Two fish farming companies tried to block publication of graphic images of their damaged salmon, according to emails released by the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Salmon Company (TSSC) and Scottish Sea Farms (SSF) deployed lawyers in a bid to prevent Scottish ministers from releasing photos of diseased and lice-infested fish under freedom of information law. The photos would cause “reputational damage”, the companies claimed.

But after internal discussions ministers rejected their pleas, and released more than 300 photos taken by fish health inspectors investigating mass deaths at salmon farms. They were published by The Ferret on 27 June 2018, and have been seen by over 22,000 readers.

The emails – released in response to a request under freedom of information law – reveal that TSSC threatened ministers with legal action for a “breach of duty”. SFF warned that publishing the photos would incite activists “to harass or threaten our staff.”

Campaigners have accused the two companies of trying to “cover up” the reality of caged salmon farming, and praised the Scottish Government for resisting them. The companies stressed that the photos were “not representative” of their operations.

Horror photos of farmed salmon spark legal threat

Salmon farming, which earns £600 million a year as Scotland’s biggest food export, has been hit by a raft of problems with disease and lice in recent years. The industry has been strongly criticised by one committee of MSPs at Holyrood, and is under investigation by another.

The photos were from investigations by the Scottish Government’s Fish Health Inspectorate into disease outbreaks at 27 fish farms run by six companies since 2015. Four farms belonged to TSSC and three to SSF, but the majority – 15 – were operated by Marine Harvest.

According to the released emails, Marine Harvest and other companies did not object to the photos being published. TSSC and SSF, however, tried to prevent publication.

In an email to the government’s Marine Scotland on 1 June 2018, TSSC argued that disclosing the photos would “prejudice substantially” the confidentiality of commercial information. “The photos of our fish are meaningless to the untrained eye, other than for graphic depiction of pathology for the purposes of shock effect,” the company said.

“There is no need for these images to be released and to do so will harm TSSC’s commercial reputation as the photos will undoubtedly be interpreted incorrectly and used against us.”

On 13 June TSSC lawyers, CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang, emailed Marine Scotland arguing that the company had not consented to the release of photos of their salmon. “Marine Scotland owes a duty of confidence to a third party whose information is protected,” the lawyers said.

Marine Scotland was not entitled to disclose the information and “to do so may be a breach of duty and actionable at law”, the lawyers stated. “We would urge Marine Scotland to refuse to release the photographs.”

This exposes Scottish Sea Farms to reputational damage which would have an adverse impact on our legitimate economic interest. Scottish Sea Farms

SSF’s lawyers, Shepherd and Wedderburn, emailed Marine Scotland on 30 May saying that “our clients are very concerned about the proposed release”. In another email on 12 June, SFF argued that releasing the photos “would be likely to prejudice substantially public safety”.

SSF said: “Release of the photographs without context could lead to publication and use to incite activists to take action against salmon producers and to harass or threaten our staff.”

The company did not consent to the photos being disclosed to the public, saying they were commercially confidential. “This exposes Scottish Sea Farms to reputational damage which would have an adverse impact on our legitimate economic interest,” it said.

SFF urged officials to keep the photos secret, “in order to safeguard the safety of our personnel, protect our legitimate economic interest, and prevent loss of confidence in the product and the wider Scottish salmon farming industry.”

The released emails show that Marine Scotland officials alerted the rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing. They also consulted the Scottish Government’s freedom of information (FoI) unit, asking: “Can you advise us is there is any way that the information could be withheld please?”

The FoI unit’s response was that there was no good reason under law to withhold the information. Unit officials suggested that if a decision were taken to keep the photos under wraps, it was likely to be overturned on appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner.

Marine Scotland then decided that it had to release the photos. After failing to convince the industry itself to publish them, it forewarned companies when they would be released – and alerted them when the photos appeared on The Ferret.

The photos and the emails disclosing the two companies’ legal interventions were obtained by anti-fish-farming campaigner, Don Staniford, from Scottish Salmon Watch. “Shame on The Scottish Salmon Company and Scottish Sea Farms for trying to cover up the harsh reality of salmon farming,” he said.

“The contrast with Marine Harvest’s apparent willingness to allow the photos to be published could not be more stark. Praise must be heaped on the Scottish Government’s FoI unit for standing up to the companies and their threatening lawyers.”

Staniford claimed that Scottish farmed salmon was “diseased, deformed and hazardous” to the environment. “If consumers could see what horrors were lurking inside salmon farms they would not touch unhealthy Scottish salmon with a barge pole,” he added.

“No wonder the salmon farming industry fought desperately to keep such shocking images from being published.”

Named: supermarkets selling salmon from ‘poor’ welfare firms

John Robins from campaign group, Animal Concern, called for a moratorium on the expansion of salmon farming while fish welfare issues were investigated. “This shows you how far the industry will go to hide the truth about these filthy floating factory fish farms,” he said.

“I have seen these photographs and believe the salmon and the cleaner fish, put in to eat the lice off the salmon, are suffering pain, distress and death due to mass parasite infestations caused by keeping too many fish in too small a place.”

The Edinburgh-based animal welfare charity, OneKind, argued that every farmed salmon was a sentient individual that deserved protection under law. “This is very clearly a matter of public interest and it is right that people should be able to see this evidence and judge animal welfare standards for themselves,” said the group’s Sarah Moyes.

“We are concerned that companies say they fear direct action in the shape of harassment or threats towards staff.  OneKind relies on exposing facts and evidence to educate the public and that is exactly what campaigners have achieved through this successful FoI request.”

Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor to Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, which represents anglers, suggested that the industry didn’t like “pretty horrible” images being published. “This is intensive cage farming and with intensive farming inevitably there will be disease and mortalities,” he said.

“The image the fish farmers want to create for the supermarket shopper is of very healthy fish grown in the clean waters of the wildest parts of the west coast of Scotland. But the truth does not always match that image.”

Praise must be heaped on the Scottish Government's FoI unit for standing up to the companies and their threatening lawyers. Don Staniford, Scottish Salmon Watch

TSSC and SSF did not directly address accusations about their attempts to keep the photos secret. “We take the health and welfare of our fish very seriously and adopt a best practice approach to animal husbandry,” said a TSSC spokesperson.

“Like any farming there can be occasional health issues. These are diagnostic images and are not representative of our operations.”

SSF head of fish health, Dr Ralph Bickerdike, said: “Marine Scotland clearly states that the photographs released are not representative of farmed salmon stocks; rather, the fish shown were specifically chosen to help increase understanding of health challenges that can affect both farmed and wild salmon.”

The industry group, Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO), stressed that maintaining good fish health and welfare was at the heart of successful salmon farming. “The overwhelming majority of salmon grown in Scotland are healthy, and that is down to the skill and good farming practice of those who rear them,” said SSPO chief executive, Julie Hesketh-Laird.

“While occasionally fish health issues do arise, the photos released are not representative of an industry which produces thousands of tonnes of high quality salmon each year. We strive to maintain the highest standards of fish health.”

She added: “Individual SSPO member companies, rather than the SSPO, are engaged with the Scottish Government regarding the handling of FoI requests. The SSPO is unable to comment on specific company matters.”

The Scottish Government highlighted guidance given by its FoI code of practice that companies should be consulted when information releases would “significantly” affect them. “It is right that third parties have an opportunity to comment or raise any concerns they may have about the disclosure of information,” said a government spokesperson.

“However, the decision to release or withhold information for requests we receive always rests with the Scottish Government. In this case a decision was taken that the release of information was appropriate.”