FOREIGN multinational Marine Harvest has been accused of offering "bribes" to the islanders of Colonsay to get them to agree to a controversial plan to turn their waters into a giant fish farm.

The Norwegian firm has promised the 120 residents of Colonsay, to the north of Islay, £50,000 up front and £10,000 a year thereafter if they vote for 12 salmon cages to be moored 1500 metres off their east coast. It would be the island's first commercial fish farm.

Islanders are split on the issue, with some worried about environmental risks and others anxious for new jobs. They will vote on the plan later this year, and the company has pledged to abide by the outcome.

People on different sides of the argument, canvassed by the Sunday Herald last week, all agreed the result of the vote was too close to call.

One of the most ardent opponents is 60-year-old Mike McNicholl, who retired yesterday as owner of the local shop. The cash on offer was undoubtedly "a bribe", he said, aimed at winning support for a development that would later expand.

He fears a fish farm would damage Colonsay's reputation as an "unspoilt" holiday destination.

"I really don't see the benefits," he said. "Whatever the outcome, it's already caused damage."

Laird Alex Howard, 50, owns 60% of the island and 38% of its homes. "I have not yet seen enough evidence to say that we are not taking an unacceptable risk," he said, warning the farm "could backfire horribly" because it "could have incredible, far-reaching negative consequences, ruining the environment."

He added: "If you dangle money in front of people who haven't got much, they will take an interest."

Marine Harvest has failed to control pollution at some fish farms. Eight of its west coast and island salmon farms were rated as "poor" by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) in 2010, while 48 were "good" or "excellent".

The company's fish-processing plant in Fort William failed Sepa's pollution assessment in 2008 because of smells, though it has improved.

Some Colonsay residents, however, favour the fish farm. Kevin Byrne, 64, who drives the school bus, is worried about the lack of work for young people. "It would be foolish of those of us who are past working age to stand in the way of this," he said.

Local development officer and crofter Donald Macneill, 58, said: "Anything that brings new jobs to Colonsay is not just important, it is vital". He pointed out the vast majority of the 95 islanders were over 45, with 49 of them over 60. "We do need young people, and jobs to give them," he argued.

The fish farm will create six full-time jobs, a significant boost to the 16 existing full-time jobs.

Marine Harvest manager Steve Bracken, based in Fort William, rejected the idea that the company was trying to bribe the islanders.

"We see this as an opportunity to help the community in whatever way they see fit to fund various projects on Colonsay. If we are successful, our farm staff and families who will live on Colonsay would benefit from this funding as well."

The company withdrew plans for a salmon farm near the island of Canna to the north in 2010 after islanders rejected the idea by eight votes to seven.

The chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, Stan Blackley, said: "[The islanders] will have to find a sensitive balance between the claimed economic and social benefits and the actual scenic and environmental impacts."