look after.

“With one of the lowest carbon footprints of any animal protein, Scottish salmon can help feed a growing world population in a climate-friendly way.”

“One thing that could make a big difference would be reducing the time salmon spend at sea. Instead of two years in the sea, “One Summer Salmon” would shorten the time it takes for salmon to reach harvest size.

“Our members are working on a range of initiatives to address the risks posed by climate change that will ensure a bright future for the internationally important Scottish salmon sector in the decades to come.”

READ MORE: A visit to a Scottish salmon farm. Haunted by mortals and jellyfish

READ MORE: Scottish salmon farms fail to control lice, report says

Bakkafrost also believes that a summer fish is the answer – and has already invested in a hatchery in Applecross to that end.

The company has observed that most problems with fish occur during their second summer at sea. Therefore, according to Jacobsen, one of the most important initiatives is “to breed freshwater fish larger in closed systems on land before they are released into the sea”.

However, the monthly mortality report for September 2022 published by Salmon Scotland indicates that Geasgill was only stocked in September last year and that although the fish were housed there at the end of the summer they have been at the site for less than a year.

Not every business is on the brink of death. But overall, the data tells a story, and when I get a glimpse of what they visually represent, as I did, in the form of containers of dead fish in Geasgill, the reality becomes clear.

How many one-ton tons, I wondered, would cross-industry deaths fill this year if the trend continues? I would estimate at least 55,000.

MSP Edward Mountain estimated that the 30,000 tons of fish dying on fish farms in 2021, if loaded into trucks, would “stretch almost 11 miles of articulated lorries of dead fish.” Last year, that queue would have stretched almost doubled. Will we see 20 miles or more this year?

This is a sector whose sustainability is seriously challenged. Whether one in four or one in five Scottish farmed salmon ends up this way, whether it’s this year’s numbers or not, such waste cannot continue.

Grace Reader

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