As part of the aftermath of Storm Brendan it was recently disclosed that 73,600 salmon, averaging 1.9 kg, escaped when one of the open-cage salmon pens failed. To put the scale of this single escape into context, the total number of wild salmon coming back to the whole of the west coast of Scotland (based on anglers catching approximately 10% of the salmon returning to Scottish rivers and the latest catch returns reported to Fisheries Management Scotland in 2018) was in the region of 35,000 fish, or approximately half of the number from this single escape.
Whilst a single escape of over 70,000 farmed salmon is an unfortunate accident, many more are occurring as since the start of 2019, over 20 incidents of farmed salmon escapes have been reported to the Scottish Government. The combined impact of all these farmed salmon escaping into the wild is not fully known but they do represent a significant risk to the vital recovery of our remaining west coast salmon stocks, as the Scottish Government recognises, through their list of pressures. The Norwegian Government go further and believe that escapes of farmed salmon are the single greatest threat to the wellbeing of wild Atlantic salmon in Norway, through inbreeding and loss of fitness.
What we do know is that the weather in Scotland is getting wilder as a result of climate change and storms, such as Brendan, are going to become more common and violent. As such the standards on how to construct and maintain these open pen cages should be updated to reflect the rapidly changing world they operate in and ensure that there are no further escapes of farmed salmon into the wild. Furthermore, where escapes do occur then all efforts should be taken to recapture them and prevent them from causing harm.
As it is now widely recognised that wild Atlantic salmon stocks across Scotland are in crisis we need the Aquaculture industry to, urgently, both better address the risks that their operations clearly create to wild salmon and to help the wild sector better mitigate the other pressures identified by the Scottish Government.
Collectively, we need to act now, as time is running out for this iconic wild fish.