NO industry is more astute at exploiting beautiful landscapes to market its wares than Scottish ‘farmed’ salmon. Back in the day when I was a rookie journalist, still naive enough to believe that caged salmon production in Scotland was a modest, family-run enterprise on a crofting-type scale, I was invited on a press trip to visit some salmon farms on the west coast.

We were given what I soon realised was “the royal tour”, designed to show the farms in the rosiest light.

No expense was spared. We were flown by helicopter to marvel at scenic aerial views that made the caged salmon operations look pretty unobtrusive. We were taken by speedboat to the mouths of stunning sea lochs. Not a lot to see just a few circular pens bobbing around in the water. So instead we admired the vista, which somehow enhanced the product of these cages by association.

By the evening, we were hosted most generously and comfortably in a historic house, lots of fillet steak, rare malt whisky, Scottish farmed salmon served every which way.

Our hosts were keen to stress how superior Scottish farmed fish was to its low-grade Norwegian equivalent, the main competitor for global, if not UK, sales. I was almost romanced, but another food writer on the trip, the highly respected Nicola Fletcher, made me think.

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We were being sold a landscape, she said. These tranquil lochs were fabulous, but it’s what we couldn’t see happening below the surface of their glinting waters that mattered.

Nicola was absolutely right. Over the years I have watched Scotland’s caged salmon industry become bloated and ugly on unquestioning Scottish government support.

The present Scottish Government is up to its neck in this industrial aquaculture trade. It carries on regardless, pushing expansion even as the realities lap up on its doorstep: parasite infestation; discharges of uneaten feed, faeces and toxic chemicals; shocking mortality rates; catastrophic impacts on wild fish and shellfish stocks and the livelihoods of those who depend on them; damage to marine wildlife; the depletion of wild fish stocks to make feed pellets.

Why such blind loyalty? It no longer makes sense to call the salmon aquaculture concerns located in Scotland Scottish when the industry is 99% foreign-owned, mainly by Norwegian corporations.

Yet the lobbying interests of salmon conglomerates remain soundly embedded in the Scottish civil service. Any politician not prepared to bat for Scottish salmon is dead in the water, as far as promotion prospects go.

But despite this undying government backing, Scottish salmon is in trouble – 21 conservation groups, including Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland, Greenpeace, and Open Seas recently called for an immediate halt to cage expansion until a hefty list of conditions are met.

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“Anyone concerned about the sustainability and source of the food they eat should not be buying farmed salmon. Supermarkets and restaurants, which say they promote sustainability, should not be selling farmed salmon.” Too right.

In fact, few restaurants that pride themselves on ingredient provenance put fresh salmon as a main course on their menus. Once regarded as a luxury seafood, its ubiquity has made it the piscine equivalent of intensively-reared chicken breast.

Smoked salmon is a different story. There’s more scope here for a feel-good image. Our focus is dragged from the production method to the processing technique. Drop in a mention of a traditional smokehouse in a pretty place using artisanal techniques? Kerching! That old “king of fish”, licence-to-print-money machine is cranked into life again.

But we’re wising up to the sales pitch, not in small part thanks to the tenacity of anti-farmed salmon campaigner, Don Staniford, who deserves a medal for keeping this contentious multinational industry under scrutiny.

Recently none other than Rick Stein was caught in his crosshairs over descriptions of his own-brand smoked salmon. The packaging and Stein website mentioned evocatively that the Severn & Wye Smokery it comes from is situated on the edge of the Royal Forest of Dean "between two of England's most celebrated salmon rivers".

It went on to say: "It is there that they practice the old-fashioned art of smoking only the highest quality fish and meat."

You can see why the casual shopper might infer that the fish itself was wild and from England. In fact it is farmed in the Faroe Islands.

Staniford complained to Cornwall Trading Standards that the description was misleading, and within days it was clarified to read that the fish are "sourced from two boutique salmon farms" in the Faroe Islands.

Staniford remonstrated that the adjective “boutique” is inapplicable to Faroe Island’s production, which would seem to be as unedifying as anywhere else. Stein’s wording has since been changed again, as follows: “The salmon is sourced from two salmon farms in the Faroe Islands."

Of course it’s indicative of just how low the reputation of Scottish salmon has dropped that Stein chose Faroe Islands fish over Scottish in the first place. As late as 2017, he bought from, and promoted, farmed salmon from a prominent Scottish company that had also cultivated a ‘boutique’ image.

But this is what happens when our government aids and abets the get-rich-quick mentality of global aquaculture, at the expense of wild salmon, a precious marine resource it has failed to protect.

I boycott all caged salmon, so-called “organic” included, because it is just a slightly less intensive version of the same old environmentally ruinous product.

Once in a while, I buy the more muscular MSC-certified wild Alaskan smoked salmon, even though its smoking is unsubtle compared to Scotland’s best. By force of circumstance I have become fonder of cheap and tasty smoked mackerel than I ever thought possible.

But mackerel is no substitute for the fine wild Atlantic salmon of my youth, an early summer delight served fresh with Ayrshire new potatoes and the first peas, or smoked on thin brown bread, thickly buttered, with a squeeze of lemon, as a Christmas treat.

But this is where the greed of the salmon industry and the short-sighted stupidity of our politicians has left us.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.