These were most likely seals who broke into the salmon cage, freeing its occupants, on a farm run by Scottish Sea Farms off the Isle of Mull.
The salmon are estimated to have been about 3lbs each and were due to be harvested next year. The escaped fish include around 1,300 wrasse, kept as cleaner fish to control sea lice, a major pest on salmon farms. A similar escape in the Outer Hebrides last year saw about 30,000 salmon go free. Still this is nothing compared with some of Ireland's great escapes. In February 2014 storms damaged a salmon farm in Gearhies, Bantry Bay after which 230,000 salmon were missing.
Escaping farmed salmon present a major threat to wild Atlantic salmon, as they carry diseases and parasites such as lice that can spread to wild fish populations. Caged fish are treated with antibiotics and other veterinary medications, and are housed with cleaner fish, but wild salmon and trout are helpless against such ailments. Conservationists also worry about inter-breeding between farmed and wild salmon, which is suspected of weakening the genetic pool. This is because wild salmon are known to evolve unique characteristics adapted to their own catchments.
Salmon farming has been at the centre of a series of controversies since it was first introduced in Ireland. In 2002 the owner of a trout fishery in County Mayo complained to the European Commission against Seastream Ltd. over numerous salmon escapes and the presence of a virus, infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) in his stretch of the Newport river. There have been constant debates ever since.
Speaking at a conference in Galway in February, Niall Greene of Salmon Watch Ireland, an advocacy group dedicated to saving endangered wild salmon stocks, summed up the responses of various authorities to escapes such as this: “The reactions of the salmon farming jurisdictions within NASCO [North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation] range from openly recognizing that there are sea-lice, escape and disease problems and attempting to find technical and management solutions (Norway); to not caring about whether there is a major threat to wild salmonids (Scotland); to living in a fantasy land where it is asserted that all the problems have been solved (Ireland).”
Greene believes that authorities are turning a blind eye to breaches of best practice on Irish and Scottish salmon farms because “they believe that wild salmon conservation and farmed salmon development cannot be reconciled and that the socio-economic and, therefore, political benefits of farming trump all else”. In other words they have given up trying to save wild salmon stocks.
But wild salmon are worth millions as well, through angling tourism. It is estimated that every salmon caught is worth €2,500 to the local economy. Wildlife groups want to see salmon farms moved inland altogether to solve the problems of disease spreading to wild fish and genetic mixing. But subsidies give salmon farms financial support and the industry is seen as crucial both for its supplies of fresh fish and for its provision of local employment.
A number of new large-scale salmon farms have been proposed of late and they have received some public support because of the employment opportunities they promise. In 2012 Marine Harvest, Ireland's biggest farmed salmon producer, applied for permission to build a €3.5m facility at Shot Head in Bantry Bay. The company already has 35 cages in Bantry Bay with between 40,000-60,000 salmon in each cage. It is seeking an additional 18 cages within the bay.
Permission was granted for the expansion, but massive opposition, both locally and nationally, with appeals by 14 separate individuals and groups have delayed the project. No final decision has yet been made as oral presentations were still being heard in February.
The project has divided locals, with Bantry's tourism board having been lured by Marine Harvest's offer to provide tours of the facilities, while angling and environmental groups such Inland Fisheries, Save Bantry Bay and Coomhola Salmon Trust say that another salmon farm threatens the future of the area's wild fish stocks.
Considering the economic value of wild salmon and trout for angling tourism and the iconic status of the salmon as a species, it might be worth listening to the experts. Moving salmon farms inland would cost money in the short-term but would enhance the credibility of farmed salmon in terms of sustainability. At present advocacy groups advise concerned citizens against eating any kind of salmon because of the fact that one type is endangered while the other is partially to blame.
Wild Atlantic Salmon, only recently an abundant fish in Ireland, is now managed on a river by river basis because stocks keep declining. Diseases and parasites from salmon farms are only part of the problem for wild salmon. Mysterious circumstances are affecting their survival at sea, with some speculating that rising temperatures have shifted their prey species further north, leaving young salmon smolts to starve.
The latest Inland Waterways report had this to say: “Given the current levels of poor survival, the expectation of large catches is unrealistic at present and priority should be given to conservation objectives rather than catch increases until there is a noticeable improvement in stock abundance.”