Readers of my reLAKSation blog will know that I have repeatedly referred to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy Committee meeting of 18 November 2020 at which the SEPA Ecology Officer said that sea lice from salmon farms are not responsible for the decline of wild fish.
I keep mentioning it because the wild fishing industry would rather this testimony be long forgotten.
In comparison to this statement, the scientific summary from Marine Scotland Science states that all the scientific information indicates that there is a risk of sea lice from aquaculture facilities adversely affecting salmon and sea trout populations on the west coast of Scotland. Clearly different views are expressed by the two organizations, but which exactly reflects what is happening on the West Coast?
I would say the only reason MSS is now suggesting that all of the scientific evidence points to a risk is because they were selective in the science they used. There is plenty of other scientific evidence that points to the contrary, but if they choose to ignore it, then they may come to their preferred conclusions.
I tried to discuss evidence with MSS for at least eight years and on every occasion they managed to avoid doing so (and I always thought science was about exploring different points of view).
My latest experience highlights the measures taken by MSS to avoid discussion. Each scientific article provides the e-mail address of the corresponding author. Presumably, this is to allow everyone reading the document to correspond, especially if they have questions or wish to raise points.
MSS members published an article on modeling sea lice dispersal on farms. As there are other published papers which indicate that sea lice are primarily retained in salmon farms, I wrote to the corresponding author to ask if the model had been validated in nature, i.e. -say. have they done research to see if the sea lice are indeed dispersed as the model indicates?
I was therefore extremely surprised to receive an email from the Scottish Government’s Office of the Freedom of Information (FOI) section advising me that my FOI application was incomplete as I had not included my full name and contact information. First, the MSS scientist in question knows who I am and second, this was not an Access to Information request. It was a scientific question to the scientific author of a scientific article. Although I wrote to report it, I received a second email informing me that a response would be made within the prescribed 20 working days. When did the scientific debate become a request for access to information?
Protect the official line?
This is not the first time I have received such a response. Yet I have also written to other MSS scientists over the years and received helpful and friendly responses with offers to provide additional information if I so wished. This is how it should work, and it even seems that MSS thinks so itself by providing a directory of scientists working for them on the Scottish Government website. This directory includes a full biography detailing areas of expertise and contact information. Why provide such a directory if they don’t want the public to contact these scientists directly?
It seems that the common factor between deeming my questions worthy of a direct answer from any scientist or having an inquiry sent through “official channels” is whether the question is about salmon farming and especially sea lice.
In my opinion, it would appear that MSS scientists are now reluctant to answer questions about salmon farming in case any answer they might give would compromise the official line that all of the scientific information indicates that there is a risk that Sea lice from aquaculture facilities affect populations of salmon and sea trout on the west coast of Scotland. Instead, any request or question is sent centrally for an official response.
The problem for MSS is that SEPA has already undermined the argument that sea lice from salmon farms are negatively impacting wild fish populations. How can MSS not now expect others to question the science they used when SEPA has clearly stated that sea lice from salmon farms are not responsible for the decline?
As for my own question, the document doesn’t seem to mention anything about validating the models used to predict the spread of sea lice from salmon farms. Fortunately, I have now received the response to my FOI request. Rather surprisingly, this comes straight from the scientist, asking the question of why this MSS scientist couldn’t have just answered the question in the first place rather than sending it through the FOI process, especially since the answer is only one sentence.
The response states: “Validation of sea lice distribution is beyond the scope of this article which is concerned with defining algorithms for wild fish-lice interactions.”
I wonder how MSS scientists can create a model of sea lice dispersal, but I think it is totally unnecessary to demonstrate that the model reflects the actual way sea lice are dispersed in the sea and not just on a computer screen.
At least the pandemic has shown that algorithms can be notoriously unreliable. Why should we believe that the MSS model is different when there has been no attempt to validate it?
The reason this is important is that this modeling is the basis of the risk assessment framework provided by SEPA and so far there is not a shred of evidence that sea lice disperse like the model predicted, let alone infest any wild salmon passing through the proposed protection zones.