Scotland’s Salmon Crisis

Gigha has long been lauded as one of the great successes of the community land buyout movement. When the community bought their island in 2002 they put Gigha in the vanguard of the Scottish land reform movement, with the innovative Gigha Halibut project (now closed) and the ‘Dancing Sisters’ Gigha Battery Project, the first community-owned grid-connected wind farm in Scotland, they seemed to be a model for community empowerment.

But now Bakkafrost, a Faroese salmon company, are proposing siting eight 160-metre-wide cages and a feed barge on the west coast of the island. The promise is of five jobs. If that sounds meagre its proof of the precarious nature of the rural economy. 61% of those surveyed by the community council, oppose the plan. The case highlights the fragility of the actual autonomy of island communities and the limitations of the land reform movement.

Scotland’s lochs are pockmarked by salmon farming, often foreign-owned and guilty of mass pollution and what is increasingly apparent disgusting animal welfare. So why do we put up with an industry that pollutes our waters, effects our marine aquaculture and endangers wild salmon? It’s an absolutely huge business and used as an icon for Scotland around world. What a dark irony that an industry that’s destroying our natural environment is used to celebrate our ‘wild’ and ‘natural’ highlands.

Farmed salmon was the UK’s top food export in 2023. The past decade has seen Scotland’s £1.2bn aquaculture sector increase its contribution to the economy by 154% to £472m, surpassing marine fishing at £321m. No-one’s going to shut down that cash-cow even in the face of overwhelming evidence of  animal welfare issues, mass die-offs because of rising sea temperatures and widespread contamination of our sea.

Karen McVeigh, a writer specialising in the state of our oceans has written: “Rising death rates have sparked concern. About one in four Scottish salmon don’t live to harvest and data from the Fish Health Inspectorate reveals a trend of mostly rising mortality levels in seawater in recent years, from just over 4m in 2020 to more than 10m last year.”

“Campaigners point out that one of Bakkafrost’s salmon units off Gigha, Druimyeon Bay farm, had the highest cumulative mortality of all Scotland’s active fish farms in 2023, at 82.3%, according to industry figures. It is also one of Scotland’s most southerly salmon farms.”

Matt McGrath, the BBC’s Environment Correspondent (though interestingly not the Scottish one) has written: “Salmon farming has come a long way since the fish were first grown commercially in cages in Norway in the 1960s. The industry has expanded rapidly in recent decades, with around 70% of salmon eaten around the world now coming from farms.”

But the aquaculture industry has long been controversial – with significant worries over disease among the fish, escapes to the wild and the overall environmental impact of raising them in cages.”

“Major mortality events, involving the sudden deaths of millions of fish have been well documented, sometimes caused by disease outbreaks but also linked to warmer seas resulting from climate change. In Scotland last year, government data shows that more than 17 million salmon died, the most ever recorded. Producers blamed hotter oceans for the losses.”

17 million salmon died.

What kind of industry is that?

An astonishing 210,000 salmon died in a single month at a fish farm owned by Bakkafrost at Loch na Keal, Mull. Don Staniford has labelled the Faroes-based company the worst offender where salmon mass-mortalities are concerned. People on Gigha are concerned that what we have seen happening on Mull will be repeated on Gigha

The journalist Vicky Allan has done work with the Herald to uncover the scale of the mortality rates:

Herald investigation into Bakkafrost’s mass mortalities on the Isle of Mull from Don Staniford on Vimeo.

The numbers are astonishing.


Major questions remain for the Salmon industry and the regulatory bodies. How can the RSPCA certify salmon? What does it say about Scottish society and government that such an industry is used as an icon around the world? What does it say about the Scottish Government that in the newly published Vision for Sustainable Aquaculture, Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary, Mairi Gougeon, says aquaculture has a crucial role to play in contributing to the country’s food security and meeting its commitment to becoming a Good Food Nation?

Tavish Scott, chief executive of trade body Salmon Scotland, said the Vision “puts salmon farming at the heart of the country’s economic growth plans, helping Scotland’s journey to net zero and supporting healthy diets”.

Despite mealy-mouthed words about sustainability and transparency the salmon industry is Scotland’s disgrace. The gap between the iconic identity of salmon as a wild symbol of natural Scotland, and the reality is massive. The potential to completely replace this industry with regenerative genuinely sustainable jobs is huge, but the Scottish Government seems to be missing a massive open goal here, instead propping up (and covering up) for short-term lucrative gain. A mass boycott of salmon should be the goal to exert pressure on government and industry.

Comments (17)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    On the conflict of interest of regulators creating an income stream from the regulated:
    But why is an England-and-Wales royal charity/business operating what appears to be a racket in Scotland anyway?

    1. Good question, thanks for the link

  2. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

    I’m getting the impression that, whenever a difficult-to-deal-with issue arises, the Scottish Government, as one, turns its back and simply refuses to engage. Too many hard-of-thinking elected and employed in and around Holyrood. That must change.

  3. Jack Welch says:

    These projects as well as severly degrading the immediate area are an appaling way to treat a sentient animal. Migratory salmon and sea trout runs have been decimated on the West Coast of Scotland destroying many sustainable local jobs in tourism and direct economic benefit rather than MOWI and others exported profits.
    There is far more sustainable value that can be derived from the extensive sea areas around Scotland with other industries from sea weed to sustainable regenerative fishing.

  4. Hugh McShane says:

    The cash streams from sea- cage fish farming have been allowed to grow to this ‘too big to shut down’ stage. Combined with being subject to U.K. Internal Markets Act+ post-Brexit freedom to experiment with genetically engineered for more profit, Frankenfish- we have a truly dire situation.

  5. Neil McRae says:

    You ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait till they get a product license to start using neonicotinoids on their lice-ridden fish (as they already have in Norway) – time to kiss the marine ecosystem goodbye.

    1. Sadly you are exactly right Neil

  6. Lordmac says:


  7. Mike Parr says:

    I stopped eating any salmon (smoked or fresh) from Scotland or Norway years ago. I will eat Pacific salmon (wild). If we all did it – the farmers would need to change their ways. A vile industry, kept alive by a failure to enforce regulations.
    One can see how “markets” destroy the environment – same is happening to the River Wye due to too many chicken farms in the catchment area – runoff is killing/has killed the river – Welsh & Uk govs have done……..nothing. Which leaves “other” forms of action – when govs fail to act.

    1. Yes Mike – I think a mass boycott is what’s needed

  8. Niemand says:

    Was on Gigha a few years back for a week’s holiday. Lovely place and I know exactly the spot where the new fish farms are to be located – they will be directly in line of one of the most beautiful spots on the island, looking across to the Paps of Jura, and Islay. When I was there small fishing boats were operating right where the farms will go. Like most I find this whole salmon industry pretty disgusting and never buy salmon.

    As an aside, Gigha has the most amazing stands of huge elm trees in the centre of the island at Achamore Gardens – Dutch elm disease has never got there. The starry night sky there is also truly stunning, best I have ever seen.

    The Guardian has written about this salmon farm story and it is a decent account I think:

  9. Wul says:

    I haven’t eaten that muck (farmed salmon) for years. It’s a toxic food. Possibly the most toxic there is.

    The whole industry is a negative-sum game. It takes more that a kilogram of feed, made from other (wild) sea creatures, to produce a kilo of salmon. This “business” extracts wild sea creatures and replaces them with dead, toxic salmon and their faeces, floating in our seas.

  10. Callum A says:

    That’s 31% mortalities I make it. Shocking husbandry. Poor excuse for a farm. Battery caged chickens run at 14% worst case in the bad old days. Projected production of toxic fish farmed salmon for 2023 was 187,725 Tonnes. This is from industry figures published in a report given to the government last year. Sadly they do not give us a number of actual Salmon so with a very large pinch of hebridean sea salt(tm) I calculate the number like this… there’s a complication as when you read that report you find that most fish were not full size, they average weight of a salmon is 5.5-6kg according to this site and a Scottish Government report (from a few years back). A 2020 report on the Scottish Government website produced with Marine Harvest now MOWI seems to indicate 5.5kg is pretty average weight for fish farmed salmon in Scotland. The website All About Feed references 5.2kg as the average gutted weight. Lets say the average weight of disgusting fish farmed salmon is 5kg.

    5kg divided by 187725000 kg (projected production tonnage 2023) is equal to 38 Million fish. From the most recently published numbers, the Bella Caledonia article, shows us 17 Million of those did not make it to market. 38 Million was the apparent projection of salmon sold. 40% loss? Utterly unforgivable. Not to mention the rivers I once fished with my grandfather, just 30 years ago, pretty much empty today.

    1. It is absolutely astonishing and absolutely disgusting.

      1. Callum A says:

        I made a mistake with the maths there, its actually closer to 31%. Still a 6% increase from last few years. Can you possibly edit my original comment as that is wrong.

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