THE SCOTTISH government has denied it is planning a public relations offensive to conceal the scale of disease and death on salmon farms throughout the country with a new website due to be launched in August.
The charges come from anti-salmon farming activist Don Staniford, who says he has published “dirty data” showing that more than two million farmed salmon have died in Shetland waters alone over the past 18 months.
Official figures released to Mr Staniford’s campaign group Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture (GAAIA) show that Shetland’s biggest fish farm operators Grieg Seafood Hjaltland (GSH) suffered deaths of more than 1.5 million salmon in 2011, and almost 500,000 in the first three months of this year.
Meridian Salmon, who own fish farms in Shetland and Orkney, admitted that in May 2011 they lost around 260,000 salmon smolts destined for the Djuba Wick site, off the isle of Yell.
GSH managing director Michael Stark said their losses were regrettable and caused by a variety of factors, the worst being seals.
Mr Stark said: “Over three quarters of the losses are due to natural mortality during the life cycle, transfer from freshwater to seawater, naturally-occurring algal blooms, swarms of jellyfish, 100 mph storms and depleted oxygen levels caused by weather events.
“However, by far the largest single contributor has been the damage from seal attacks.”
Meridian director Paul Irving said their fish were 15 months old and six inches long when they died while being transported on well boats from fresh water to the sea off Shetland.
“Transferring smolts is a meticulously planned process. We have a very short window to get it exactly right as the smoltification process takes place,” he said.
Meridian reared more than 9.4 million smolts in 2011 and the number that had died represented a loss of 2.8 per cent. “Everyone in the company felt this loss. It really was a bitter blow for all of us,” the firm said.
Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation secretary David Sandison said that 30 per cent of the 80 million salmon reared in Scotland were grown in Shetland.
He described Mr Staniford’s allegations as “mischievous” and designed to increase opposition to the industry.
The English-born activist was recently deported from Canada for overstaying his visa after he was taken to court twice by Norwegian salmon firms accusing him of defamation. He won one case on appeal, the other outcome of the other is still pending.
Now based in Bergen, Norway, Mr Staniford said: “The facts speak for themselves. Salmon farming in Scotland is ridden with infectious diseases, sea lice infestation and dead seals.
“And Shetland salmon is scraping the bottom of that dirty rotten barrel. The shameful history of Shetland salmon farming is littered with cases of illegal chemical use, the killing of seals and the spread of deadly diseases.”
He added that the Scottish government’s new aquaculture website was a “ham-fisted attempt to greenwash the Scottish salmon farming industry”.
However a government spokesman said the website was designed to bring together in one accessible location a substantial amount of information held by different bodies.
He said the survival rate of salmon from smolt to harvest had been increasing and any reports of unexplained mortalities were investigated by the Fish Health Inspectorate, which routinely inspects fish farms.
“The Scottish government is fully committed to ensuring a viable, long-term future for both freshwater fisheries and fish farming, with effective management of interactions between the two sectors.
“That is why we have consulted on new legislation, with plans to introduce the Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill to Parliament in the autumn.”
Official figures show that in 2010 5.3 million farmed salmon died in Scotland, in 2011 that increased to 6.9 million and in the first three months of 2012 the figure had reached 2.2 million.
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