By Rob Edwards of the Ferret
A £3 billion fish farming multinational in Scotland has been officially reprimanded for animal welfare failures after more than 700,000 caged salmon died over three months.
Norwegian-owned Mowi, formerly known as Marine Harvest, has been criticised by the UK government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) for not protecting lice-eating fish from “suffering and disease” at a west coast salmon farm in the summer.
Between July and September, Mowi had to dispose of 2,600 tonnes of salmon from 12 farms because they had been killed by algal blooms, diseases and poor health. This was twice the expected death rate and cost the company £7.6 million.
Mowi blames warmer than average sea temperatures for the problems. But campaigners accuse fish farms of being “disease-ridden” and are calling on Scottish ministers to end “this appalling tide of suffering”.
Mowi has disclosed that its Bagh Dail nan Ceann salmon farm in Loch Shuna north east of the island of Jura was visited recently by APHA inspectors. In a letter in September 2019, APHA told the company that it had failed to take “adequate actions” between 10 July and 12 August to ensure the welfare of lumpfish.
“Not taking effective decision at earlier date has prolonged the period while the lumpfish still at the site have been in need to be protected from suffering and disease,” APHA said.
Lumpfish are used by fish farmers to eat the lice that can infest caged salmon and damage them. Dead lumpfish at Bagh Dail nan Ceann – which some say translates as ‘Bay of the Dead Heads’ – were filmed on 2 July by the anti-fish farming campaigner, Don Staniford, who then filed a complaint to APHA.
The farm was also criticised in a report by the Scottish Government’s Fish Health Inspectorate after a visit on 26 June. Lumpfish had suffered “issues with mortality increasing with the warmer weather,” the report said.
“This was visible when inspecting the pens as some fish looked very lean, and others with a clear fungal challenge.”
In 2018 The Ferret reported that the Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, had ranked Bagh Dail nan Ceann as one of the worse for animal welfare in Scotland. That was based on an analysis of death rates, overcrowding, lice infestations and other factors in 2017.
On 7 November 2019 the Scottish Environment Protection Agency announced that it was planning to grant Mowi permission to increase the mass of salmon at Bagh Dail nan Ceann from 2,500 tonnes in 10 cages to 3,000 tonnes in 12 cages. Objectors say they will now ask the Scottish Government to intervene to prevent the expansion.
In a report to shareholders, Mowi admitted that mortalities and sea lice levels at farms in Scotland had been higher than usual from July to September. The losses “related to an algal bloom and fish health issues” and cost £7.6 million (€8.8m), compared to £1 million (€1.2m) in the same quarter of 2018.
Ian Roberts, director of communications for Mowi Scotland, told The Ferret: “A total of twelve farm sites were affected with higher than average fish mortality during the third quarter 2019, associated with warmer sea temperatures.
“These 12 sites lost a combined total of 737,000 fish over the three month period, or 2,600 tonnes in weight. This loss accounts for nine per cent of the total fish at these sites – and is unfortunately double the expected fish mortality for this summer period.”
OneKind argued that welfare problems were widespread at fish farms. “This is not just a question of husbandry on any particular site, this is about an industry that simply cannot ensure consistently good welfare or lives worth living for the animals in its care,” said the animal group’s policy advisor, Libby Anderson.
“OneKind calls for immediate Scottish Government action to stem this appalling tide of suffering. Twelve sites with a total of 737,000 salmon dying in just three months is an animal welfare crisis.”
She added: “In this context, the intention of the industry and Scottish Government to double production by 2030 looks increasingly misguided and we continue to call for a moratorium on further expansion.”
Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, which includes anglers, warned that sea lice from salmon farms could infest and kill wild fish. “The Scottish salmon farming industry’s escalating problem with mortalities gives the lie to its mantra that it is operating in harmony with the environment,” said the group’s director, Andrew Graham-Stewart.
“Standards of fish husbandry are clearly questionable. Mowi blames high sea temperatures exacerbating disease issues, yet this was hardly a warm summer in western Scotland.”
He added: “It does nothing for the image of Scotland plc when a high profile economic success story is the transport of salmon farm mortalities – with fleets of trucks criss-crossing the country taking rotting fish for disposal.”
An anti-fish farming campaigner, Corin Smith, described the number of salmon deaths as shocking. “If there were three quarters of a million dead and diseased sheep or cattle lying in fields across Scotland, there would be a national outcry, if not panic,” he said.
“The pile ’em deep, treat ’em cheap culture at this Norwegian salmon farming company risks single handedly trashing the reputation for quality food that Scotland’s own farmers have worked hard to establish over many decades.”
Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch said: “Mowi’s disease-ridden salmon are dead in the water. Mass mortalities are crippling Scottish salmon farming with welfare problems plaguing sites across Scotland.
“Far from promoting expansion the Scottish Government should be closing down poor performing farms and prosecuting companies for breaching the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006.”
Mowi pointed out that it had met with APHA inspectors since their criticisms of lumpfish welfare at Bagh Dail nan Ceann. This was “to ensure fish welfare remains top priority for the company and its employees,” said the company.
“Warm sea temperatures – the second highest annual average recorded in the last decade – have aided in providing ideal growing conditions for harmful algal blooms and has exacerbated health challenges common to salmon.”
Gideon Pringle, Mowi Scotland’s production director, said: “Our farmers are devastated to have lost fish after spending months raising them at their farms, and are doing what they can to protect their fish from this prolonged change to their environment.”
Mowi stressed that it had been helping to alleviate fish stress from high water temperatures. Farmers had provided fish with additional air bubbling where feasible and had harvesting affected crops earlier than scheduled.
“Despite this challenge, the company still plans to harvest guided volumes and remains committed to its open seas site development program at locations best suited for our fish and the local environment,” Pringle added.
The Scottish Government backed “sustainable growth” of the fish farming industry whilst “ensuring the highest standards of animal welfare and environmental protection.” Ministers have supported the industry’s strategy to double its business from £1.8 billion in 2016 to £3.6 billion by 2030.
“We continue to work with parliament, the sector and other key stakeholders to improve fish health through our farmed fish health framework, and ensure that Scottish farmed fish retains its reputation as being amongst the best in the world,” said a government spokesperson.
Photos thanks to Don Staniford. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.