Just look at this coastline. It’s stunning and it’s been unspoilt for decades - centuries - now. You can’t see the impact of man here. You can look out right across the Sound over to the mainland. It is just superb.
The Isle of Skye’s eastern shores are among the most impressive in Britain. The coastal road twists through mountains draped with lace tablecloths of snow, reddish heaths and sporadic patches of fir trees.
Almost every bend in the route brings with it a new loch. Potholes litter consecutive climbs and drops in the road, but for the carsick, the scenery offers considerable distraction.
Just north of the island’s main town, Portree, the iconic Old Man of Storr rock sits just below a 500m-high ridge. A five minute drive further north, a grass patch marks the location for one of two proposed new organic salmon farms. The other is planned a few hundred metres further north along the peninsula, below a jutting cliff where the Sound of Raasay spills into wider seas.
A company called Organic Sea Harvest registered an application with Highland Council for 12 open-net pens on each site late last year. Locals soon started registering their objections, which currently total 33 for each site. A decision is due on 17th April.
Ian Dobb, who runs a tourist guesthouse on the island, is among those opposing the plans. “Just look at this coastline. It’s stunning and it’s been unspoilt for decades - centuries - now,” he told The Ecologist. “You can’t see the impact of man here. You can look out right across the Sound over to the mainland. It is just superb. Why would you spoilt it?”
Last month, a report by the Scottish parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee found that any further expansion of the salmon farming industry could cause “irrecoverable damage” to the environment.
Objections to the two new farms are based largely on these environmental issues. The main problems with open-net farming are the pollution of surrounding waters with salmon detritus and chemical “medicines” used to treat sea lice on the fish, as well as the spread the parasites and other diseases to wild salmon.
Highland Council gave a green light to a new non-organic salmon farm nearby in April last year - despite concern from locals about the same ecological problems.
The Soil Association updated its organic standards in 2016 to prohibit the use of certain sea lice medicines - such as the widely used emamectin benzoate. Lice have been growing resistant to the treatment over recent years, and it has been found to negatively impact wild lobsters, prawns and crabs living near salmon farms.
As part of its proposal, Organic Sea Harvest has applied for licences to use such treatments if need be. Dr James Merryweather, a biologist who has been campaigning against open-net salmon farming for years, explains that this would mean switching from organic to conventional farming.
“It would seem preparation has already been made for the conversion from organic to conventional methods of sea louse control. Invasion of the farm by sea lice is not just possible, but highly probable,” he said.
“I believe the use of chemicals or bad-practice biological control will be essential if the farm is to succeed at all. In my opinion, this farm is most unlikely to maintain its organic status.”
There are also concerns about farm security. Last month, 21,700 fish escaped from a pen in Skye’s Loch Snizort. Escaped farmed salmon can harm wild stocks by spreading disease and mixing up genes when breeding.
Other locals are worried about the perceived human cost of a new farm on the unspoilt coast. Ian pointed to the dozen or so people milling around and taking photos nearby. “Tourism is crucial to the Isle of Skye’s economy,” he explained.
“It’s the main source of income. This is a global destination with spectacular unique landscapes and we are threatened with fish farms dotted all round the coast. That could have a really negative impact on the tourism sector.”
However, some see the potential arrival of fish farming to the area as a blessing. Staffin Community Trust, a group focused on the economic development of the village further north on the peninsula, has declared its support. It says the farms would create 14 full-time jobs.
Organic Sea Harvest has pledged to pay roughly £140,000 annually to the group for local development if its farms are given the go-ahead.
Trust chair Sandy Ogilvie said: "Staffin is classed as a fragile economic area by the Scottish Government on account of rural health deprivation rates, access to services and an ageing and shrinking population.”
He continued: "Staffin and Skye cannot be overly reliant on one market, such as tourism, and the creation and diversification of our local economy into aquaculture can only be a good thing for our community’s sustainability."
Organic Sea Harvest, which is registered in Skye, counts the UK chief operating officer and UK director of Norwegian salmon farming company Villa Seafood among its five directors, as well as Highland councillor Alistair Mackinnon.
It is common in Scotland for fish farms to be started by small, newly-formed companies, then passed on to Norwegian multinationals. Most UK salmon farming is dominated by six Norwegian multinationals.
Organic Sea Harvest did not respond to requests for comment.
Alexandra Heal is a journalist and MA student at City University, London. She freelances for BBC News and is co-founder of siftguide.com. She tweets at @alexandraheal. Ellie O'Donnell is a freelancer and Investigative Journalism MA student on the Evening Standard Scholarship at City University. She tweets at @ellietodonnell.