A salmon farming boss has tried to defend his industry after naturalist and RSPCA president Chris Packham said it is cruel to fishes* and called for its expansion to be stopped. Salmon Scotland CEO Tavish Scott was forced to address Packham’s accusations in a grilling by Monica Lennon, a Labour Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP).
In a newsletter to supporters of Animal Equality, which has campaigned against salmon farms, Packham accused the fish farming industry of animal cruelty and called it “catastrophic.” He described the pain and boredom salmon experience while trapped in “crowded” cages and having their flesh “eaten away” by parasitic sea lice. The newsletter also highlighted the high mortality rates on fish farms.
Warning that Scotland’s salmon farming industry could double in the coming years, Packham called on the Scottish government to halt its expansion. A subsequent article in The Guardian led to Lennon asking Salmon Scotland CEO Tavish Scott in Parliament to explain excessive salmon deaths.
Scott dismissed Packham’s accusations, saying he “is a well-known opponent of our sector … and he’s trotted out his usual arguments.”
Industry reported mortalities from January to October this year amounted to 13.5 million. In 2022, it was 11.5 million – nearly double the number of deaths in 2021. Scott admitted that fish moralities are “an issue” and said the industry is putting millions of pounds into improving the situation.
He blamed rising fish deaths on warmer waters caused by El Niño, a cyclical climate phenomenon that helped to make the summer of 2023 the hottest on record. Higher water temperatures are known to cause stress to salmon and make parasitic sea lice more abundant. Marine heatwaves are only set to become more frequent and intense and the climate continues to warm.
Scott also said that “different types of microorganisms” have been present in Scottish waters that weren’t there before, contributing to fish deaths. This is also likely the result of climate change, as warming temperatures are attracting a wider diversity of bacteria to British waters. Meanwhile, the use of antibiotics in on Scottish salmon farms has been rising in the past four years.
“I can’t comprehend why the Scottish farmed salmon industry appears to be so surprised and, as a result, so ill-prepared for the impacts of climate change,” Abigail Penny, Executive Director of Animal Equality, told Plant Based News. “Unless they have been living under a rock, key industry figures will have been well aware for many years now that water temperatures are rising and that this would be detrimental to the fish they so cruelly confine.”
Mounting political concern
Lennon’s questioning of Scott is not the first time the MSP has voiced concerns about Scotland’s salmon industry. With a group of cross-party MSPs, she was a signatory on a letter to Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands coordinated by Animal Equality and OneKind earlier this year. The letter said: “The sharp rise in on-farm mortalities has caused us to question the long-term sustainability of this industry.”
The letter also said the MSPs were concerned about the “unnatural” and “tight” salmon cages. It said these provide “ample opportunity for disease transmission and lice breakouts to become ever more frequent, and for these territorial animals to develop aggressive tendencies toward one another.”
The Scottish government wants to support what it calls “sustainable” growth of the salmon farming industry. The industry is growing elsewhere in the UK too. North East Lincolnshire Council’s planning committee has just approved plans for a massive £75 million onshore salmon farm in Cleethorpes, despite objections from local residents and campaigners.
“Salmon are paying the price for the industry’s continued failures, dying in their droves with every passing month,” said Penny. “The Scottish salmon industry has not curbed the growing problem of on-farm fish deaths. Now it’s time for us to take matters into our own hands. Alongside Chris Packham, we’re demanding an end to all new fish farms. This deadly industry cannot be allowed to continue growing at pace with little to no consequences for its failures and inaction.”
While the English language usually refers to multiple fishes as “fish”, we use “fishes” to emphasize that they are individuals.