The Scottish Government defied concerted pleas by salmon farming multinationals to keep photos of diseased and damaged fish secret, according to internal emails.
Instead, ministers decided to regularly publish graphic photos from official fish health inspections of caged salmon farms in line with their duties under freedom of information law.
The government has been praised by anti-fish farming campaigners for standing up to “desperate legal threats” from companies. The companies stress that the vast majority of their fish are healthy.
The Ferret reported in June 2018 that the Scottish Government had released more than 300 photos taken by fish health inspectors since 2015. Campaigners called them “shocking and stomach-churning”.
In August 2018 we revealed that two fish farm companies – The Scottish Salmon Company and Scottish Sea Farms – had tried and failed to block release of the photos. The companies had argued that the photos would cause “reputational damage”.
In an email to the government’s Marine Scotland agency in July 2018, Mowi’s director of communications, Ian Roberts, referred to The Ferret’s publication of the photos. “It is rare that today’s reader delves below the shock and horror headlines,” he wrote.
He argued that the public interest was not well served by releasing the photos to a member of the public unfamiliar with salmon health. “The risk of people turning away from a healthy food such as salmon as a reaction to irresponsible use of photos for the sole purpose of creating fear in the consumer is a risk to health,” he said.
“I ask you to consider this position for future freedom of information requests that may create unnecessary confusion or fear about consuming healthy Scottish seafood.”
The released emails also show that lawyers for The Scottish Salmon Company argued strongly in August 2018 against further photos being published. “Those photographs are used by campaign groups out of context as evidence against farms, where in fact they show that the farms are properly run and are assisting the authorities,” the lawyers said.
Scottish Sea Farms urged Marine Scotland to withhold further photos in August 2018. Their disclosure “would inhibit substantially the free and frank exchange of views” and could breach legal privilege, the company argued.
But the Scottish Government rejected all these requests because of freedom of information law. “The legislation sets out that there is a strong presumption in favour of the release of information, and that any exceptions or exemptions to the release of information must be applied restrictively,” an official told Mowi in September 2018.
In December 2018, the government sent a letter to stakeholders promising a “move towards active publication” of fish heath information including photos. Then in March 2019 the government decided that photos would be published with case studies every month.
There was “significant interest from third parties”, the government said. “The approach facilitates further in dealing with freedom of information requests and in meeting the Scottish Government principles of openness and accountability.”
The latest fish health cases released in October 2019 include reports and photos from unannounced inspections of two fish farms owned by The Scottish Salmon Company in Benbecula in June. Both farms had “increased mortality”, according to fish health inspectors.
At one farm, Maaey, there was evidence of pancreas disease and a pancreatic virus in sampled fish. “During the inspection of the site a number of moribund and lethargic fish were observed in all cages across the site,” reported inspectors.
At the other farm, Maragay Mor, fish were tested positive for pancreas and amoebic gill diseases. “During the inspection of the site a number of lethargic fish with evidence of white heads were observed in cage six,” inspectors said.
The Scottish Government emails were obtained by Don Staniford, an anti-fish farming campaigner from Scottish Salmon Watch. “Gruesome photographic evidence blows out of the water the industry’s marketing claims that Scottish salmon is healthy, responsibly sourced and welfare friendly,” he said.
“In the face of desperate legal threats from lawyers acting for salmon farming companies the Scottish Government has thankfully stood up for freedom of information and followed European law. Consumers now have regular monthly updates detailing infectious diseases, pathogens, viruses, parasitic lice and mass mortalities often graphically illustrated with damning photos.”
Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, a wild fish campaign group, urged as much openness as possible. “Whatever the subject matter of an environmental freedom of information request, the law places a presumption on public authorities in favour of disclosure,” said the group’s solicitor, Guy Linley-Adams
“It is therefore entirely right and proper that the Scottish Government publishes as much information about the problems of the fish farming industry as it can.”
Mowi attacked Staniford for “misrepresenting” its business. “These select fish have been photographed only because they represent rare veterinary cases, and do not represent the general fish population,” said the company’s farming operations director, Gideon Pringle.
“In the year to date 96 per cent of our harvested fish have been graded as superior, great looking salmon. At any farm, farmers may sometimes see animals in poor health, but do everything they can to avoid it – and like all farmers, we care passionately for the health and welfare of our fish.”
The Scottish Salmon Company also insisted that the photos misrepresented its activities. “We take the health and welfare of our fish very seriously and adopt a best practice approach to animal husbandry,” said a company spokesperson.
“Like any farming there can be occasional health issues. While images are now published by Marine Scotland, these will in the main be diagnostic images of individual cases and are not representative of our operations.”
Scottish Sea Farms stressed that Atlantic salmon were a “highly complex” species. “In the wild, fewer than five per cent return as adults,” said the company’s head of fish welfare, Dr Ralph Bickerdike.
“At many of our farms we are now achieving survival rates of 87 per cent and higher, and we are working hard to boost these rates even further. There’s much still to be learned and the marine environment continues to present new challenges to fish health.”
He added: “Photos such as these are one of the ways we are working with regulators to increase understanding of those challenges.”
The Scottish Government pointed out that salmon farming was vital to remote rural economies, providing thousands of jobs. “Unfounded allegations regarding poor welfare practice are irresponsible and damaging,” it cautioned.
A government spokesperson added: “Marine Scotland is committed to handling requests for information appropriately, supporting the Scottish Government’s principles of openness and transparency.
“Last year we reviewed our fish health publication regime, meeting a commitment made in Scotland’s 10-year farmed fish health framework. This has resulted in the inclusion of photographs, sea lice and mortality information in our proactive publication regime.”