By JOHN ROBERTSON
Salmon farmers in Shetland were waiting on just two more test results this week before they can be reasonably confident infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) has been nipped in the bud west of Scalloway.
Shetland Aquaculture general manager David Sandison said on Wednesday only one result from a fish farm in the control zone remained to be revealed and another one from a site in the wider surveillance area. The two suspected sites near the Hildasay site which had ISA were given the all-clear in test results last week while samples from several salmon farms in distant parts of Shetland which might have had a connection with Hildasay showed nothing either.
Describing the string of negative results so far as “great news”, Mr Sandison cautioned that until the whole process was finished it was difficult to say the industry was out of trouble and even then it would still be stuck with the zone restrictions. “It’s the knock-on effect of the control measures that cause us most difficulty,” he said.
Companies hit by official restrictions on movement and restocking of smolts may seek cash help from the Scottish government. With perfect timing, environment minister Michael Russell will be in Shetland on Monday to meet industry people as well as to discuss planning policy with the SIC.
Although no fish have had to be culled during this month’s outbreak the strict controls have meant extra costs and inconvenience, which are being assessed in an economic impact analysis. The most impact has been on Scottish Sea Farms, Grieg Seafood Hjaltland and Skelda Salmon.
Mr Sandison said: “If people can show a case that they will have an adverse effect on their business – because these measures are going to go on for some time – then I think we have got the bare bones of an argument to have with the government about whether folk should be given some help.”
He said the single discovery of ISA had been “a bit of a wake-up call” for the local industry, causing it to think twice about how it has been producing salmon in the area off the south-west Mainland. “It makes folk sit up and evaluate their operation and hopefully come up with something that further improves it.” Meetings were going on this week to agree a draft plan for changing working practices in the area, which may include deciding not to stock some sites again in an area which has a high concentration of cages. That sort of re-jigging exercise was in the pipeline before ISA reared its ugly head and it should be easier to achieve these days with essentially just three commercial salmon companies operating in an area where once there were nine.
According to Mr Sandison all four of the sites in the zones which have slaughtered their fish since December were due to be harvested anyway with most farmers working to a maximum 22-month growth cycle these days rather than the two-year cycle of the past.
He said: “There are no sites that have been harvested out because of the ISA situation. Possibly they may have been speeded up but they were all due to be harvested by the end of January anyway.
The source of the outbreak and any blame that can be attached has still to be established. The results of a study are not ready yet. Inspectors from the government’s Fisheries Research Service were in Shetland this week still tracing the movements of fish, boats, equipment and people from farms in the control zone to other fish farm-related locations. “There is no obvious thing here that says where it came from, which is a worry,” Mr Sandison said. “It is better to know and you have got a better chance of doing something about it.
He said many people believed it was always out there in the environment and would appear if the right conditions were created for it to flourish. He denied that problems experienced with sea lice off the south-west Mainland had been the most likely trigger or that it had prompted the companies in the area to seek an agreement to fallow all the salmon sites in a bid to get clear of the parasite. The extent of the sea lice problem came to light recently in a report to the stock exchange in Oslo by Grieg Seafood Hjaltland’s parent company in Norway, Grieg Seafood ASA. It said profits for the last quarter of 2008 would be weak, partly due to “extraordinary high mortality” in Shetland.