Unprecedented collapse of salmon run in South-West Highlands underlines failure of Scottish Government to protect wild fish from the catastrophically negative impact of salmon farming

This year’s run of salmon in the most closely monitored river in Argyll is on course to be the lowest on record. The salmon count on the River Awe has hit an all-time low after 30 weeks of the season.

Last year’s total of 807 fish was only slightly above the all-time lowest count. This year it is running at only one third of the 2016 count. If this continues the final total will struggle to reach 400. This would be by far the lowest count of returning salmon to the biggest river in the South-West Highlands since records began in 1965.

River Awe salmon count

The Awe is a short river, draining Scotland’s longest loch (Loch Awe), with a hydro-electric dam at its head. There is a fish lift and a counter in the dam. The flow regime is such that fish can run the river any day of the year; almost all the fish are destined for the headwaters and thus there is a full river count which is almost unaffected by the weather.

Roger Brook, Chairman of the Argyll District Salmon Fishery Board, said:

“The Scottish Government has promoted the continued expansion of the salmon aquaculture industry whilst refusing to implement adequate control on the siting of farms and the levels of sea lice on the farms. We call upon Scottish Government to insist that future farms are sited away from the probable migration routes. The worst existing farms, both in terms of location and lice control, should now be closed.”

Mr Brook continued:

“Rivers such as the Awe are facing an uneconomic future but the government appears to care nothing about our iconic west Highland salmon and the important west coast tourist industry associated with recreational fishing. We are facing a very precarious future.”

Andrew Graham-Stewart, Director of Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland (S&TC Scotland), said:

“Since the arrival of intensive salmon farming, numbers of mature west Highland sea trout have crashed. The decline in wild salmon numbers has not thus far been as extreme but it now appears that in the southern section of the west Highlands the decline is accelerating into a free fall.”

Mr Graham-Stewart added:

“Despite all the warnings regarding the consequences of pursuing the unfettered growth of salmon farming without any meaningful controls to protect wild fish, successive Scottish Governments have blundered on with this policy.”

In an attempt to quantify the effect of salmon aquaculture, a comparison can be made between salmon catches on the East coast of Scotland and the west coast between the Mull of Kintyre and Ardnamurchan Point (South-West Highlands). Between 1970 and 2014 rod catches of salmon on the East coast increased by almost 40%. Over the same time period rod catches in the South-West Highlands declined by 50%. See here.

Juvenile salmon migrating from rivers in the South-West Highlands must run the gauntlet close to lice-producing salmon farms not only in the immediate area but also the whole way up the west coast before they reach open ocean, free of aquaculture. Throughout this coastal migration they are vulnerable to infestation by deadly sea lice. It stands to reason that, the more salmon farms that outgoing juvenile salmon have to negotiate past on their migration to the North Atlantic feeding grounds, the less likely they are to survive.

The other major river in the South-West Highlands is the Lochy, which enters the sea by Fort William. The published rod catch of salmon to the end of July was 33, summed up by the river’s management as “the worst start in recent times.” The catch to the end of July was just 27% of the five year average for the same period. See http://www.fishpal.com/Scotland/Lochaber/lochy/?dom=Pal

In June, the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, in response to a formal Petition lodged in the Scottish Parliament in February 2016 by S&TC Scotland seeking protection for wild salmonids from sea lice from Scottish salmon farms, agreed to launch an Inquiry (scheduled for early 2018) into salmon farming in Scotland and the issues raised by S&TC Scotland.

S&TC Scotland believes that a future is possible where Scottish salmon farming and wild fish can both thrive but in the medium term this can only be achieved by moving farming into closed containment tank systems, thus preventing the spread of disease and parasites from the farms to wild salmon and sea trout. In the meantime effective regulation of farms to protect wild fish is long overdue.


Issued by Andrew Graham-Stewart (telephone 01863 766767 or 07812 981531) on behalf of Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland.

Notes for editors

1) Salmon & Trout Conservation UK (S&TC UK) was established as the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA) in 1903 to address the damage done to our rivers by the polluting effects of the Industrial Revolution. Since then, S&TC UK has worked to protect fisheries, fish stocks and the wider aquatic environment for the public benefit. S&TC UK has charitable status in both England and Scotland (as S&TC Scotland) and its charitable objectives empower it to address all issues affecting fish and the aquatic environment, supported by robust evidence from its scientific network, and to take the widest possible remit in protecting salmonid fish stocks and the aquatic environment upon which they depend. www.salmon-trout.org    www.salmon-troutscotland.org

2) Scottish Government action required

Fisheries scientists – including the Scottish Government’s own scientists – are firm in their conclusions that sea lice produced on fish-farms harm wild salmon and sea trout, both at an individual and at a population level. However, S&TC Scotland believes that these threats are not being addressed by effective regulation and control of sea lice numbers on fish-farms in Scotland, which are essential to protect wild fish populations, many already significantly reduced.

3) Just what is the problem with sea lice?

Adult wild salmon are perfectly adapted to coping with a few sea lice. Background levels of these parasites occur naturally in the sea. However, the advent of salmon farming, particularly in fjordic or largely enclosed sea lochs, has led to a fundamental change in the density and occurrence of sea lice in parts of the coastal waters of the west Highlands and Islands. Even one or two mature female sea lice per fish within a set of cages housing hundreds of thousands of farmed salmon amounts to a large breeding reservoir that releases huge numbers of mobile juvenile sea lice out into the local marine environment. The consequences when wild salmon and sea trout smolts, the metamorphosing fragile skin of which is not adapted to cope with more than the odd louse, migrate from local rivers, can be very serious.

Carrying an unnaturally high burden of sea lice is known to compromise severely the survival of juvenile migratory salmonids. Lice feed by grazing on the surface of the fish and eating the mucous and skin. Large numbers of lice soon cause the loss of fins, severe scarring, secondary infections and, in time, death. Badly infested salmon smolts disappear out to sea, never to be seen again. In contrast, afflicted sea trout smolts remain within the locality and they, together with the impact of the lice burdens they carry, are more easily monitored through sweep net operations.