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Environment before jobs as islanders say no to fish farm

In hard times, most communities would bite the hand off anyone promising jobs and investment.

But it seems the people on the tiny Scottish island of Canna are no ordinary community.

The residents on the western-most outpost of the Small Isles have just rejected the overtures of a major company.

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This comes at a time when the island, owned by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), is actively trying to attract more people to boost its meagre population of 21.

Plans by multinational fish farming giant Marine Harvest to site an operation off Canna would have created six full-time and two part-time jobs.

However, islanders rejected the idea by eight votes to seven in a secret ballot, largely because of the environmental impact of the plan.

The island was among 15 potential sites identified in October last year as part of Marine Harvest’s plans for the Minch.

In contrast to the choice made by Canna, residents on neighbour Muck have voted in favour of similar plans for its waters.

The NTS had its own concerns about the fish-farm plans for Canna, but left it to islanders to decide.

Geoff Soe-Paing, secretary of the Canna Community Association, said: “Obviously, with the narrowest of votes it is fair to say that island opinion is divided.

“The majority understood the development might well bring a degree of economic prosperity and a level of sustainability but found hard to reconcile it with the environmental implications.”

Winnie MacKinnon, whose forbears first arrived in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, was one of those who voted.

She runs the island’s postal service, and while not wanting to reveal how she voted, said: “I was really quite neutral. Nobody wants to turn down jobs on an island, but there would have been an environmental impact and we have to remember the NTS who own Canna are holding it for the nation.”

However, another islander, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “I was disappointed by the result because all we were voting for was Marine Harvest doing an environmental impact study. I wanted that done before I made up my mind.

“There was concern about the visual impact of the cages. They wouldn’t be seen from island homes, but would be seen by everybody travelling to the island by boat. Jobs would be welcome but some were concerned at the implications of perhaps as many as six new families coming.”

Steve Bracken, business support manager for Marine Harvest, said: “We’ve had a number of meetings since the start of the year, with the residents of Canna and the National Trust, to discuss the possibility of a salmon farm close to the island. The Canna community has decided against a salmon farm so we will not progress any application.

“Should views on the island change at any stage in the future, we would be happy to resume discussions.”

The community and the NTS are currently in the middle of the latest exercise to boost Canna’s population. In 1850 Canna was home to 286 people.

A cottage is being renovated and more than 20 families from all over Britain -- and one from as far away as Bulgaria -- have expressed interest. A shortlist of six has been drawn up. Four families have already visited and the remaining two will do so in the coming weeks. However, there are no jobs on the island so any newcomers will have to be self-employed or employed.

It is all so different on the island to the south-east, where the 30 or so inhabitants of Muck voted overwhelmingly in favour of Marine Harvest coming in with the same number of jobs.

Writing in the most recent edition of West Word, the community paper for the Small Isles, Muck’s owner Lawrence MacEwen said it was good news that Marine Harvest was hoping to build a large salmon farm east of Muck.

“Even more important for Muck is the possibility of the farm staff living on the island and this should help solve one of the biggest problems in attracting new families -- lack of jobs.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but it won’t happen overnight -- 2013 is the year suggested.”

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