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Why salmon farmers tried to block release of ‘unrepresentative’ photos

Mowi Scotland communications chief Ian Roberts wrote an email to Marine Scotland pointing out the
Mowi Scotland communications chief Ian Roberts wrote an email to Marine Scotland pointing out the "irresponsible use of photos for the sole purpose of creating fear". Photo: Mowi.

The arguments used by three Scottish salmon farming companies in attempts to stop the Scottish Government publishing Marine Scotland photos of sick or injured fish have been revealed.

The Ferret website today reported that Mowi, the Scottish Salmon Company and Scottish Sea Farms all contacted Marine Scotland to ask it not to publish pictures which they said misrepresent the reality of salmon farming.

The images have been used by anti-salmon farming campaigners who had applied for their release under Freedom of Information legislation.

300 photos

In August last year The Ferret reported that SSC and SSF had tried and failed to block the Scottish Government’s release of more than 300 photos taken by fish health inspectors since 2015.

Today it said the Scottish Government has released emails showing that the same two companies, plus Mowi, tried again to prevent further photos from being published.

The risk of people turning away from a healthy food such as salmon as a reaction to irresponsible use of photos for the sole purpose of creating fear in the consumer is a risk to health.

Email from Mowi communications chief Ian Roberts to Marine Scotland

In an email to Marine Scotland in July 2018, Mowi Scotland’s communications chief, Ian Roberts, referred to The Ferret’s publication of some of the photos, pointing out that it was rare for today’s reader to “delve below the shock and horror headlines”.

“The risk of people turning away from a healthy food such as salmon as a reaction to irresponsible use of photos for the sole purpose of creating fear in the consumer is a risk to health,” he said.

“I ask you to consider this position for future freedom of information requests that may create unnecessary confusion or fear about consuming healthy Scottish seafood.”

Out of context

In August 2018, SSC told Marine Scotland that the photos were used out of context as evidence against farms, “where in fact they show that the farms are properly run and are assisting the authorities”.

SSF also made a request for photos to be withheld in August 2018, arguing that their disclosure “would inhibit the free and frank exchange of views”.

The Scottish Government overruled the requests, citing “openness and accountability”.

In the year to date 96% of our harvested fish have been graded as superior, great looking salmon. At any farm, farmers may sometimes see animals in poor health, but do everything they can to avoid it.

Mowi’s farming operations director Gideon Pringle
Ralph Bickerdike:
Ralph Bickerdike: "Photos such as these are one of the ways we are working with regulators".

Responding the the latest release of emails by the Scottish Government, Mowi’s farming operations director, Gideon Pringle, told The Ferret: “These select fish have been photographed only because they represent rare veterinary cases, and do not represent the general fish population.

“In the year to date 96% of our harvested fish have been graded as superior, great looking salmon. At any farm, farmers may sometimes see animals in poor health, but do everything they can to avoid it – and like all farmers, we care passionately for the health and welfare of our fish.”

Best practice approach

A spokesperson for SSC told the website: “We take the health and welfare of our fish very seriously and adopt a best practice approach to animal husbandry.

“Like any farming there can be occasional health issues. While images are now published by Marine Scotland, these will in the main be diagnostic images of individual cases and are not representative of our operations.”

SSF’s head of fish welfare, Ralph Bickerdike, told The Ferret: “In the wild, fewer than five per cent return as adults. At many of our farms we are now achieving survival rates of 87% and higher, and we are working hard to boost these rates even further. There’s much still to be learned and the marine environment continues to present new challenges to fish health.

“Photos such as these are one of the ways we are working with regulators to increase understanding of those challenges.”