You can’t miss it as you cross one of Scotland’s most beautiful stretches of water. Right next to the soaring bridge to Skye over Kyle Akin, at the mouth of Loch Alsh, sit the blank, metal-clad towers and thrusting concrete quay of the £100m industrial feed mill built by fish farming giant Mowi.
This place is at the heart of the salmon industry on the west coast. Skye is now ringed by 20 or more fish farms, eight of them owned by the Norwegian-based Mowi, and the plant literally feeds them.
There are about 70 people working at the factory on an island with a total population of just 10,000. It’s a vital part of the tacit agreement this community, whose people have leaked away for centuries, has with the aquaculture industry.
This place needs work to tie people here, to bring families back, bring wealth in and give it a future, and with the feed mill and farms there are probably more than 200 people working in the industry on and around the island.
Fish farming companies provide industrial, practical jobs where engineers and other skilled staff can get ahead, earning good money, without buying into the customer-facing tourism industry.
There have, however, been shocking stories about the levels of mortality at Scottish fish farms, escapes, lice infestation, and fish waste blanketing the seabed, while films have captured images of diseased fish.
The fact that fish farming impacts on the environment – damages it, opponents say – is agreed by both farm supporters and their opponents.
But, as local Highland councillor John Finlayson says: “The question is, do these concerns outweigh the employment that this brings, the support for the economy?”
On Skye, first we visit the feed factory. Set in a former quarry, it was completed just last year. The site was chosen because deep water means easy ship deliveries. The 150,000 tonnes of raw material it uses annually arrive by sea, and much of the feed goes out the same way, half of it to Mowi’s farms in Norway, Ireland and the Faroes.
We meet Claes Jonermark, Mowi’s European operations director, who runs the feed side of the business. A ship slides up to the pier to unload, and Jonermark explains that thanks to Brexit the pier will soon need a border control point so materials can continue to come in direct from the EU.
Then we head back into the factory, where the smell of fish feed – a bit like pet-fish food – is unpleasant but not overwhelming. When the factory opened, locals complained about the reek from it. The problem was swiftly sorted, and Jonermark says: “It was a design fault – we didn’t find out until we were in production.”
A major rebuild of the air filters followed, and Jonermark adds: “We want to be a good neighbour… Because most of our employees live here we want it to be an attractive place to live – when we recruit we want to be able to say … this is a nice place to be, so please come here and live here and work with us.”
Up in the extrusion hall, we see feed pellets – made partly from wheat and beans – created. About 20 per cent of the total is fishmeal and fish oil, which Jonermark says are from sustainable sources.
There’s a high-tech control room, where process controller Rhiannon MacAskill works. She was a steward on oil rigs before this job, and leapt at the chance to come back to the area where she was raised.
As a child her parents ran a restaurant and B&B, and from 14 she worked in cafes and restaurants catering for visitors.
This, she says, is vastly better than long hours and low pay in tourism: “I have a good structured shift pattern with a fantastic work-life balance. I can get home every night and still see my husband and the dogs, and have a life outside work, whereas in hospitality, that is your life, there’s not much in between.”
Engineer James Mackay, the mill’s assistant production manager, is from Harris; his wife is from Kyleakin. He was desperate to move back north from the central belt when they started a family, so grabbed the opportunity to come here.
Mackay and MacAskill both acknowledge environmental concerns, but Mackay says: “I do believe Mowi are doing everything they can to make sure the environmental impact is minimised as far as possible, and we develop sustainable raw materials.”
We head north up the coast, past Portree, to the tourist viewpoint at Rigg. A busload of Chinese tourists spills onto the grassy headland, where steep grass slopes tumble down to the sea. In the water far below are the circular cages and feed pipes of an organic fish farm, a recent addition to this coast.
We’re here to meet Ian Dobb, a former resident who has moved to England but still runs self-catering accommodation north of here.
He’s a member of the Skye Communities for Natural Heritage group, formed in opposition to salmon farms. He’s upset about the damage throughout the lifecycle of salmon farming, “whether it’s capturing sand-eels and krill for the feed, or all the other nasty stuff that goes into the feed – right through to the pollution”.
He tells me firing hard feed pellets along plastic pipes on fish farms chips them and releases microplastics, and says the use of hydrogen peroxide as a treatment for sea lice on many farms means the sea is being treated “like a chemical toilet.”
The jobs, he agrees, are a benefit, but adds: “At the end of the day they are just making vast profits by using our coastal waters as a dump. They’re effectively fly-tipping into the sea.”
Although there is opposition here, many Skye people are reluctant to speak out against aquaculture. Hospitality providers who opposed a farm on their doorstep – and no longer serve salmon – decide against talking to us. Other accommodation providers and businesses won’t put their name to their views.
But Dobb points us to Flodigarry, 20 minutes’ drive north of Rigg, where local people opposed a fish farm, and won. Here Gavin Scott-Moncrieff has owned the local backpackers’ hostel for 30 years and is open about his views.
“Like everyone in Flodigarry I was against the fish farm,” he says. Concerns included the site being open to gales which could break up equipment, impacts on seals, and litter and salmon effluent washing up on the stunning shoreline.
“There are 22 fish farms on Skye – that’s enough,” Scott-Moncrieff says. “There should be some cognisance of the fact that there are too many.”
He believes pressure from local communities will bring a move to closed-containment setups where the fish are farmed in tanks completely separated from the sea. “If local people put pressure on, especially where there are so many, it will help.”
Another application by the same firm for a farm further north at Balmaqueen – near Dobb’s holiday accommodation – was also rejected and has been appealed, with the result expected on July 19. Dobb says a local poll found 86 per cent of residents against it.
From Flodigarry we head over the Quiraing road, pinnacles and cliffs wreathed in mist, to the busy port of Uig, to meet Ian Stewart.
Stewart chairs Portree Angling Association, and says anglers’ salmon catches are now just ten per cent of those 20 years ago. It’s a widely held view that escapes from salmon farms and the abundance of sea-lice on farmed salmon, transferring to passing wild fish, has had a major impact on the west coast salmon and sea trout fishery.
Stewart – expressing a personal opinion, not that of the association – believes growing seal and otter populations are partly to blame for wild salmon’s decline. He concedes: “I would prefer it if salmon farming did not exist.”
But also claims it’s not that simple. “In a community like Skye, salmon farming provides many welcome jobs. The idea that salmon farms can be uninvented is a non-starter … We’ve got to work with the aquaculture industry to find a better way forward.”
He wants to see farms better located to lessen impact on salmon rivers, with a moratorium on new farms until there’s better science around the lice problem.
But he says it’s hard to get local communities to come out against current fish farming practices: “Most people here are not interested, jobs are higher on their agenda.”
Loch Harport, north-west of Kyleakin, is quintessential Skye: a silver-blue loch with the ragged black Cuillins etching the skyline, a scattering of bungalows in woods by the water’s edge.
The Mowi farm here, close to Portnalong, is a certified organic site, changed to be organic due consumer demand. There are 14 pens or cages here, and it can produce about 2000 tonnes of fish a year.
We meet Stephen MacIntyre, head of Mowi’s environment team, along with farm manager Kurk Jones. Jones, a local man, has been working in the industry since he left school and explains the workings of the farm, with a big steel feed-barge pumping feed along plastic pipeways to the pens.
MacIntyre says no chemicals are used in raising the fish, and “medication” is kept to a minimum. There are not enough seals for acoustic or other predator deterrents to be needed.
He says regulations on visual impact are strict and the firm ensures the effect of farms on scenery is minimised. Tourism is not affected by them, he believes: “Skye has exploded in terms of tourism and the presence of farms in Skye doesn’t seem to have affected it in terms of popularity with visitors.”
He says Mowi is determined to carry out fish farming responsibly and sustainably: “Part of that also includes ensuring we bring social and economic success to the communities we work in, and this site is an example of that. We have a number of local employees here who have moved into this career from school, and who have bought houses in the area and are now embedded in the area with families in a good job with a reliable income.”
The firm has helped with housing projects and other infrastructure, and he adds: “It’s like a social licence: if we are working here farming fish we have an obligation to support those communities we work in.”
“We don’t say there are no environmental impacts with fish farming, but those impacts are tightly controlled and tightly regulated.”
Is it a trade-off for communities, I ask, with some environmental impacts but some benefits? “Absolutely, yes, that’s a good way to put it,” he replies.
So what can those who want change do? Howard Wood is Scotland’s most successful marine environment campaigner. He founded the Community of Arran Seabed Trust and has spent 25 years battling to get a marine no take zone, and subsequently a wider Marine Protected Area, on the isle of Arran, and is no fan of large-scale aquaculture.
But he says campaigners must use the right tactics: “If you don’t get communities on board, you’re wasting your time. If you can convince local people there is something worth saving, you can win the fight.”
A diver, he used underwater footage and pictures to show the Arran community the riches of the local seabed and the damage scallop dredging could do to it, winning the argument for the Lamlash Bay No Take Zone, where all fishing is banned.
Wood points to the way forward for those opposing fish farms, facing the “multi-million pound PR budget” of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation. “The best way to get communities on board is to inform and educate them, giving them actual facts and figures rather than Mowi PR,” he says.
Nine years ago that’s what James Merryweather and his friends did in South Skye. Merryweather, who lives on the mainland five miles from Kyleakin, gave presentations to people in and around Sleat about the area’s fabulous sea life and the damage he felt fish farms could do. One application for a farm in the area was subsequently withdrawn, and three others failed.
Merryweather runs the Scottish Salmon Think Tank, a lobbying group, with three others, and cites seabed damage, pollution and fish disease as problems with the industry.
He views Mowi’s community benefits as cynical bribes – but even he says we can’t expect to get rid of the industry, and that pushing for change, ultimately to closed containment production, is the answer.
That, he says, requires enormous energy to drive community opposition, and that is something he admits he is running short of. “They have all the power that we don’t have,” he says. “All we have is information and will, and they have got cash.”
The exact nature of the cost to the environment is always a matter for debate, but some of the points opponents make are accepted by producers. Mowi, for instance, confirms Ian Dobb’s assertion that firing pellets along feed pipes produces microplastics. It has slowed down the air flow to lessen this and is researching how to prevent it altogether.
Mowi is looking at taking farms further out to sea, which could cut the risk to wild salmon. The farm at Portnalong has become organic because of consumer demand, and others can see the potential for this product.
Skye firm Organic Sea Harvest (OSH) owns just two recently-created farms: the one we saw with Ian Dobb at Rigg, and another nearby, and has 16 staff.
Organic salmon farming uses lower densities of fish in tanks; cleaner-fish and freshwater baths to deal with lice; and only uses “medicines” on the advice of vets, according to OSH . It says: “Our deep, exposed locations are handpicked to create the best conditions for our fish and protect the environment from harm.”
The picture given by the farm firms seems to reflect the view of John Finlayson: “Given that the environmental issues are so highly profiled at the moment, no fish farming company is not going to try to be more environmentally friendly,” he says.”Society and pressure from society change how people do things.”
Finlayson, who we meet in his Kyleakin home, represents Skye and Raasay on Highland Council, and says fish farms are a good employer, providing good, stable careers without the insecurity of tourism which has been badly hit by the pandemic.
The firms behind them are “supportive of communities,” which includes sponsoring a community minibus, supporting local charities and helping stabilise the ruined castle above the village.
As far as the anti-aquaculture lobby is concerned, he says: “I would never say their complaints aren’t justified, but the question is, do these concerns outweigh the employment that this brings, the support for the economy and the need for a high-protein type of food? My personal opinion is fish farms are good for Skye and Lochalsh. 150-plus jobs in a place like Skye is massive.
“Local people, people who live on Skye, have been brought up on Skye, know better than anyone what’s best for our communities.”
That the salmon companies have to have local communities onside is obvious. Their willingness to provide minibuses or do up castles can be viewed with cynicism.
But their need for community support also sees them bow to pressure and change the way they work. As even the most ardent opponents say, fish farms are not going to go away. It may be the best tactic for their opponents is to try to change them for the better.
This story is the sixth in a series on fish farming funded by journalismfund.eu, an independent, non-profit organisation in Brussels that supports cross-border investigative journalism. Our investigations were carried out in partnership with the Italian journalist, Francesco De Augustinis.
Photos thanks to Angie Catlin.
This article was published in tandem with the Sunday National on 18 July 2021.