Organic Sea Harvest (OSH), which has just been granted permission to establish two new salmon farms off north-east Skye, believe that a less intensive approach to production should help them avoid a number of the health challenges that some conventional farms have faced in Scotland in the last few years.
Alex MacInnes, co-founder of OSH, believes organic production, which has fallen out of favour in Scotland over the last decade, could – in some areas – have significant advantages over conventional production.
“Being organic limits our overall stocking densities to 8kg per m3 – about half of the level of conventional production – but I’m confident that fewer fish will be advantageous from a fish-health perspective,” he reflects.
Alex has been involved in farming fish since 1985, and remembers when there were 14 organic producers in Scotland – now there is only one.
“I’ve worked on organic farms in the past and they’ve always had fewer issues, so I’m hopeful that it will be the same for us within the strategy we are going to implement,” he adds.
Alex doesn’t think that being organic is a panacea for the the industry, but believes its advantages are likely to be maximised if the farms are relatively isolated, so being the only operator in the area was a major consideration for him when selecting possible sites.
“We’ve looked at 26 possible sites overall and one of the reasons we like Staffin is that it’s quite a distance [12km] from any conventional farms,” he says.
And he hopes that having fewer health challenges – as well as adopting the latest biological and mechanical delousing techniques – will take the edge off having access to fewer treatment options.
“To keep our organic status there are some treatments, such as emamectin benzoate [Slice], that we can’t use, so our sea lice strategy is based on a mixture of biological control [ie cleanerfish], freshwater, mechanical control [such as hydrolicers] and a limited number of hydrogen peroxide treatments,” says Alex.
However, he is also aware of the importance of taking a pragmatic approach.
“My late dad and uncle were two of the pioneering cottage industry fish farmers on North Uist and, by default, organic in their strategy. I remember the discussions well that they would never wish to use any treatments or antibiotics on principle and they never did. But, should any major health challenges occur we want to have the full medicine kit available. If we use some of the treatments then we’ll lose our organic status, but it means we can fulfil our duty of care to the fish, which is more important,” he stresses.