AN investigation has been launched after 33,000 rainbow trout escaped from a fish farm into a loch in the south west Highlands - raising new concerns for the wild salmon stock.

Details of what is said to be the biggest escape in over 10 years in the area meant trout managed to get through a hole in one of the nets of a Dawnfresh farm in Loch Etive.

It is believed the escape came to light when the farmed rainbow trout started being caught by anglers in the River Awe which empties into Loch Etive.

While Glen Etive is famous to a new generation as a film location in James Bond movie Skyfall, the new concerns are that escapes are leading to the further demise of one of Scotland’s great salmon reserves.

READ MORE: Scots fishing tourism to be hit by wild salmon stocks crisis

There were already concerns after it emerged the 2017 catch from the River Awe was projected to be the lowest since records began in 1965.

Conservationists are concerned about escaped non-native trout preying on juvenile wild salmon. They also compete for food with the native salmon and trout.

HeraldScotland:

Rainbow trout, which are not native to Europe, have been included on a list of 100 of the world’s worst invasive alien species.

Marine Scotland investigators visited the site on Thursday to conduct their own investigation in to what happened.

Friends of Loch Etive (FoLE), a charity opposed to what it calls “the destructive effects of industrialisation and commercial exploitation” of the loch has approached the regulator Marine Scotland to consider relocating fish farms out of Loch Etive.

It estimates that even before the latest incident, there had been 30,000 reported rainbow trout escapes into Loch Awe and Loch Etive since the start of 2008, the year Dawnfresh bought the farms.

This was Dawnfresh’s biggest escape at any of its Loch Awe and Loch Etive farms since it took over in 2008. There had been a previous escape of rainbow trout fish from Etive 4 in 2015, with over 2,000 non-native rainbow trout reported being lost into Loch Etive, many appearing in the Rive Awe.

The last significant reported escape from a Dawnfresh farm was in February last year, when 5,400 fish with an average weight of 1.8kg escaped from its Braevallich Farm site in Loch Awe. At the time Dawnfresh said a hole along the seam of a new net was found during routine weekly checks by the site team at Braevallich.

HeraldScotland:

Guy Linley-Adams of Friends of Loch Etive said: "Enough is enough. This is the latest in a long line of escapes, and the biggest by quite a margin. The wild salmon stock is already under pressure without this.

"Despite all the endless promises from Dawnfresh, the truth is that open-cage farming, as practised by Dawnfresh at its four sites on Loch Etive, is incompatible with having a thriving and protected salmon and sea trout population.

"The constant threat to the precious salmon of the River Awe and Loch Etive means that relocation of Dawnfresh operations from Loch Etive is now the only sustainable option. Because they cause so many problems for the wild native fish populations there."

A Marine Scotland spokesman said: “Marine Scotland is aware of the escape incident at Dawnfresh, Inverawe. The Fish Health Inspectorate conducted an inspection at the site last week and we are working with them to look at what measures should be put in place to prevent an incident like this from happening again.”

READ MORE: Video: Disease concern as Scots salmon farmers' produce "stomach-churning" record levels of fish deaths

Alison Hutchins, farming director for Dawnfresh Farming, said moves were made to repair the net when the hole was found and after an inspection discovered that 33,000 had escaped from the pen.

She said the firm had looked at an option to seine net the River Awe to get the trout but it proved impossible "due to current and debris".

"Our investigations of the incident thus far indicate that the hole in the net was caused while upgrading our bridles to chains from nylon," she said.

"Fish health and welfare is among our top concerns and we have well-trained professional teams at all of our sites so we take these incidents very seriously and are always looking at ways to improve in the future.

HeraldScotland:

‘We have already put in place measures to prevent this situation from happening again and increased the frequency of net inspections..."

Last year in Scotland, a total of 37,196 wild salmon were caught and released, representing just 67% of the previous five-year average total. It is the lowest since records began in 1952.

The vast majority of these, 93 per cent were caught and then released back into the water.

In 2017, the total rod catch was put at 49,444 fish, a drop of 20 per cent on the five-year average and the fourth lowest figure on record. Nine out of 10 fish were returned in a bid to help stocks.

ANALYSIS

IT is an industry that the Scottish Government hope will double in its value to the economy over 14 years.

Aquaculture has become a crucial industry for Scotland, helping to sustain economic growth in rural and coastal communities particularly in the north and west.

It is a diverse sector that takes in the farming of both finfish, dominated by the production of Atlantic salmon and shellfish species, such as mussels and pacific oysters. 

The Scottish Government supported a working group which launched the strategy to boost the value of Scottish aquaculture from £1.8bn in 2016 to £3.6bn by 2030.

There was also a desire to see the number of jobs double to 18,000 over the same period.

But those ambitions have taken a hit with growing concerns over fish welfare standards.  

At the centre of the debate is salmon  -  the largest component of the Scottish aquaculture industry, with about 170,000 tonnes produced on farms each year.

HeraldScotland:

It is Scotland's single biggest food export – worth £600 million – and is estimated to provide nearly 2,500 jobs directly with thousands more supported by the aquaculture sector in rural and coastal communities.

The industry says that 70% of Scottish salmon are certified to the RSPCA Farm Assured scheme – a higher percentage than any other UK farming sector.
But last year, the salmon farming industry came under fire for "shocking" levels of fish deaths as it emerged they hit record levels in Scotland due to diseases and parasites.

Sea lice, which have been a major problem for the farmed salmon industry, feed on the skin and blood of salmon, and can weaken the health of a fish and its growth.  There is further concern about escaping non-native rainbow trout escaping from farm cages with the ability to compete with native species such as Atlantic salmon, and preying on juvenile populations.

While the sector spends around £10 million per year in research and over £50 million in new equipment and techniques to understand and manage health and environmental problems, it emerged in April levels of wild salmon in Scotland are at their lowest since records began, sparking calls for a urgent action to preserve the species as a matter of national priority.

Fisheries Management Scotland said the fish was at “crisis point” and more must be done to help after figures showed catches were at their lowest levels since records began in 1952.

At the end of 2018, the last Scottish wild salmon netting station closed because there were so few fish to catch.

As a result, Scottish wild salmon is now off the menu, and only farmed salmon is widely commercially available.