No show at the show

Since writing my contribution last month, I have travelled, including a short visit to the Aquaculture UK event in Aviemore. There was a real buzz around the place, not just because of the opportunity to meet old and new friends, but because the new organizers had improved the visitor experience so much.

I have heard rumors that the event may develop in coming years into some form of Scottish aquaculture festival rather than the current focus on the trade show. Maybe it could attract an even larger audience?

A potential set of visitors was conspicuous by its absence and it was the industry critics. Admittedly, one of them had posted on social media that he intended to go there and organize a demonstration, but this long-time critic did not come forward. He has protested outside the Scottish Parliament, a salmon feed factory and a major retailer before, but to me protesting against Aquaculture UK would have been like Daniel stepping into the lion’s den. Most people he would have met elsewhere would have just shrugged their shoulders, but Aviemore was alive with people in the industry who would have gladly challenged this reviewer face to face. With the likelihood that no one came to support him, it’s no surprise he was absent.

I understand that other keyboard reviewers were invited to come but didn’t show up either. As their bravery can mostly be attributed to protecting their keyboard, their absence was not unexpected. Over the years I have invited most of these reviewers to meet and discuss and all have declined. I expect their confidence in their claims to melt away when faced with someone willing to discuss the issues.

I nearly ran into a reviewer and had a coffee date in Fort William. The allotted time came and went with no appearances. My only contact was via social media, and I messaged to be told he was returning to Fort William from Inverness and his car had had a flat tire. At the same time, he was posting pictures of butterflies in his garden on Twitter. He did not offer to meet later. Obviously, he had had doubts.

I completely understand why these critics are so reluctant to engage directly with the industry. However, I do not understand why the various wild salmon organizations do not take advantage of this to try to get their message across. For example, the Atlantic Salmon Trust could have taken a stand at the show to explain the West Coast Monitoring Project. Similarly, Fisheries Management Scotland, which has a specific manager working with salmon interactions, could have explained its position on salmon farming.

However, like the critics, these organizations seem unwilling to engage with those who might be able to respond to their critics. It seems to me that if everyone is not willing to discuss issues openly, they will never be resolved.

For a similar reason, it would have been good to see Marine Scotland have a visible presence at the event. Perhaps the organizers could consider a small portion of the exhibit devoted to these organizations at nominal cost. As an industry, we have nothing to hide and so we should encourage such debate.

Interestingly, a keyboard reviewer commented on social media that people in the industry avoid wild fish events. It is simply not true. I’ve attended as many wild fish meetings as I can, but many are unadvertised and don’t encourage outsiders to attend. I have always requested tickets in my own name and have been approached in the past to discuss my attendance at the entrance. I have also regularly offered to speak at such meetings, including NASCO and FMS conferences, but my offer has never been accepted. It seems they just don’t want to hear the other side of the story.

I am convinced that if there is a strong belief in their narrative, they should be prepared to stand up and confront their critics head-on. What I’ve discovered is that it’s the critics who seem unwilling to hear the opposing voices.

One of the casualties of the pandemic has been face-to-face meeting that has been relegated to Zoom or Teams. Now that life is returning to some form of normalcy, perhaps we should see open meeting restored. I’ve always thought there should be a public meeting to discuss interactions between wild salmon and farmed salmon and maybe that’s something that could be arranged once the fishing season is over. Perhaps this column could be the catalyst to initiate such an event.

Despite some acknowledgment that other factors are responsible for the decline of wild fish, the overriding message from critics and the wild fish industry is that the only way for stocks to recover is to remove salmon farms.

Fisheries Management Scotland has just released its 2022 annual report. It appears catches are down again across Scotland and the main cause is a lack of water for fish to travel up rivers to spawning grounds. This is something that may be more common in years to come, but I’m sure salmon farming will still be cited as one of the main reasons salmon are in decline.

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