Around 12 October 2012 I received an urgent e-mail from a resident of Sleat on Skye asking me for advice about fish farms because I was known locally to be a biologist with seashore knowledge. I had absolutely no idea about fish farming and reluctantly agreed to talk to these people. In my vacuous, uninformed, casual opinion, I thought if fish farming was reducing pressure on wild fish populations, then it was probably OK. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been wrong, but I can and did change my mind.
Having not been contacted by anybody to let them know that Marine Harvest had a fish farm planned for one of the lochs adjacent to Sleat, Loch Slapin, the people of Sleat had found out by chance that they had just two weeks to learn enough to submit their responses in the public consultation. A tall order. We managed to find out enough about the environmental and social implications of net-cage salmon farming and the community submitted a reasonable number of objections. In hindsight and understandably, our arguments in that consultation were quite naïve, but we had done our best.
One enigmatic aspect of Marine Harvest’s application, which puzzled us, was that their competitor Hjaltland Seafarms Ltd. held the Crown Estate lease for the site and that was public knowledge. What sort of business shenanigans did that imply? We ordinary folk had no idea. At the eleventh hour MH pulled out leaving room for Hjaltland, who straightaway pitched in with three new planning applications, one for the same Loch Slapin site and two for the beautiful landscape and biodiversity hotspot Loch Eishort.
We were dispirited but saw we now had a time advantage, and grasped it: we had about a year until the next consultation, time during which we could continue learning and preparing. By the time the public consultation opened we had held many meetings (just a small group of assorted locals) and presented village hall briefings to get the community up to speed. The quality of comment letters improved immeasurably, the council planners (to their credit) pulled out all Highland Local Plan stops and Hjaltland’s bid to infest Loch Slapin was refused (public opinion 69:2 against).
Then Hjaltland proceeded with their next two bids targetting Loch Eishort, both at the same time, with Eishort 1 perversely numbered 02574 and Eishort 2 numbered 02577. Lord, what muddles that apparently trivial inconsistency caused us. Was it a deliberate tactic intended to confuse? We reckon they don’t have the wit to think of it, but nevertheless it’s been a nuisance for two years.
The Sleat community is constantly having to respond to planning applications for wind farms and other developments plus anxieties about changes in crofting etc. They can’t be expected to maintain their enthusiasm for every one of them. When we talked to people, they thought that having got MH and Hjaltland applications for Loch Slapin out of the way, that was that, and didn’t realise they would have to deal with two more. This made them quite cross. We had to think of some way to re-engage them with the fish farms issue.
The ‘gimmick’ we came up with was a small book, Holes: Scotland’s Salmon Sewage Scandal, specially self-published to inform the public and improve the fact content and arguments in comment letters. A generous local presented us with enough cash to enable us to get 200 copies printed for free distribution door-to-door. That did the job.
After another community briefing chaired by Sleat Community Council last autumn in Tarskavaig Hall, the comment letters poured in to the planning office and the quality was extraordinarily high. Most of them weren’t just knee-jerk reactions to something they didn’t like; they were academic discussions of the problems associated with net-cage salmon aquaculture. We were so proud of everyone who participated: 131:1 and 104:0 against, impressive ratios. Sleat is a small community, but not as small as the one that essentially ignored Hjaltland’s concurrent application for Loch Snizort (near Uig, North Skye), which in contrast attracted just three objections and sailed through.
Our informal ‘committee’ has varied in number, but for the past year we have settled to just four of us plus a gentleman who acts as a link with Salmon & Trout Conservation UK, who discovered us and considered our approach to be worthy of their support (legal if we need it).
We have a particular, perhaps eccentric, standpoint. We do not take an anti-aquaculture stance. We deal only with facts and our case concentrates on mitigation of the problems with the net-cages in which salmon are confined at sea, which can all be solved by changing the industry to closed containment.
Certainly we have strong opinions we do not hide, but we try our best to present the public with only facts and let them reach their own conclusions, pro or con.