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Port Askaig

McArthur's Head, Islay <em>Picture: Andrew Curtis</em>

McArthur's Head, Islay Picture: Andrew Curtis

It is a tale of fishing versus fishing, a particularly Scottish battle between old-fashioned techniques and a modern industry – and one in which, at least so far, the traditionalists seem to be winning.

This is the dispute over fish farms around the coast of Islay. The Scottish Salmon Company wants to install massive salmon farms around the coast of this inner Hebridean isle.

But the company has run into considerable opposition from the islanders, so much so that the company has shelved plans for its first two farms. However, it has also announced that it is driving ahead with plans for more farms around the coast of Islay, so this is a battle which has some way to run yet.

The dispute may be fiercely local, but its implications could be profound – because, at heart, this is a battle over the effects of Scotland’s most successful industries on the local environment.

Fish farming in Scotland has expanded massively over the last three decades, to the extent that Scotland is now the largest farmed salmon-producing country in the European Union. Production has increased from 14 tonnes in 1971 to 140,000 tonnes in 2010. It employs about 1,800 people directly and another 6,200 in related industries – most of them concentrated up and down the west coast of Scotland.

Successive Scottish administrations have supported the aquaculture sector because of its importance in rural Scotland, but the industry has also had its critics. Anglers have warned that wild stocks of salmon and sea trout have been ravaged by the presence of fish farms near the mouths of west-coast rivers, blaming both sea lice and pollutants from the farms for killing off wild stocks.

Sea fishermen have also been critical, worried that the explosion of farms is destroying lucrative sea-bed stocks in some areas.

Islay is the fifth-most popular angling destination in the UK and is also home to a vibrant sea-fishing fleet, much of which is based around sea-bed catches of scallops, lobsters, crabs and prawns.

A petition against the fish farms quickly secured more than 800 signatures on Islay. The campaign managed to bring together the disparate interests of the local branch of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, local angling clubs on Islay and representatives of the island’s sizeable sporting interests.

The anglers were worried that the attraction of fishing on Islay, which brings in a significant number of visitors every year, would be devastated. The sea fishermen were concerned at the loss of a particularly important winter fishing ground, and the sporting estates feared that they would lose much of their lucrative salmon and sea trout fishing, threatening local jobs.

Willy Inglis, the factor of Islay Estates and one of the leading figures in Iasg (Gaelic for fish), the group set up to fight the Islay fish farms, told the Times this week: “There is overwhelming opposition to fish farms on Islay. This is a fragile local economy which could be damaged hugely by this proposal.

“We are against it but it is not nimbyism. This really will affect our economy. I believe it will be irreparable harm to Islay.”

Inglis said: “This is about the balance between the environment and the economy. We all want to bolster the local economy but what we are doing is trying to make sure we get the balance right, that we protect the local environment. This is a very important debate for the whole of Scotland.”

Inglis said that local opposition would all but disappear if Scottish fish farmers used the sort of techniques favoured in New Zealand, where much bigger tanks are common and producers make sure that all the pollutants and faeces generated by their industry are taken away and disposed of elsewhere.

After an initial battle, the Scottish Salmon Company agreed to rethink its proposal for the two areas it had originally pitched for – off McArthur’s Head south of Port Askaig and in Claggain Bay further down the east coast of the island.

But Stewart McLelland, chief operating officer of the Scottish Salmon Company, told the Times that he was now looking for other areas off Islay.

He also defended the environmental standards of his company and industry and its importance to the west-coast economy.

“We will continue to welcome consultation with local communities while investigating these other potential sites in Islay,” McLelland said, “which would bring a boost to the local communities in which the sites are situated.”

And he added: “It is important to note that the salmon farming industry is environmentally sustainable and secures economic development which is vitally important to Scotland’s rural economies.

“It is one of the most tightly regulated aquaculture industries in the world and the Scottish Salmon Company, as a Scottish-based and operated business, is committed to the environment and communities in which we operate.”

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Sound of Islay <em>Picture: Andrew Curtis</em>

Sound of Islay Picture: Andrew Curtis

Anyone who has travelled the short distance between Islay and Jura knows how strong the pull of the Atlantic can be in this most intriguing of sounds.

The little Port Askaig car ferry often has to head off from the shore at a sharp angle just to make to the other side, because the strength of the tide racing between these two Hebridean islands is so fierce.

Now, though, that power is to be harnessed in the world’s biggest tidal energy project. Scottish ministers gave the go-ahead today to a £40 million ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) plan which is expected to provide enough electricity for all 3,000 homes on Islay twice over.

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Research work has been going on in the Sound of Islay for the last couple of years, and in July 2010 SPR applied for consent to construct and operate a ten-turbine demonstrator tidal stream energy array, but this has only now been approved.

Not only is it expected to keep Scotland at the forefront of tidal energy power, but the development will provide a significant jobs boost for an island community which has struggled because of a lack of employment opportunities over recent years.

Finance secretary John Swinney determined the application for the 10 megawatt facility, as it is in energy minister Jim Mather’s Argyll and Bute constituency.

“With around a quarter of Europe’s potential tidal energy resource and a tenth of the wave capacity,” Mr Swinney said, “Scotland’s seas have unrivalled potential to generate green energy, create new, low-carbon jobs, and bring billions of pounds of investment to Scotland. This development – the largest tidal array in the world – does just that and will be a milestone in the global development of tidal energy.

“[The] ScottishPower Renewables array will work in harmony with the environment and use the power of the tides in the Sound of Islay to generate enough green energy to power double the number of homes on Islay. There is simply nothing like it consented anywhere else in the world.”

SPR is also entering its tidal farm in the Pentland Firth – between Caithness and Orkney – into the £10 million Saltire Prize for marine energy innovation.

First minister Alex Salmond met SPR and Hammerfest Strøm (a company jointly owned by SPR and Norwegian energy companies) in Norway last year. Hammerfest Strøm is developing one of the world’s most advanced tidal turbines, the HS1000, which will be used in the Sound of Islay development. Burntisland Fabrications Limited has a £2 million contract to build the turbines.

The Scottish government’s target is to meet 80 per cent of electricity demand from renewables by 2020. In 2009, 27 per cent of electricity demand came from renewables.

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