You might have an image of Scottish Salmon.
It might be an image of a delicately smoked and thin sliver of fish on a glittering platter with a wedge of lemon or maybe a wedge of pink and juicy flesh, fried to perfection.
Or maybe you imagined it in its' natural state - A magnificent and powerful animal finning its' way from the open ocean back to the spawning grounds where it was born.
When I came to write this blog and wanted to put in an image of this fish, virtually all the pictures presented to me were of dead ones on plates. No-one, it seemed, was very interested in getting hold of a photo of a live salmon, and if they were they certainly weren't sharing it.
Our relationship with this creature, however, is not one based upon respect or concern for its' welfare - at least not here in Scotland which produces nearly all the UK's farmed salmon - something in the region of 200,000 tons of it a year.
The idea of farming the fish, according to the Scottish Salmon Producer's Organisation (SSPO) has been around since before Victorian times. Although initially seen as a method of restocking rivers, the business really got off the ground in the mid-60's with the first commercial farm at Loch Ailort in Inverness-shire. That initial harvest of some 14 tons has since literally exploded as people flocked to buy the product. Although last year about half of the yearly harvest was exported, much of it is still eaten in the UK, even though it is not cheap. An average slice of salmon will set you back about a fiver (about £20 a kilo) or about the same price as steak - the smoked version is about twice that. But after all, is it not a healthy and sustainable product?
Not quite, I'm afraid.
Scottish salmon, along with other farmed fish around the world are by necessity kept tightly packed in large cages, usually anchored to the sea-bed. It is these conditions that allow for pathogens to proliferate. Of these, sea-lice are a particular problem. These parasites attach themselves to the fish and feed off their blood and skin, draining them of vitality and severely reducing their chances of survival.
Salmon farmers have tried many approaches to removing the blood-suckers, enthusiastically putting thousands of live fish through 'hot baths', pumping extravagant quantities of crustacean-killing compounds into the water and even capturing wild, lice-eating fish to help out. These attempts have been largely unsuccessful, often resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of salmon and pollution of Scottish lochs.
And compounding the problem of keeping untold numbers of creatures in cages is that when one is damaged, many escape into the wild.
In August, storm Ellen cut a swathe across Western Scotland and in the process it also broke several cages of farmed salmon in Carradale, near Campbeltown.
30,000 salmon died that night, and a further 50,000 escaped into the wild (BBC news)
This is not quite good news, though. Farmed salmon are not like their wild counterparts. Genetically different, they carry disease as well as the afore-mentioned chemical-rich blood. These all threaten the viability of wild salmon, of which there are relatively few and which have also been declining steadily since the 1960's. Put into perspective, their numbers are approximately 35,000 fish or less than half the number of farmed salmon that escaped in the aftermath of Storm Brendan in January in Colonsay. A further 50,000 escaped during the same winter.
About 4 million fish have escaped since 1995.
The longer-term effects on marine life and ecosystems can only be imagined.
And it is not only the damage to our environment that is the issue here. Farmed salmon are perhaps amongst the world's most poorly-treated animals.
Let me give you an example: After the most recent mass escape, 'Fisheries Management Scotland', (perhaps the least appropriately-named organisation after NatureScot) issued urgent bulletins to anglers across Scotland. People catching any of the farmed salmon were ordered to kill them on sight.
The organisation helpfully pointed out how anglers could identify the escapees.
Is it a farmed fish? Scottish Government advice lists the following characteristics to look out for when identifying a farmed fish:
Deformed or shortened fins (especially the dorsal, pectoral and tail fins) • Deformed or shortened gill covers (may be only on one side) •
Deformed or shortened snout •
Heavy pigmentation (spots more numerous than are usual on wild salmon)
The really worrying thing about this bulletin is that it is all said so matter-of-factly. If we had regular escapes of, say, cattle and people were asked to look out for deformed creatures as an identifying feature, would you still tuck into a steak?
FMS also produced a guide for anglers in which they say:
"Often a ragged or wavy dorsal fin is the most noticeable feature of a farmed fish."
Not that you would necessarily want to eat a farmed salmon. In fact, the bulletin expressly forbids anyone from eating a farmed escaped salmon.
"...on no account should the fish be kept or consumed." (Fisheries Management Scotland)
and just in case one didn't understand that
"...farmed fish should not be retained or consumed by any angler".
Slightly worried? Well we should be. A recent video at a Scottish fish-farm highlighted the awful conditions and neglect that Scottish farmed salmon endure.
We have made strides in the protections offered for farmed animals. Isn't it about time we did the same for this majestic creature?
One thing we can be sure of, though is that the SSPO has little truck with people who attempt to explore the issues and bring them to the wider world.
A recent article noted how a film-maker received a police apology after being wrongly told he could not film there.
The SSPO reaction was just too brazen to ignore. This is what the organisation's Director of Strategic Engagement had to offer on the subject:
“Like death and taxes, these activists will always be with us. We cannot force them to disappear but what we can do is harness the consent of all the other, responsible, marine users to make it so difficult for them to invade our sites that they are kept right out on the fringes – which is where they should have been, all along.” Hamish Macdonell.
And I think that really encapsulates everything you need to know about Scottish Salmon.