Salmon farmers with the worst records on animal welfare have been named and shamed by campaigners hoping to provoke reforms.

The Scottish animal charity, OneKind, has drawn up league tables ranking the performance of companies and individual fish farms on death rates, overcrowding, lice infestations, seal shooting and escapes in 2017.

Firms criticised for their poor standards include Loch Duart, Marine Harvest, The Scottish Salmon Company and Grieg Seafoods Shetland. The farm labeled as having the worst record for fish welfare was Poll na Gille on Loch Shuna in Argyll, run by Marine Harvest.

Other caged salmon farms ranked highly for “negative welfare” included MacLeans Nose at Kilchoan in Highland, Bagh dail nan Cean in Argyll, Vuiabeag off the Isle of Lewis, Badcall Bay in Sutherland, Loch Carnan off South Uist and Inch Kenneth in Argyll .

OneKind said that fish were suffering and called on salmon farmers to “urgently up their game”. The fish farming industry, however, insisted that campaigners had failed to accurately reflect “the care taken at farms to ensure good animal welfare.”

Click on the map to reveal the negative welfare scores of individual fish farms, with higher numbers indicating poorer performances. Red are 8-11, yellow 1-7 and green 0. Map thanks to Sarah Allen.

Farmed salmon are Scotland’s biggest food export but have been hit in recent years by disease and lice problems. Plans to double the business from £1.8 billion in 2016 to £3.6 billion by 2030 are under investigation by MSPs at Holyrood.

OneKind examined publicly available data for 185 salmon farms operating in Scotland in 2017. The group has also helped channel funding from Eurogroup for Animals in Brussels for an investigation by The Ferret, which is publishing a series of reports on the fish farming industry.

OneKind used five criteria to give each company and each fish farm a negative animal welfare score, with higher numbers indicating poorer performances. One criterion was the number of fish dying prematurely from disease, parasites, stress or other causes.

The Ferret reported in October 2017 that the industry threw away 10 million fish in 2016, and it’s thought the death toll rose to 11 million in 2017. According to OneKind, “high mortality levels indicate severe welfare problems on salmon farms, as death is rarely instantaneous.”

We threw away 10 million dead fish, says salmon farming industry

A second criterion was farms breaching limits on the maximum weight of fish allowed in cages. This reduced the space available to each fish and could cause aggression, spread disease quicker and reduce water quality, said OneKind.

Poll na Gille salmon farm was said to have breached biomass limits set by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency six times in 2017, sometimes up to 50 per cent. “This meant that they significantly overstocked their fish cages, seriously compromising welfare,” alleged OneKind.

Farms were marked down if the number of sea lice eating salmon exceeded the “trigger level” of three female lice per fish. Lice can cause suffering, disease and death.

OneKind also counted the number of seals shot by farmers to prevent them eating salmon. Fewer seals were being shot than in the past, but 49 were killed in 2017 by 26 salmon farms, with nine shot at Loch Carnan by the Loch Duart company.

Another measure used was the number of fish that escaped from their cages because of equipment failures and storms. Farmed salmon can be deaf and have deformed hearts and spines, argued OneKind, meaning they will struggle to survive in the wild.

The company rated worst was Loch Duart, which was awarded a negative animal welfare score of four for its ten salmon farms. Marine Harvest was second-worst, with a score of 3.1 for 37 farms, followed by The Scottish Salmon Company with 2.5 for 41 farms and Grieg Seafoods Shetland with 2.3 for 18 farms.

Fish farm companies ranked on animal welfare

CompanyNumber of fish farmsNegative welfare score
Loch Duart104
Marine Harvest373.1
The Scottish Salmon Company412.5
Grieg Seafoods Shetland182.3
Kames Fish Farming12
Scottish Sea Farms421.6
Cooke Aquaculture331.3
Wester Ross Fisheries30
Source: OneKind

OneKind commended two companies for having very low scores – Wester Ross Fisheries and Cooke Aquaculture – and urged others to learn from them. “This reveals an enormous gap between the best farms and the worst offenders,” said OneKind director, Harry Huyton.

“We hope that these league tables, which OneKind will update annually, will act as a serious reminder to the industry that they must urgently up their game when it comes to fish welfare, and to encourage salmon farming companies to address these challenges.”

Huyton argued that it was possible for salmon farms to operate without serious animal welfare breaches. “We hope that this report is a serious wake up call to the sector as a whole and particularly to those companies that are dragging the industry down by letting their salmon suffer and needlessly killing seals,” he said.

Compassion in World Farming urged the salmon industry to take fish welfare more seriously. “The entirety of the salmon farming industry generates environmental and animal welfare concerns,” said the campaign group’s head of fish policy, Dr Krzysztof Wojtas.

“Mass mortalities, parasite infestations and animal escapes should not be a regular part of any farming system. Unfortunately, at the moment they are a reality for many salmon farms.”

The industry’s massive expansion plans were “shocking”, he argued. “This report proves that our welfare concerns are fully justified and need to be addressed as soon as possible, certainly before any sort of expansion takes place.”

The Scottish Greens’ environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, warned that salmon farming’s image as a clean and natural producer was falling apart. “Consumers are increasingly demanding better welfare standards and transparency across the food sector,” he said.

“The salmon farming industry and the Scottish Government must deal with the underlying problems which are driving disease and poor welfare or face a collapse in consumer confidence.”

The 12 fish farms rated the worst for animal welfare

Fish farmCompanyNegative welfare score
Poll na Gille, ArgyllMarine Harvest11
MacLeans Nose, Kilchoan, HighlandMarine Harvest9
Bagh dail nan Cean, ArgyllMarine Harvest9
Vuiabeag, Isle of LewisThe Scottish Salmon Company9
Badcall Bay, SutherlandLoch Duart8
Loch Carnan, South UistLoch Duart8
Inch Kenneth, ArgyllThe Scottish Salmon Company8
Basta Ness, ShetlandCooke Aquaculture6
Cloudin, ShetlandCooke Aquaculture6
North Havra, ShetlandGrieg Seafoods Shetland6
Calva Bay, SutherlandLoch Duart6
Loch a Chairn Bhain, HighlandLoch Duart6
Source: OneKind

But the industry disagreed. “Our members work tirelessly to ensure salmon is reared in a sustainable manner to high welfare standards,” said the chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO), Julie Hesketh-Laird.

“Fish health and maintaining a high quality and diverse environment in which fish are raised are of paramount importance and underpin the success of salmon farming businesses and the jobs they support.”

She pointed out that fish farmers had to deal with naturally-occurring environmental challenges as well as predators which could harm the welfare of farm-raised salmon. The industry was investing “significantly” in research and innovation on these issues, she said.

Hesketh-Laird added: “Not all of the key indicators chosen by OneKind accurately reflect the care taken at farms to ensure good animal welfare. For example, overall fish biomass is not a relevant indicator as all our members’ farms are committed to a comfortable stocking density for salmon.”

Each net pen contained about two per cent fish and 98 per cent water at maximum density allowing salmon to shoal naturally, she said. “Aquaculture is a tightly regulated food production sector with a strong requirement for transparency of information,” she concluded.

Our members will continue to work to meet the highest regulatory standards, exceeding mandatory requirements wherever possible. Julie Hesketh-Laird, Scottish Salmon Producers' Organisation

“Our members will continue to work to meet the highest regulatory standards, exceeding mandatory requirements wherever possible, and, in individual instances where incidents do occur, will work to improve and embed learnings into future practices.”

Marine Harvest, The Scottish Salmon Company and Cooke Aquaculture said they supported SSPO’s statement and declined to comment further.

The Loch Duart company stressed it was “immensely proud” of its record on fish welfare and for helping to introduce standards from the UK Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals into Scottish salmon farming.

The firm’s managing director, Alban Denton, said: “Our fish receive the highest quality feed, high in marine content; lower density pens; minimal handling; and are virtually sea lice free currently and demonstrating very strong health.”

Grieg Seafood Shetland insisted that it was a responsible farmer committed to ensuring the highest standards of health and welfare across all its farms. “We have a demonstrable track record in innovation and investment and have adopted an integrated and sustainable approach to disease management,” said managing director, Grant Cumming.

“Our focus is to first prevent disease from occurring and then, if it does occur, to ensure the welfare of the fish through responsible and effective treatment. We are working hard to ensure our fish have a high quality of life and will continue to work positively with all the regulators of Scottish fish farming to ensure we have a sustainable industry long into the future.”

In June 2018 The Ferret published more than 300 graphic photos of diseased, damaged and lice-infested salmon from fish farms inspected by the Scottish Government. The pictures were released in response to a request under freedom of information law.

Horror photos of farmed salmon spark legal threat

The report by OneKind in full



This story is the first of a three-part investigation into fish farming funded by Eurogroup for Animals in Brussels via OneKind, under an agreement giving The Ferret full editorial control. It was published in tandem with the Sunday Herald. Photo thanks to Jo Turner, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.