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A study of wild salmon genetics has begun to gauge the impact of any interbreeding between wild and farm-raised salmon in Scotland.
The multi-year study of 115 sites aims to both confirm the current genetic profile of wild salmon and track for potential genetic changes should interbreeding occur.
It has been launched following the recent mass escape of nearly 49,000 mature farm-raised salmon from the Carradale North fish farm off the Kintyre Peninsula in August, operated by Mowi Scotland.
The escape has seen mature farmed fish turn up in rivers across Scotland and England at a time when Scotland’s wild salmon populations are already said to be approaching ‘crisis point’ .
The new study – funded by Mowi – and hailed as ‘one of the most comprehensive’ of its kind, will be managed by wild fish conservation body Fisheries Management Scotland (FMS). It will be supported by the Aberdeen-based scientific division of the Scottish Government’s Marine Scotland.
But fish welfare opponents claim the ‘horse has already bolted’ and that it is already well established that farmed salmon have a ‘devastating’ impact on wild populations.
Pressure group ISSF (Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots) said wild fish are paying the price for mass escapes and they represent an unregulated ‘form of pollution’.
Since the escape, Fisheries Management Scotland has been working with member district salmon fishery boards and fisheries trusts. It has also worked with angling associations to ‘monitor the situation and mitigate where possible’, it said.
This included ensuring that any farmed fish are removed from the rivers, humanely dispatched, and scale samples submitted to enable accurate identification that they originated from the Carradale North site.
Dr Alan Wells, chief executive of Fisheries Management Scotland (FMS), said: ‘We are very disappointed that this escape has occurred.
‘The Carradale North farm is a new development and we are all agreed it is not acceptable for such escapes to occur.
‘It is crucial that lessons are learned and that appropriate steps are taken to avoid such escapes happening in future.’
However, Mr Wells welcomed Mowi’s ‘commitment’ to fund a comprehensive genetics study.
Ben Hadfield, chief operating officer for Mowi Scotland, apologised for any ‘disruption and concern’ the escape had caused those with an interest in wild salmon.
Mr Hadfield said: ‘We have learned the root cause of the escape – system anchor lines crossing and resulting in friction failure – and acknowledge our responsibility to quickly learn from this event to prevent it from occurring again.’
Yet Corin Smith, founder of the ISSF, said farmed fish escapes are ‘completely unregulated’ by the Scottish Government and there are ‘no penalties’.
He said despite welfare issues and escapes, fish farms are being ‘encouraged’ to expand by the Scottish Government.
Fisheries Management Scotland said it had received around ‘150 reports’ of farmed fish being caught.
Anglers are urged to report catches of farmed fish, using the reporting system on its website
The Scottish Government has identified a range of high-level pressures on wild salmon which include over-exploitation, predation, invasive species, habitat loss and quality, and inshore commercial fisheries.
In July, Mowi lodged a proposal for a farm at North Kilbrannan. It has applied to Argyll and Bute Council to farm 2,475 tonnes of Atlantic salmon which it says would create seven to 10 direct jobs and more than 100 in the supply chain.
With 12 cages, it would go north of Cour Bay in the Kilbrannan South, east of Kintyre.
So far, the application has attracted 56 objections, eight supporters and 10 comments from statutory consultees.