INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT - Dr. James
Dr. James Butler is a Fisheries
Biologist in Wester Ross, Scotland.
What’s the nature of your
research out here?
monitoring the populations of salmon and trout in the local rivers
here and trying to figure out what’s restricting their numbers. Many
of the populations here are far, far below their potential. We’re
just trying to figure out what the problems are, sort them out, and
bring the populations back to their original, healthy state. There
has been close to a 90% decrease in a period of 20 years in the
abundance of adult fish. Now, as far as the freshwater side is
concerned, in many of the rivers there aren’t enough adult fish to
actually fill up the available productive space in the river. What
that means is obviously that the population is way below its viable
level and is more prone to extinction. Certainly the small river
systems are very, very close to extinction. You’ve got one, maybe
not even one adult fish coming back every year to spawn. That’s a
situation that is very serious.
What is the
connection with salmon pens?
It’s not just
our research; it’s the government’s research as well, which is
showing that the real problems are in the sea, not in the freshwater
environment. The freshwater environment has remained more or less
stable for centuries. What we’re seeing is a very sudden decrease in
the marine survival of smelts. Those are the young fish that are
going off to sea to feed, and that applies to salmon and sea trout.
Now the question then is what is affecting them? There’s got to be
something in the marine environment that has come along relatively
The answer is
unfortunately complicated in that there is definitely a decrease in
the productivity in the sea in general. That applies to the Pacific
as well as the North Atlantic. Consequently fewer fish are coming
back. But on the West Coast of Scotland we’ve got another problem
that is exacerbating this and making it far worse. Although seals
are increasing in numbers, although other predators are increasing
in numbers, we do know that salmon farming has come into the sea
lochs very recently. There are problems associated with salmon
farming that are making the situation far worse than it is
have you found to suggest that salmon farming is having an impact?
really concerned about is the impact of a parasite we call sea lice.
These parasites are specific to salmon and trout. They don’t live on
any other fish species. We are seeing elevated levels of sea lice on
fish around the coasts. In this case you’ve got a river that flows
out four kilometers away from the local salmon farm. What we’re
doing today is sampling young fish at the mouth of the river to
count the numbers of parasites on them. What we see here is a very
close correlation of numbers of lice on the fish according to what
the production cycle is in the local salmon farm. If the local farm
is being fallowed, like it does every second year, then there are
very low levels of lice. When the farm has been running for a couple
of years, the numbers of parasites on the farm are built up, and
consequently you end up with high numbers of lice on the sea trout
as well. When I say high, I mean fatally high. So you’re talking
about a lethal level. These lethal amounts are about 30 lice per
fish, but we’re getting upwards of 200 lice per fish up and down the
West Coast of Scotland.
Is it true
that in certain lochs, where there are no salmon farms, lice is
less of a problem?
Let’s look at
populations of fish in different sea lochs. In rivers that flow into
sea lochs without salmon farms, the populations are depleted. But
they are not as depleted as they are in other sea lochs where they
do have fish farms. We know that lice levels are higher on wild fish
in sea lochs with fish farms rather than without. So clearly there
does seem to be some circumstantial evidence that the situation is
worse in areas where there are salmon farms.
What is the
industry doing to try to cut down on the incidence of lice in their
acknowledged now by the industry and by the wild fish side that
something needs to be done about the lice and it’s not just as
simple as throwing chemicals at them. The chemicals clearly have an
effect on an extended area of the environment. So what we’re all
trying to suggest to them is that they approach it in a different
way. We’re putting forth ideas with alternative production cycles
that would reduce the numbers of lice at particular times of the
year. Also we suggest moving the cage sites to more exposed areas
where the lice problem would be diluted and cages would be further
away from the river mouth.
the industry say to questions about why they are sighting their
net cages so close to a river mouth?
sheltered water and the technology isn’t there yet for them to use
bigger, stronger cages further out to sea where the weather is
rougher. When the technology comes along, we hope that they’ll be
able to do that. But at the moment, they say they don’t have the
financing available to go into offshore technology. Consequently
they have to stay in these more sheltered areas, which inevitably is
where the rivers come in.
social value to the local community of restoring and sustaining
a thriving salmon and sea trout fishery?
here at the mouth of the River Ewe, which is the biggest river in
Wester Ross. At the moment it employs about four or five guides, and
these are people who take folks out fishing for salmon and trout.
Now only 15 years ago this river supported 15 or 20 guides during
the summertime, and that was when the fishery itself really wasn’t
being exploited fully. Tourism and fishing tourism wasn’t advertised
fully either. What we’d like to see is a return to those days, but
better still where tourism is built up and promoted around local
fishing. This could potentially be absolutely fantastic, and could
rival New Zealand and Russia and so on. But it’s very difficult to
get that going when you don’t have any fish. That’s what we’re
trying to deal with and initiate. We want to get some fish here
first and then move on to providing a thriving local economy based
on fishing tourism.
When you compare
that with fish farming, the farming will become more and more
intensive and less and less labor will be tied up in the industry.
That’s inevitable with any farming industry. At the moment, the fish
farm here is employing five people. It used to employ 15. That’s not
because of the lack of fish; that’s because they’re becoming more
mechanized. As the economy is scaled that would inevitably reduce
this even further. In the long run, wild fisheries are certainly the
way to go. They are much more sustainable, and should be able to
provide jobs consistently over a long period of time, rather than
just boom and bust, which unfortunately is the case with
say that salmon farms are creating high-level jobs. Jobs created
for biologists, engineers, researchers, and university people. Care
to comment on that?
that further in the field, where you have processing plants and
research laboratories, there will be employment as far as fish
farming is concerned. But on the local level, employment is really
going down. It’s not necessarily long-term, in terms of sustainable
employment and contribution to the economy. What we’d like to see is
a happy marriage between the two where there’d be small-scale fish
farming that would be truly sustainable and thriving fisheries as
well. The two actually do complement each other very
So what is
the way forward in terms of cooperation between the two sectors?
question that the two sectors should be able to live together and in
fact complement each other. Some fish farms are already helping some
rivers with restocking and so on. So there clearly is a mutual
benefit for the two sectors to live side-by-side. At the moment,
what we’re trying to promote on the West Coast is to get voluntary
agreements between fish farmers and local river owners, and try to
sort out some of the problems at the local level. That’s a very slow
process, because there are often lots of people involved. Many of
these rivers are owned by anywhere from five to nine different
Trying to get
consensus between river owners alone is difficult. Then when you add
all that to the fact that several fish farm companies are operating
in one sea loch, you have to get consensus between them as well. So
in some areas it has been a very difficult process. In others it’s
been a relatively easy process. But the critical thing is that
setting up an agreement is just the first step. What we really need
to see after you’ve got an agreement is real action as to how to get
to the bottom of these problems, both on the farmed fish side and
the wild fish side. Unfortunately I think that’s going to take a
long time. Perhaps in some cases, the fisheries and the fish
populations themselves aren’t going to wait that long.
What is the
status of local fish stocks? Are they in jeopardy?
There is a lot
of variation; some stocks are okay. In the River Ewe, salmon stock
is okay but the sea trout population has collapsed. There are
smaller rivers where the salmon population is effectively extinct.
There are some juveniles there that were spawned three or four years
ago, but not enough to actually produce returning adult salmon. So
in the next five or ten years it’s quite likely that in some of the
smaller river systems, species like salmon will be going
As an estimate,
we figure that in some of the larger rivers around here there used
to be 2,000 or 3,000 adult salmon running back into them every year.
Now we’re down to about 400 or 500. In some cases, that’s barely
enough to fill up the freshwater juvenile habitat. In some cases,
it’s less than that. So we’re ending up with rivers being far below
their potential. So the salmon won’t make it to the adult stage;
they’re much more vulnerable to extinction.
How do the
salmon populations on the West Coast compare to the salmon populations
on the East Coast?
seeing is far higher marine mortality of salmon populations on the
West Coast as they go out to sea and come back again. Until
recently, there was no hard evidence to actually give a figure on
that, because the government never had fish traps and research
projects set up in the West like they have in the East. On the East
Coast, marine mortality has definitely increased. You’re getting
maybe 6% of fish coming back to the rivers. On the West Coast, we’ve
set up some traps now, and very recently we have found that as few
as 1% is coming back. So there’s a definite difference there.
There’s an overall decline of salmon coming back from the high seas,
but on the West Coast it’s about a 5% to 6% bigger problem than it
is on the East Coast.