Salmon firm accused of misleading locals over plans for fish farm in highland beauty spot

Salmon firm accused of misleading locals over fish farm plans in highland beauty spot

Salmon firm accused of misleading locals over fish farm plans in highland beauty spot 5

A salmon farming multinational has been accused of “lying” to locals over its plans for a fish farm on a sea loch in a marine protected area.

A subsidiary of Mowi Scotland, a multinational headquartered in Norway, wants to have an industrial feeding system at an existing salmon farm on Loch Broom, which is near Ullapool in the northwest of Scotland.

The plan, if agreed by Highland Council, would see a large vessel called a feed barge allowed onto the loch to feed thousands of salmon at the Corry fish farm. 

But dozens of locals have objected to the planning application by Wester Ross Fisheries, the Mowi subsidiary, arguing that a feed barge will result in noise and environmental pollution at the stunning beauty spot.

Loch Broom residents also claim they were initially told there were no plans for a barge, and The Ferret has seen footage of a public meeting in Ullapool when the firm admitted there had been, but added “we weren’t actually obliged to tell you”. 

Wester Ross Fisheries also told the meeting it did not think anyone had lied and there may have been “cross wires or miscommunication” over its plans.

Loch Broom is part of the Wester Ross marine protected area (MPA), which was designated in 2014 to protect fragile seabed habitats and species like maerl – a pink seaweed – and flame shell beds. 

The level of public distrust in them in this area is huge. People just did not believe a word they were saying.

Lesley Spenceley, local

Maerl and flame shell beds are vital to the health of the local marine ecosystem, and they support local fisheries such as scallops, cod and herring.

The Corry fish farm, founded in 1977 by Wester Ross Fisheries, predates the MPA designation. It was the last independently-owned salmon farming company in Scotland until 2022, when Mowi Scotland bought a controlling stake in the firm.

Residents at Loch Broom told The Ferret there have been problems since Mowi took over. The original site was an old fashioned wooden structure so Wester Ross submitted a planning application last May to replace it with new pens made of steel (steel group) to contain fish, under what is called permitted development rights. 

Following complaints last year over noise and light pollution from the Corry fish farm, Wester Ross held meetings with locals who claim the company said then there would be no feed barge.

A planning application for the feed barge was submitted to Highland Council on 6 September 2023. 

Then, at a public meeting in Ullapool on 27 March 2024, Wester Ross Fisheries said that at the time of the planning application for the steel group last May, a feed barge was also part of its plans, albeit a separate application needed to be submitted for the barge. 

Footage of that meeting shows Wester Ross staff being questioned by the audience including an anti-fish farm campaigner called Corin Smith, who said: “You always knew that when you were putting those pens in that you were going to bring a large new feed barge on site as well, at that point when you made that application . Did you or did you not know that you were going to bring a large feed barge, as an organisation at that point?”

Salmon firm accused of misleading locals over plans for fish farm in  highland beauty spot

The Wester Ross employee replied: “Yes, we did.” 

Smith said: “You did. But you didn’t tell the community then.” 

The employee said: “Yeah but we weren’t actually obliged to tell you” to gasps from the audience. One woman can be heard saying: “Oh my god!”

Wester Ross also told the public meeting that its intention is to “improve farming operations, improve efficiency” and “ultimately grow a fish that’s even higher in quality”. 

Two locals who had a private meeting with the firm last June, and attended the public meeting in Ullapool, claim they were misled prior to that event. Lesley Spenceley who stays in a cottage at Lochside, on the shore of Loch Broom, told The Ferret: “We had no issues with Wester Ross Fisheries at all previously. The fish farm has been right outside our house since 1977 – but we’ve had increasing problems since Mowi took over in the last two years. We’re about 350 metres from it, so very close – so close that when atmospheric conditions are right we can actually hear the guys on the fish farm talking. 

“There’s noise from diesel compressors and generators mounted on the farm 24/7 in the summer, which is used to oxygenate the water for the fish, and they are incredibly noisy.”

There was a meeting with the firm at Spenceley’s home on 27 June 2023 to discuss the problems. “It was a meeting about the 24/7 operating day-time noise from the fish farm. It was stated categorically at that meeting that there would be no feed barge at this farm. One of the management sat at my dining table and looked us in the eye and said, ‘there will be no feed barge. We have no plans for a feed barge.’ 

“At the meeting a couple of weeks ago they actually came out and said it was always our intention to have one – they blatantly lied. The level of public distrust in them in this area is huge. You could really feel that palpably from the meeting. People just did not believe a word they were saying.”

Ailsa McLellan, a marine scientist who previously worked for the fish farming industry, also stays in Lochside, at Loch Broom. She attended the meeting with the firm in June at Spencely’s home and backed her claims. “The fish farm is in front of my house. We were 100 per cent misled – it was a downright lie.”

Mclellan also expressed concern over pollution from microplastics and a chemical called paramove hydrogen peroxide being dumped into Loch Broom. She cited a freedom of information request made to Sepa which revealed that more than 13,000 litres of the chemical had been dumped into the loch over the course of a week between 20 March and 27 March 2023.

The fish farm is in front of my house. We were 100 per cent misled – it was a downright lie.

Ailsa McLellan, marine scientist

A spokesperson at Wester Ross said: “As explained at the Ullapool community meetings, the process to apply for the addition of an automated feed system to supplement hand feeding requires public consultation. Our company has now hosted several meetings with many local stakeholders and we have received important feedback specific to the application that will help shape our approach.

“At Wester Ross, our salmon are grown at very low stocking densities with minimal handling and cared for daily by dedicated farmers, biologists and fish health professionals. These core values remain and extend to continued investments that aim to meet the needs of our fish and our employees. A feeding system is not intended to replace hand feeding but rather deliver on our commitment to the health and welfare needs of both the fish and the farmer.”

At time of writing, 59 people had publicly commented on the feed barge application and objected.

Many argue that the loch could be polluted by microplastics, which can be damaging to marine ecosystems. They point out that the feed barge would use plastic pipes to deliver pelletised food to the fish, which are held in pens on the farm. Abrasion of the plastic pipes, they argue, would result in microplastics washing into the loch.

Persistent organic pollutants (Pops) are also cited as a concern. One person commented: “Food from the pellets used to feed the salmon attach to microplastic particles creating POPs. These are chemical substances which do not break down in the environment, are extremely toxic and a danger to human health and the marine environment. While this impact may be localised around the fish farm it is still an additional pollutant within the water in an area which is part of the Wester Ross marine protected area.”

Maree Todd MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, said: “I’m troubled by the reports of poor community engagement by Mowi Scotland. It’s essential for developers to engage transparently and in good faith with the community, so I’m disappointed that this has not been the experience of my constituents in Loch Broom.

“While I don’t have a direct role in the planning process, I’m committed to ensuring the community’s voice is heard. I have contacted Mowi, urging them to establish a community liaison group to facilitate ongoing and constructive communication with the community. This would be a meaningful step, and I hope Mowi takes it forward.

Mowi was asked to comment.

Highland Council declined to comment.

Additional research by Leah Flint.

This Ferret story was also published in the Sunday National. Our partnerships with other media help us reach new audiences and become more sustainable as a media co-op.  Join us to read all our stories and tell us what we should investigate next.

2 comments
  1. While the rest of the world relocates this disgusting industry onshore, away from the marine environment, our bottom-feeding MSPs continue to dance to Tavish Scott’s tireless lobbying. Highland and Isles councils all on MOWI/Bakk[hand]afrost payroll.

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