Scotland's fish farms fight back

Science: An industry in peril is aggressively questioning a study that links cancer to eating human-bred salmon.

January 25, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLE OF MULL, Scotland - When it comes to plucking salmon out of the water, few people on this windswept island of survivors can claim success in bigger numbers than Reay Whyte.

Not that hauling fish is much of a challenge for him. In the shallows off the jutting coastline of the western Scottish islands, Whyte has more than 750,000 salmon trapped in net cages, where he feeds them, grows them big and then ships them off to be processed - killed and gutted, that is - in preparation for somebody's meal.

"Fish farming," this is called. The concept seemed a good idea when it began in earnest about 30 years ago, a sensible silencer to the fishing controversies raging worldwide, including in the waters off Maryland - which has 32 fish farms - and in the fisheries up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. Too many fish being taken from the waters? Simply grow more.

But now there is fresh debate about the wisdom of growing fish, and nowhere are the arguments more fierce than in Scotland, a country that has been fighting one battle or another for centuries and has never been shy to answer whatever it perceives as an attack.

On this island, an entire industry in a land of precious few jobs has been threatened by a study published in the respected journal Science that concluded eating farmed salmon - and especially Scottish farmed salmon and those raised off the Faroe Islands - could increase the risk of cancer.

Consensus among scientists has been that people should eat salmon to their heart's content, that such fatty fish can reduce the risk of dying from a heart attack by up to half. But that message - eat salmon, it's good for you - has now been muddled by the recent report warning of the health hazards.

Traditional fishermen, the salty guys who chase and catch fish in the open seas, could not be happier about the findings nor could they feel more vindicated. Growing fish, hoarding them in confined waters, is unnatural, they say, bringing not only problems to the environment, but now, demonstrably, to consumers.

Fish farmers, though, fear the study could be a death knell.

"If we can't sell the fish, what's the sense in growing them?" said Whyte, in a Scottish accent that comes from at least four generations of family that have lived on Mull. Salmon flung themselves out of the water and into the nets in futile attempts to escape as he spoke. "It only goes to follow if you don't grow them, we're out of our jobs. The boys see this as it could be the final nail in our coffin."

If that is the case, the nails were forged earlier this month by the Science study. It found that farm-raised salmon - particularly those grown in this area - contain significantly higher concentrations of suspected cancer-causing contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins than salmon caught in the open sea, although the number of contaminants is less than what the U.S. government considers an unacceptable risk.

The chemicals were once used as lubricants and coolants and to make plastics but were banned in the 1970s. Their remnants, though, remain in the food chain, and Science reported farmed salmon averaged 36.63 parts per billion - and Scottish salmon even more - while wild salmon had 4.75.

That led the authors of the study to recommend that farmed salmon from North America and South America be eaten no more than once a month and farmed salmon from Europe once every three months.

That has been taken personally in Scotland, a country that defines rugged individualism, where 90 percent of people work at companies with 50 or fewer employees, and especially on Mull, where people work mostly for themselves, in a trade, on a farm or on the sea.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth were all attracted to this place by its beauty, and Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to write his Hebrides Overture, - titled for the group of islands that includes Mull. Rolling hills, spectacular cliffs and mountains capped with snow reflect on the water of its fingered inlets, its streams and bays.

Scottish salmon farmers have jumped on the study as flawed, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that advises consumers, is recommending that people continue to have their fill of salmon at least once a week.

They have the backing of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which says that its tolerance level for PCBs in salmon is 2,000 parts per billion, nearly 55 times the level found in farmed fish, a relatively small chance to take, given salmon's known benefits to the heart.

Nevertheless, with the study came headlines across the world that eating salmon is dangerous. The Scottish salmon farmers, backed by an impressive array of scientists and researchers who say the study is flawed, are fighting back in an effort to preserve the industry, which provides about 6,500 jobs in Scotland and is valued at $545 million a year.

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