July 26, 2022
Victory at Loch Hourn
If you were to produce a word cloud of how community groups would typically describe their experience of the planning system, the largest words at its heart would likely be a combination of ‘frustration’, ‘alienation’, ‘powerlessness’ and other such sentiments. But occasionally, just occasionally, the system seems to take on board local concerns and rather than write them off as NIMBYist, actually defends the local interest. Most recently, the Friends of Loch Hourn enjoyed their own David vs Goliath moment. Coastal communities are becoming increasingly well organised – sharing tactics and strategies across the fast growing Coastal Communities Network.
Campaigners say the refusal of planning permission for development at the Mowi salmon farm in Loch Hourn, which runs inland from the Sound of Sleat opposite the island of Skye, is a “rallying call” to other coastal communities.
The Friends of Loch Hourn (FoLH) group believes its knife-edge planning committee victory represents the first time in Scotland that such a project has been quashed because of the threat to wild salmon and sea trout.
It says the David versus Goliath victory is a milestone moment in recognising the biggest threat posed by industrial scale fish farming – how parasites harm wild species.
The plans from Mow Scotland, which wanted to increase fish stocks, attracted 159 public objections and concerns.
The Friends produced a complaint dossier which said the “incremental expansion” of the farm over 22 years had changed the quiet traditional west Highland area “for the worse”.
With a combination of grant and private funding the group commissioned scientific modelling, which showed that the increased numbers of sea lice coming from the farm would not only further endanger wild salmon and trout, but also would adversely affect the vulnerable Loch Hourn population of freshwater pearl mussels which are in danger of extinction.
On top of that, the Friends said the slow flushing loch cannot quickly get rid of the chemicals used by the farm to kill lice, which are also toxic to other crustaceans and potentially to swimmers.
However, supporters pointed to the fish farm’s strong environmental record, which meets RSPCA standards. They also highlighted that the farm supports nine local jobs and diversifies the tourism-led economy.
Highland Council planners felt the difficulties could be overcome by imposing a range of safeguards at the fish farm, but members of the north planning committee disagreed.
Mow Scotland’s head of environment Stephen MacIntyre said it was disappointed with the decision of the committee given the application received no objections from all statutory science bodies and that the planning officials had recommended the application for approval.
The company is now “reviewing the proces that led to this decision and considering our options”.
Loch Hourn, considered the most fjord-like of Scotland’s west coast sea lochs enjoys a dramatic setting.
It sits between the Glenelg peninsula to the north and the inaccessible Knoydart peninsula to the south, and is often referred to as Scotland’s last wilderness.
The Creag an T’Sagairt salmon farm is owned and operated by the £2.28 billion-a-year Norwegian seafood giant, Mowi and farms 2500 tonnes of salmon in its open cages. It initially applied to Highland Council for permission to increase production by 25% to 3100 tonnes but this was cut to 2750 tonnes.
Currently, the Highland fish farm runs twelve circular pens of 100 metre circumference. These are arranged in one group of eight pens, and one group of four. Under the new planning application, Mowi Scotland wanted to reduce to eight bigger pens, arranged in one row, with a circumference of 160 metres each.
This change would have needed a larger sea-bed mooring area, though it was still within the boundary of the consented wind farm.
Mick Simpson, a local fisherman in Arnisdale praised councillors who took the time to read the FoLH dossier and added: “We owe thanks to those councillors who made an effort to see what the research says. Armed with that information it was clear their consciences would not allow them to vote for this expansion to the fish farm.
“Throughout this process we have doggedly stuck up for the truth by research and by documenting everything we could to show why this expansion would be a disaster for the area. We hope Mowi will now respect the planning decision and the feelings of the local community.“Our hope now is that we can inspire people that this can be done, even for super-remote communities like ours. As members of the Coastal Community Network, we know many similar groups will be looking at this decision very closely.”
The FoLH is now surveying the loch to assess the viability of restoring native oyster and sea grass beds, vital habitats for other marine species and important for carbon sequestration and storage and will also support ongoing research into the cause of a sharp decline of blue mussel populations.
Peter Fletcher, whose family has lived for many generations in nearby Arnisdale, said: “At least two main rivers here are now extinct as far as salmon are concerned and a third is teetering on the edge.
“Within living memory Loch Hourn was teeming with salmon and sea trout. Now wild populations have dwindled so far that they are under threat. It is an ecological catastrophe.
“While this decision is just vindication of the incredible efforts of our tiny, rural community against the might of a huge corporation, the fight to restore the loch’s habitats and species is only just beginning.”