Scarred, frayed and lice-infested salmon caught on film at a fish farm off the island of Lewis have prompted animal cruelty investigations, The Ferret can reveal.
A video shot underwater on 27 August 2018 inside a cage at Vacasay fish farm in Loch Roag showed hundreds of sea lice feeding on salmon with open wounds and damaged tails and fins.
The video has been passed to the Scottish Government and Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA), both of which have launched investigations. Campaigners said that lice from the fish farm have spread to wild salmon in a nearby river, and killed them.
The Scottish Salmon Company, which runs Vacasay fish farm, has facilitated visits by SSPCA inspectors. The company said it had not had an opportunity to authenticate the video, but accepted that mortalities had been “exacerbated” by the warm summer.
Smith first became concerned about the health of the fish when he used a drone on 22 August to film the fish farm from the air. “I was alarmed at the obvious high state of distress of the fish on the farm and could observe mortalities on the surface,” he said.
Before sunrise on 27 August he paddled and swam half a mile to a circular salmon cage out in Loch Roag, which is near the famous standing stones of Callanish. It is one of a major network of fish cages in the area operated by The Scottish Salmon Company.
“I was utterly shocked at the health of the stock and the very high proportion of fish in poor health with mortal sea lice infestation,” he said. “For fish to have reached this state of heath as a result of sea lice parasites eating their flesh, this situation would have had to occur over a matter of weeks.”
He estimated that as many as 80 per cent of the salmon at Vacasay were suffering from lice damage. He said he saw “hundreds” of infested salmon in one part of one cage.
“I am forty years old, twenty years born and raised on a working hill sheep farm. I am still an active member of the agricultural community. I am not squeamish or hysterical about the rearing of animals for food,” he told The Ferret.
“But I have never in my life witnessed such extensive animal suffering, and over such a long period. At least 40 per cent of stock need euthanised immediately on the grounds of compassion. Any responsible farmer would do that.”
He added: “I am sure the workers on the farm feel the same themselves, but policies and procedures seem to be preventing them from doing anything. Quite how this level of suffering and cruelty can be permitted is beyond me.”
“This new footage raises serious questions about the effect that industrial-scale salmon farming has on animal welfare,” said OneKind campaigner, Sarah Moyes.
“It is now widely acknowledged that fish are sentient animals and are capable of feeling pain. Not only does this make this suffering wholly unacceptable, but the industry’s reputation is once again being damaged by another report of animal neglect.”
Don Staniford, director of Scottish Salmon Watch, called on shoppers to stop buying Scottish farmed salmon. “These nauseating images blow the salmon farming industry’s health claims out of the water,” he said. “Scottish salmon is clearly unhealthy, diseased-ridden and lice-infested.”
Inspectors from the Scottish Government’s Marine Scotland agency are due to visit Vacasay soon. “Marine Scotland are currently investigating concerns raised by a member of the public regarding lice at a fish farm in Lewis, and will be carrying out an inspection on the site imminently,” said a government spokesperson.
“We take submissions of this nature seriously, and are working to establish the facts on this case before coming to an informed position.”
SSPCA chief superintendent, Mike Flynn, said: “We can confirm we were alerted to a salmon farm on the Isle of Lewis and our enquiries are currently on-going.”
In July wild salmon were also filmed heavily infested with lice in Blackwater River, which runs into Loch Roag. An eight-second clip from that footage has been released by Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, which blames Vacasay fish farm for contaminating wild fish with lice.
Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland reported that many dead, dying or distressed adult wild salmon were found at the end of July in the tidal section of the lower part of Blackwater River, smothered with hundreds of sea lice. The salmon must pass by Vacasay fish farm on their return journey from the Atlantic, the group stated.
“We believe that the explosion in lice numbers on the Loch Roag farms, spreading out into the wider sea loch environment has had deadly implications for wild fish, as they were waiting to enter the Blackwater,” said the group’s director, Andrew Graham-Stewart.
“As the video shows, these fish were literally eaten alive and a large number of adults that would have bred in the river, have been killed by the lice.”
The episode was “exceptionally strong evidence” of how lice on fish farms can increase rapidly in number and spread to surrounding waters,” Graham-Stewart argued. “This can have absolutely devastating consequences for wild fish populations.”
Douglas McGilvray, the owner of the Garynahine Estate, which includes Blackwater River, has written to MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy Committee, which is completing its examination of fish farming. “The current situation is untenable,” he said.
“It threatens the future viability of the businesses we run on Lewis – many of our guests visit in order to fish the Blackwater River – and potentially the number we employ.”
He asked: “Why is an enterprise, such as a salmon farming company, permitted to destroy our wild salmon run and damage the financial interests of others with apparent impunity?”
The estate has also joined with Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland in a letter to Marine Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage demanding urgent action under environmental liability rules. “You are requested to determine whether or not you are satisfied that there is an imminent threat of damage or of actual damage in this case,” they wrote.
According to Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, The Scottish Salmon Company operates seven salmon farms in Loch Roag. The company website says that the its registered office is in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, and that its largest shareholder is a Swiss company called SIX SIS.
The Scottish Salmon Company suffered a loss of nearly £1 million in 2016 because of problems with sea lice and infections. But for 2017 the company reported a pre-tax profit of £29 million, reflecting high prices paid for salmon.
The company stressed that it took fish health and welfare “very seriously” as it was central to responsible salmon farming. “However, as with any farmed stock, mortalities can occur and this has been exacerbated by the warm weather this summer,” said a spokesperson.
“Following receipt last week of video footage and photographs, the SSPCA visited at random a number of sites. The Scottish Salmon Company has not had an opportunity to examine or authenticate this information, but openly facilitated the SSPCA visits and look forward to receiving their feedback.”
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, with a report due to be finalised in the next few weeks.
In June The Ferret published photos of diseased and damaged salmon released by Marine Scotland under freedom of information law, and in August we reported failed attempts by The Scottish Salmon Company and another company to prevent the photos from becoming public. We have also run a series of reports on animal welfare and environmental issues at salmon farms.
Letter to MSPs from the Garynahine Estate
Film and photos thanks to Corin Smith. This story was updated at 18.30 on 3 September 2018 to include a statement from the Scottish Government.