Scottish diver says salmon farm expansion is putting his business at risk

Gordon MacKay

The Scottish government has given permission for a fish farm on Isle of Skye that could put independent diving business at risk, write ELLIE O'DONNELL and ALEXANDRA HEAL

You make representation to your MP, MSP and anybody you can - but the voice of the fish farm is a lot louder than anything else.

Gordon MacKay runs an independent tourism business offering bespoke diving tours around the Isle of Skye. He launched Dive and Sea the Hebrides more than three decades ago. It is a business he hopes to pass onto his two teenage sons. But Gordon claims that if a fish farm on the island’s Loch Pooteil continues to expand, his family business plans could be ruined.

Kames Fish Farming Ltd submitted a planning application in 2013 for a farm on Loch Pooteil in Glendale, on the north west of Skye.

Following pressure from locals, Kames withdrew their application but in 2015 submitted a revised proposal that placed the farm further west from their original plan. The new proposal was met with 77 objections and was rejected by the Highland Council.

Government intervention

The site falls within the North West Skye Special Landscape Area, meaning it has the status of a local or regional heritage feature. When Lynn Schweisfurth moved to Glendale in 2015, she heard that an application for a fish farm nearby had been submitted and rejected by the council. “I naively thought, ‘Well, that’s that then,’” she said.

However, Kames persisted and took their case to the Scottish government’s Planning and Environmental Appeals division. Allison Coard was the appointed reporter for the government. After reviewing the case, she granted permission.

“Glendale is one of the most beautiful sights in Scotland,” Lynn said. “People could not believe you would put a fish farm on that spot.”

According to Allison Coard’s report, the fish farm on the Loch Pooteil site is within 550 metres of the 'Top 100 British Shore Dives'. “There’s a fantastic shore dive there,” Gordon said. “You dive off and you swim 70m and there is this big reef that sticks out.”

The report concluded that the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) “advises that it does not expect the fish farm to have any significant effect on the dive sites”.

“You make representation to your MP, MSP and anybody you can, but the voice of the fish farm is a lot louder than anything else,” Gordon said.

Expansion

The revised proposal in 2015 moved the site further west than the original 2013 plan. By 2019, Kames say they plan to have six farms on site and then add further cages in 2020 and 2021.

"As the site was moved, it got a lot closer to another dive site of mine that is very tidal,” Gordon explained. “So that will be decimated if it [the expansion] all goes ahead.”

Farms have been accused of releasing chemical “medicines” used to treat lice on the fish, and fish excrement, into surrounding waters. This pollution has been said to damage nearby ecosystems.

Formerly a commercial diver for fish farming companies, Gordon used to survey the sites underwater.

“I am a bit like a poacher turned gamekeeper. I have seen all the damaging effects and environmental effects below the salmon farms and surrounding areas. I have been diving here for four and a half decades and the changes within that time that I attribute to farms are drastic. Loss of habitat and loss of species.”

He said he has to avoid farm sites on his dives. “I don’t go to the immediate area around the fish farm. There’s a health and safety aspect and there are acoustic scarers.”

RSPB

Acoustic scarers are devices that emit vibrations and noise to ward off sea life like seals and dolphins from the farmed fish. The RSPB recently objected to two proposed salmon farms on Skye’s north east coast due to the effect they said acoustic scarers can have on nearby wildlife.

“You can feel it yourself,” Gordon said, referring to the noise they emit.

When asked what he will do if farms continue to expand, Gordon replied: “I might have to get a career change.”

Nevertheless, Allison Coard stated in her report: “I have no conclusive evidence on underwater noise impact for divers other than reference to dive sites which operate close to other fish farms.”

Community

Stuart Cannon is managing director of Kames Fish Farm Ltd. He told The Ecologist: "We and SEPA do not believe there will be any significant ecological damage to the area, neither to the reef or wrecks which are in the locality.

"Any application, for whatever, will always get objectors and never please everyone. However, we are employing and using local labour and supplies, which is 365 days a year and will help to sustain the community.”  

He added: “We have a good dialogue with the local Glendale Trust and local community.  We have provided a trot of heavy mooring to accommodate sailing yachts and a plastic walkway pontoon to give continuous access from the sea to the shore. This, we hope, will bring tourists into the village and nearby cafes and shops, helping to improve the local economy.”

These Authors

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. 

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