Salmon farm threatens Scottish island of Eigg's green credentials

| 26th September 2011
Eigg scene

The picturesque island of Eigg, off the West coast of Scotland, is 95 per cent self-sufficient in energy

The Isle of Eigg has won prizes for its use of renewable energy resources. But a proposed fish farm could ruin the eco-friendly reputation that the small island community has worked so hard to obtain, and the tourist appeal that comes with it

Eddie Scott remembers the last time he heard the clatter of a diesel generator on the pristine Isle of Eigg off the north-west coast of Scotland. It was three and a half years ago, just before Eigg became self-sufficient with power from their groundbreaking, sustainable electricity system.

'It's from that point in time that peace descended on the island', says Scott. He is one of the residents on Eigg who are worried about a proposed fish farm on the east coast of the island, which the Scottish Salmon Company are in the process of doing pre-application research for. The fish farm would bring diesel generators back on the island for the first time since February 2008.

The community-owned Isle of Eigg has profiled itself as a green island since switching on their sustainable electricity grid, and the efforts of the community have not gone unnoticed. In January last year, the isle won a joint first place in a competition to find new ways to tackle climate change, run by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).

In June this year, the Renewable Energy Association gave Eigg a Community Award for its outstanding achievements in the British renewable energy sector. The Eigg Islands Going Green website has advice on composting and solar panels, and all houses on Eigg are fitted with an OWL meter that switches off the electricity supply if a household uses more than 5kW of electricity at one time. When it comes to the environment, Eigg is at the cutting edge.

This is one of the reasons the community on Eigg has voted almost unanimously in favour of protesting against the fish farm. The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, which manages the island, held a ballot a few weeks ago which came out 97 per cent against the development of a fish farm north of Kildonan off the coast of Eigg.

Eddie Scott, who, as well as being a crofter, is chairman of the Isle of Eigg Residents' Association, worries that all the work that the Isle of Eigg Trust has done to make the isle green will be cancelled out by the fish farm:

'One fact demonstrates more than any other why the scale of this proposal goes against everything we're trying to do on Eigg; Eigg Electric, our community owned electricity company, provides enough power for 40 homes and 10 businesses from our 164kW capacity renewable energy grid. Scottish Salmon have said the fish farm will need 150kW of power, to be provided by a generator fueled by diesel. Eigg Electric replaced the need for the diesel generators that had powered homes and businesses for decades with clean, reliable, quiet and affordable power. In one fell swoop, Scottish Salmon will reverse what we've acheived as a Green Island.'

Salmon farm wants planning permission

The Scottish Salmon Company is still at the stage prior to filing a planning permission for the fish farm. At this stage, they consult the community, environment authorities and fishermen's associations to learn their views before considering whether to go ahead with the planning permission.

Rebecca Dean, Environment Manager at the Scottish Salmon Company, said: 'At the moment we're at very early stages so we've gone and put forward some proposals. And the community will come back to us with some specific concerns'. She added: 'Part of the process is going and seeing all stakeholders and working on an even platform where we put forward our proposals and they come back with their response and we try to and work forward to make something work.'

But the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust is not satisfied with the community engagement efforts of the Scottish Salmon Company. Maggie Fyffe, administration secretary of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, said: 'They didn't really answer any of the concerns we had - environmental, visual and all the rest of it.’ She added: 'They were trying to defend it as it would provide four or five jobs but they couldn't come up with any real benefits'.

Promise of local employment

The jobs are a bonus that, according to Eddie Scott, persuaded a few residents on Eigg to remain in favour of the fish farm. In an island 16 miles from the nearest mainland town with less than 100 residents and no tourists in the winter season, four or five jobs are an attractive asset that would normally be welcomed. Rebecca Dean from the Scottish Salmon Company agrees: 'In terms of socio-economic development it's a fantastic opportunity for Eigg. It gives secure and sustainable and long-term employment for people, it's an excellent opportunity and it fits very nicely in with the sustainable development and green image of Eigg'.

But Eddie Scott is not convinced by the promise of jobs: 'The question of potential jobs has been raised on more than one occasion with Scottish Salmon and on each occasion we get a different answer as to the number of jobs that might go to Eigg people. I get the impression that they are giving us the answer they think we want to hear. There is no guarantee that any jobs will go to Eigg residents.'

Even if the jobs are offered exclusively to Eigg residents, Scott stresses that jobs shouldn't be accepted at all costs: 'Of course jobs are a good thing, but not at any cost to the local environment. We are working hard here on Eigg to support the creation of jobs which contribute economically, socially and environmentally to both the community and the island itself. We believe the overall effect of any jobs the fish farm might create would threaten current and future jobs based around the natural heritage and the green economy.'

Threatening wildlife and tourism

Eigg is a popular tourist destination for wildlife spotting. Less than a kilometre away from he site where the proposed fish farm could be situated lies the Eigg Wall, a popular diving site with plumose anemones, sponges, tubeworms and squirts, and scallops at the bottom of the wall. On the approach to the Eigg Pier, in the vicinity of the proposed site, lives a harbour seal colony, and there is a grey seal haul out nearby, which is a popular attraction for the tourist boats coming to Eigg.

Along the East Coast, The Kildonan to Cleadale walk beneath the cliffs is considered one of the best walks on the island with uninterrupted views across to the mainland and the chance to see Golden Eagles nesting and hunting along the cliffs, and Basking Sharks swimming in the water.

Fergus Macneill, spokesperson of the Scottish Natural Heritage, which has given advice to the Scottish Salmon Company during their Environmental Impacts Assessment, is concerned that a fish farm on Eigg could harm both the wildlife and the tourism around it.

'In this case, the proposed development is in a sensitive and undeveloped location within the Small Isles National Scenic Area, where the landscape and seascapes are of national importance. In addition to its intrinsic value, this high scenic quality underpins the local tourism industry and is therefore very significant to the area.’

He adds: ‘Our initial advice to the developer, based on the information provided to date, is that fish farm development in this location is likely to impact on the special qualities of the area and successful accommodation of a fish farm would be challenging.'

This is not to say that the Scottish Natural Heritage have taken an official stand against the fish farm yet, Macneill maintains: ‘Our advice on any subsequent formal planning application would take full account of the final proposal and specialist assessments presented in the Environmental Statement, as well as wider public interests.’

At the Scottish Wildlife Trust, spokesperson Max Foxwell thinks the Scottish Salmon Company is trying to get in before it is too late.

'The area around Eigg and the other small isles is one of  a tiny handful of sites in the West of Scotland without fish farms and is a hot-spot for whale, porpoise and dolphin sightings, all species which receive special protection under EU law. It is suspicious that this proposal has appeared just ahead of the 2012 deadline for the Scottish Government to designate Marine Protected Areas as required by the Marine Scotland Act and our international commitments.’ He adds: ‘This proposal is ill-judged, ill-timed and ill-conceived. It cannot go ahead for a whole host of reasons'.

Eigg residents 'out-of-touch'

Stewart McLelland, chief operating officer of the Scottish Salmon Company, does not agree that a fish farm on Eigg would be a serious threat to the wildlife in the area. He points out that the Scottish salmon farming industry is one of the most tightly regulated aquaculture industries in the world, scrutinised by a range of different statutory bodies and subject to numerous pieces of legislation, EU directives and regulations. 'As a principal player in the Scottish Aquaculture Industry,' McLelland says, 'The Scottish Salmon Company is committed to high standards of animal welfare, sustainable operations and promoting responsible environmental policy.’

According to McLelland, the community on Eigg is out of touch with reality when it comes to modern day fish farming.

He says: 'The Scottish Salmon Company would welcome the opportunity to discuss the salmon farming industry in more detail with the Eigg community, highlighting the benefits the industry brings to local areas and allay any concerns which may have been formed on out-dated or misinformation which does not truly reflect the exciting, growing, safe and dynamic industry salmon farming is today and the significant opportunities it affords to rural communities.'

A similar view is to be found in the local fishermen's association. John Hermse, secretary of the Mallaig and North-West Fishermen's Association, thinks 'overt environmentalism' is standing in the way of local development.

'Every development, whether terrestrial or marine, has possible environmental disadvantages. But the economic importance of fish farming to the West Coast has major advantages and these should not be overlooked. If every bit of progress was thwarted due to a possibility of environmental happenstance then mankind would cease to exist. Overt Environmentalism is now rampant on the West coast, stifling progress and having a devastating effect on communities and demographics.'

Online campaign to stop farm

The residents of Eigg now have to wait until the Scottish Salmon Company have submitted a full planning application to the Highland Council before they can lodge an official objection. Until then, the trust has created an online petition that they hope will discourage the Scottish Salmon Company from proceeding with their planning application.

So far, 1600 people have signed it. 'We've emailed them and told them the community are opposed to it, and we've not had any response as of yet', says Maggie Fyffe. 'We just wanted to get some publicity going before or while they are thinking about it, in the hope that they will decide not to bother.' Eddie Scott adds: We’d appreciate any help with our campaign to stop this happening.

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