Police have apologised to an anti-fish farming campaigner after he complained of being wrongly warned off from filming salmon cages in lochs.
A chief inspector with Police Scotland told Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch, there had been “a gap in local knowledge” about the law on access to fish farms – and promised to alert police in other areas to ensure “better understanding”.
Staniford welcomed the police move as a “watershed victory” allowing divers and kayakers to film fish farms. The fish farming industry, however, insisted that entering a “restricted area” around a fish farm was “unlawful and dangerous”.
Arguments over access to fish farms have escalated in recent years as Staniford and other activists have released videos of caged salmon, which they claimed showed poor animal welfare. Some footage has been published by The Ferret.
Staniford filed a formal complaint to the police after an incident on 16 July 2020 at a fish farm run by Scottish Sea Farms on Loch Creran, north of Oban, in Argyll. He was filming Matt Mellen, an environmental activist from the online magazine, Ecohustler, diving near salmon cages to inspect them.
Footage shot by Staniford and Ecohustler showed Mellen swimming away from cages after a fish farm barge drew near. Mellen claimed in a blog that his swim had been “cut short with a threat of intimidation”, and has released a 12-minute video critical of salmon farming.
When Staniford and Mellen returned ashore at Creran dock, they were met by two police officers, who had been contacted by Scottish Sea Farms. A video posted online by Staniford showed one officer warning that continued swimming close to a fish farm “could be classed as a criminal offence as a culpable and reckless act.”
Staniford also complained about another incident on 3 July 2019 at a Scottish Sea Farms site in the Sound of Shuna in nearby Loch Linnhe. The Ferret reported at the time that video shot by Staniford showed a police officer suggesting that he needed permission from the company to be there.
Following his complaints Staniford met with police officers at Oban police station on 10 September. He has now received a letter from the Argyll area commander, chief inspector Marlene Baillie.
“I am aware you had a general level of dissatisfaction with the response from officers who were dealing with complaints about your activities, in particular in relation to fish farming and aquaculture,” she wrote on 2 October.
“I understand you are now satisfied with the explanations, assurances and the apology provided.”
Baillie said one of her officers had “highlighted to me a gap in local knowledge in respect of the various parts of legislation in relation to fish farming and aquaculture whether on land or in water.”
She had been given a report which she would consider and “thereafter share our learning with my colleagues across the service with the intention of improving our corporate knowledge and our level of response.”
Baillie added: “Complaints about the police are treated seriously by Police Scotland as they provide a valuable opportunity for us to learn and improve our service to the public.”
Staniford argued that the public had an “inalienable right” to kayak and dive in public waters where salmon farms operate. “Police Scotland has effectively reinforced the legality of filming at salmon farms and this is a watershed victory for public access,” he said.
“Police Scotland has sent a powerful message to their own officers that they cannot act as private security guards for companies like Norwegian-owned Scottish Sea Farms.”
Staniford added: “Despite legal threats from salmon farming companies, the legitimacy of video surveillance and public monitoring of salmon farms is beyond doubt. Salmon farms cannot keep the public out of public waters.”
Mellen from Ecohustler accused fish farms of trying to hide the “carnage” of “factory farming” salmon. “I am disappointed that the police told us off for visiting a salmon farm but not surprised,” he said.
“I am glad that the police apologised but frankly I would like them to go much further. From my point of view the damage being inflicted on the Scottish coastline is criminal.”
Mellen added: “I would like to see the police empowering regular people to protect their environment and not constantly being rolled out as muscle for the corporations doing the damage.”
Andrew Holder, an activist who skippered the boat involved in the two incidents attended by the police, described the apology as a “landmark event for members of the public going about quite legitimate and legal observations of fish farms.”
He said: “We are lawfully entitled to observe and film from as close as we see fit, without fear of intimidation from the police or physical harm from the workers. It is then up to the public to decide whether their practices are acceptable.”
Another campaigner and blogger, Ewan Kennedy, welcomed Police Scotland’s acceptance that they don’t work for fish farms. “As citizens we have the right to walk on open land and to navigate on the open sea,” he said.
Scottish Sea Farms stressed they were trying hard to keep people safe. “Our marine farms are home to multiple potential hazards ranging from power cables and mooring grids to ropes and other anchoring systems, contained within an area clearly marked by buoys,” said the company’s health and safety manager, Gerry McCormick.
“We ask other marine users to keep outside these buoys in order to keep themselves safe. Anyone who fails to heed this advice, and who breaches the buoys, will be reported to Police Scotland in the interests of their own health and safety, and that of our farm teams and livestock.”
The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO), which represents salmon farming companies, has accused activists of “breaking all Covid-related rules” and putting staff at risk.
“The activists who insist on invading these sites are showing a reckless disregard for the safety of themselves, of others and for the welfare of the fish – yet they seem either unaware of the dangers or they simply don’t care,” SSPO’s director of strategic engagement, Hamish Macdonell, wrote in August.
He disclosed that fish farm companies were proposing a 15-metre “safety zone” around salmon cages. “We will advise everybody using the sea to stay at least 15 metres from the edge of any structure, from all marker buoys and boats – for their safety and for ours,” he said.
“Like death and taxes, these activists will always be with us. We cannot force them to disappear but what we can do is harness the consent of all the other, responsible, marine users to make it so difficult for them to invade our sites that they are kept right out on the fringes – which is where they should have been, all along.”
Macdonell told The Ferret that the legal position was clear. “Entering into a restricted area around a fish farm is both unlawful and dangerous,” he said.
“To ensure the safety of workers and livestock on salmon farms, we will continue to identify and report any criminal or unlawful activity to Police Scotland.”
Argyll’s area police commander, Marlene Baillie, confirmed that Staniford had been given an apology. “The response issued to Mr Staniford was in relation to specific complaints that were investigated and resolved,” she said.
“An explanation was provided that the officers acted in good faith but were not familiar with the complexities of the legislation and an apology was issued.
“Since then work has been undertaken in partnership with the local authority access officer and a better understanding has been reached as a result. This learning will be shared with staff in relevant areas across Police Scotland.”
But Baillie added a cautionary note. “It would be misleading to suggest that this is a legal ruling and in fact there are other matters connected to anti-fish-farming activities in the area that are still subject to investigation and may still result in a report to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service,” she told The Ferret.
“Each report will be considered on its own merits with public safety and the protection of property being paramount.”
The Oban Times has reported that a man has been charged in connection with an alleged assault on 22 August at Loch Tralaig in Argyll, the site of a fish farm.
Police Scotland’s letter to Don Staniford
Cover image thanks to Matt Mellen/Ecohustler.