The way to save the salmon

The fact is, cheap salmon is nasty salmon. And it's not only the taste and texture that are nasty
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WE'RE ALL supposed to be well-versed in the dangers of big fish and small ponds, but there's still something pathetic about the present furore over 50 dead salmon. A political storm has been whipped up around the story of these fast-growing laboratory creatures, because it involves genetic modification, and therefore lends itself to "Frankenfish" headlines. But while the prospect of outsize salmon escaping into the wild at some unspecified time in the future is a frightening one, the real horror story is happening now, and without the input of genetic modification.

It all started 25 years ago, back in the days when ordinary people ate salmon only out of tins or at weddings. While you didn't get to taste it often, it was always a treat. In recent years this erstwhile delicacy has become ubiquitous, thanks to salmon farming. For a time the idea of smoked salmon sandwiches for lunch every day was heaven. When I got bored with eating the stuff, I initially thought that it was another case of familiarity breeding contempt. It only gradually dawned on me that this wasn't what was happening at all. The fact is that cheap salmon is nasty salmon. And it isn't only the taste and texture that are nasty. The farmed fish itself is already monstrous. The helping hand of Mary Shelley's good doctor is not at all necessary here.

Or at least, that's where all the anecdotal evidence points. And that is all there is. Despite various health and environmental scares around farmed salmon farming over the years, there has been absolutely no research into the impact that intensive salmon farming may have on the environment. The Government has no plans to commission any, either.

Every school child knows the extraordinary story of the life cycle of wild salmon. How they are born and spend their early years in the fresh water of rivers. How, eventually, they strike out for the ocean. How, when they are fully grown, they swim back thousands of miles to the river they were born in. How, without stopping to eat during the journey, they battle upstream against the current to the spot where they were spawned and start the whole process again.

But now, in Scotland, unless something changes immediately, wild salmon face almost certain extinction, with salmon in some Scottish rivers this year depleted by 90 per cent. Their decline has accelerated alarmingly since the introduction of farmed salmon in the Seventies, and they are now at their lowest level since accurate recording began in 1952. While putative links are dismissed by the Scottish Salmon Growers Association (Well, they would, wouldn't they?), this position is quickly becoming untenable.

Disease has long been considered the main problem with salmon farming, and there has been a great deal of it. The latest victims are scallop fishermen, who are currently twiddling their thumbs after a ban on scallop fishing across much of Western Scotland. The problem is amnesic shellfish poisoning, which causes vomiting, headaches, limb numbness and memory loss in human beings. A recent outbreak in Canada, where the disease was first recorded in 1987, killed four people. High levels of ammonia are blamed for amnesic shellfish poisoning. Salmon farms are the biggest source of ammonia on the West Coast of Scotland, and, of course, they are a major industry in Canada too.

The Scottish salmon farming industry itself is in crisis, due to an outbreak of infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) on 10 sites, and suspected outbreaks on a further 15. About 4 million fish have already been destroyed and another 7 million are under threat.

The Government has put together a pounds 9m aid package to farmers over three years in response to the crisis, but the funds will be made available only if the beleaguered industry matches the Government's funding. Already 17,000 diseased salmon have escaped from a farm near Oban, and while ISA is said to affect only "stressed" fish, conservationists suggest that wild salmon are likely to be just as stressed as farmed ones in the current climate.

Anyway, anglers have recently been finding evidence which suggests that even without disease, escaped farm salmon are a huge threat to wild salmon. Farmed salmon caught in Scottish rivers have been found with salmon eggs and parr in their stomachs. Wild salmon, it appears, are being devoured at birth.

While, again, no qualitative research into this phenomenon has been carried out, or even slated, it seems reasonable to suppose that the massive depletion in wild salmon - which for two years have failed to spawn in some Scottish rivers - may be down to the fact that farmed salmon, though not genetically modified by artificial means, have suffered a no-less-serious behavioural modification that results in their simply not having a clue what it is to be a salmon. Why should they? The life cycle of a salmon depends on the exact repetition of the breeding habits of its parents - so much so that the salmon originating from each river are genetically distinct. The idea of a farmed salmon heading home enters the realms of fish and bicycles.

If any of this can be substantiated, it will spell utter disaster for an industry that is already on its knees. Salmon farming is in crisis, with the fish selling for less than it costs to produce them. This is a dreadful pity for the people whose jobs are on the line, for in the beginning it was seen as a great hope for the economically stagnant highlands and islands, where 335 of Britain's 500 salmon farms are sited.

But it was in the economic promise offered by this new industry that the seeds of disaster were sown. Environmentalists believe that the Scottish salmon industry has always been too closely identified with the needs of the Scottish Office, which has supported the demands of the industry rather too recklessly. Even now it is believed that introducing stringent controls would be politically unacceptable. That is why this disaster- dogged industry still has no independent regulatory body, and why the Government refuses to fund research into the wider effects of salmon farming on the environment and public health.

Even if these risks are proved to be negligible - which is unlikely - the salmon farming experiment can still be seen as a failure. If salmon farming was all about the democratisation of luxury foods, then this is a shabby kind of democracy. What's the point of making luxury goods available to the masses if in the process they stop being luxurious?

The general-interest publication that has covered the growing crisis in salmon farming most doggedly is Private Eye. The column Down On The Fish Farm has not rested in its pursuit of this unregulated industry. When the packets of smoked salmon from one company stopped suggesting that the product should be cut into thin slices, but advised knobbly chunks instead, the column's anonymous writer pointed out that this was because the fish had been fed with fish oil, which makes the fish grow faster but gives it flesh so flabby that it's in fact impossible to slice.

The only way to save the salmon farming industry is to move it on to land, in tanks, and feed it organically. While "transitional" salmon, the product of Orkney salmon farms that are now moving from intensive to organic salmon farming, is already available in Sainsbury's, this shift may not be enough to save the wild salmon. A move to land-based tanks will create a leap in the price of salmon, but at least the fish will continue to do what they have done for 10,000 years, and leap upriver to spawn. We have always recognised this process as one of nature's great wonders. Surely, for its own sake, it is worth saving.