The Shetland Oil Disaster: Salmon farmers hit by ban on sales fear ruin: The 'Braer' oil slick is putting an island industry at risk. Oliver Gillie reports

SALMON in the oil-polluted waters of southern Shetland are beginning to sicken, and fish farmers are facing bankruptcy with losses running into millions of pounds.

Robert Gardiner, manager of Shetland Sea Farms, a company with fish at three sites in the polluted area, went out from Scalloway yesterday in a small boat to inspect his salmon. The wind, blowing at gale force nine, scattered the thin film of oil on the surface of the water into bright streaks. Where the waves broke against the shore they dissolved into brown froth, showing that oil was dispersed beneath the surface layer.

In the lee of North Havra, a small island two or three miles from Scalloway, Mr Gardiner has cages containing pounds 2.4m worth of mature salmon ready to sell. But sale of these fish has now been banned by the Government.

'I have 200,000 fish here worth more than pounds 10 each,' Mr Gardiner said, 'and I don't know what to do. I can't go on feeding them when the pellets cost pounds 800 a ton. The installation at North Havra cost over pounds 1m and now that investment is at risk.'

We landed on the walkway beside the Havra and immediately saw the rainbow hue of oil on the surface of the water. Mr Gardiner threw out some seed pellets but only a few large fish came to the surface.

'Something is badly wrong here,' he said, 'these fish have not been fed for six days. They should be boiling on the surface, racing to get the food.

'If the oil was only on the surface the fish would be all right but when it is mixed into the water underneath it gets on to their gills and poisons them.'

Shetland fish farmers asked the Government not to spray chemical dispersant on to the oil, fearing that rapid dispersion of the oil would put their fish at greater risk. Dispersants also make booms less effective by taking the oil beneath the surface.

Nevertheless, the Department of Transport's Marine Pollution Control Unit sprayed the slick last week with more than 15 tons of a dispersant, Dispolene 34S, banned in Norway because of its toxicity. The spraying was suspended on Saturday after islanders threatened to demonstrate on the airport runway.

As the wind increased, with hurricane force winds gusting to 100mph or more forecast for later in the day, Mr Gardiner struggled to put a boom in position. The oil absorbant matting soaks up surface oil but Mr Gardiner had only been able to obtain 175 metres when he needs 1,500 metres.

'The booms have been sent up from the Department of Transport's Marine Pollution Control Unit in Southampton but there is not enough of it,' he said.

'They have also sent us mechanical booms but they are useless. They will never stand up to the weather here. The anchors and chain are too flimsy.'

Mr Gardiner's company, Shetland Sea Farms is facing financial disaster. He cannot sell the fish because the Government has banned sales from the area, and he cannot afford to go on feeding them. The mature fish may survive for five or six weeks without food, living off their fat, but the younger fish will go out of condition within two weeks.

'Our insurance does not cover us for this,' Mr Gardiner said. 'We are only covered if the fish die within 30 days of something happening and this oil produces a chronic condition which will not kill them for a long time.'

Help will have to come from the Government, or the Shetland Islands Council, if the stricken fish farmers are to survive financially. Already, a quarter of Shetland salmon farmers who produce fish worth pounds 35m a year are affected by the slick.

Eleven salmon farms, producing fish worth pounds 10m annually, are in the polluted area defined by the Government so are not allowed to sell their fish for human consumption.

Fish farming in Shetland employs 838 people, including those involved in processing. It is the islands' second-largest industry, smaller only than oil.

The release of more oil in storms forecast for the next few days could spread the slick over the whole western part of the island, putting more than half of the Shetland salmon industry in jeopardy.

Mr Gardiner said: 'When Windsor Castle went up in flames the Government said the same day that it would pay for it to be built again. This disaster happened five days ago and we are still waiting to hear what help we are going to get.'

(Photograph omitted)