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Why your salmon sandwich is disastrous for the environment – but saving the economy

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Certification is a persistent problem. There are plenty of different badges for salmon, but it is hard for consumers to know what they mean. The RSPCA Assured label, under whose banner almost 100 per cent of Scottish salmon is farmed, has come in for particular criticism.

“There’s no upper limit on mortality on RSPCA Assured farms,” says Mulrenan. “You can have farms with 80 per cent of the stock dying in one go and they still keep their certification. There is a real lack of transparency around it as well, because every company is certified, but not every farm. But there’s no communication about which farms are and aren’t. As a consumer you would just assume that all Scottish salmon has that assured label.” She says that the RSPCA’s dual role – in 2022 it earned more than £700,000 for its role in certification – represents a fundamental conflict of interest. 

Chris Packham, the wildlife presenter, and president of the RSPCA, finds himself in an awkward position. In an interview with The Times in March, he said “it is time farmed salmon was taken out of our seas and off our tables for good: for the health of fish, people and planet”. 

“Speaking in a personal capacity, I think the salmon farming industry urgently needs reform and regulation,” he tells The Telegraph. “There are multiple ills; animal welfare, environmental damage, ecological impacts, human health, social injustice, to name a few. The RSPCA are actively working with the industry and they are lobbying hard for improvements – earlier this year they upgraded the standards required to meet their assured schemes.

“Outside of this, there are many campaigners whose dedicated work to expose the problems is invaluable,” he adds. “Without their endeavours we simply would not know what is going on in those pens. When it comes to campaigning for change, I believe a broad portfolio of methods is most effective. So I will work with all those who legally, peacefully and creatively confront this important issue – because I want a result … for fish, for people and for the environment.” 

The tug-of-war between farmers and legislators will continue, as the giants look for ways to maximise their return on investment. As consumers move away from other meats and towards fish, the demand for farmed salmon will increase. Climate change will make it harder to farm, but farming methods will improve. For now, as Cunningham’s research shows, if you are consuming salmon from Scotland, you are very likely contributing to farming practices that are badly affecting the environment. 

Back on Guinard beach, Cunningham and his team net a sea trout smolt, a nervous skinny thing. He anaesthetises it with a little clove oil, before weighing, measuring and checking the fish for lice. There are none so far.  

“It’s probably too young,” Cunningham says, putting it back into the seawater. Give it time. 


Chris Packham should help to end the scourge of salmon farming

Rupert Lowe is business and agriculture spokesman for Reform UK

It is heartening to observe that Chris Packham, like an increasing number of people, is shocked by what is going on in the salmon farming industry. To date, there appears to have been little or no interest from the mainstream of the conservation organisations, and this has fatally undermined efforts to even slow the expansion of the salmon farming industry, let alone stop it altogether.

As a keen salmon fisherman, I am seeing the detrimental effects of this practice.

It is difficult to imagine an industry based on livestock rearing that could be worse. Much is rightly made of the pollution from waste food and faeces, the welfare and biodiversity impacts of out of control sea lice and the billions of fish killed to feed the salmon, but an aspect often overlooked is the impact of novel diseases whose emergence has resulted from the close confinement of fish, that in the wild would rarely, if ever, be in close proximity.

Thirty years ago, salmon had one recorded infectious disease, ulcerative dermal necrosis. Now they suffer from a myriad of ailments.

Incredibly, no one knows what effect these diseases have on migrating salmonids or on other fish species. 

We do know the effect that these diseases have on the farmed salmon; they die on a vast scale. The numbers are almost too large to comprehend. 

Last year, one farm in the Hebrides had a cumulative mortality of 82.3 per cent. Another lost 210,000 fish in a month. If they each weighed a kilo that’s seven tonnes of dead fish every day, but they are likely to be a lot bigger. So what do they do with 15-20 tonnes of dead and diseased dead fish every day?

The total mortality rate for salmon in Scotland last year, estimated by the Scottish government regulator, was 17 million salmon. That’s three farmed salmon that died on Scottish salmon farms for every man, woman and child in Scotland.

Mr Packham’s role in wildlife campaign group Wild Justice, his presidency of the RSPCA and his vice-presidency of RSPB put him in a unique position to help in addressing the situation.

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