By Vicky Allan

THE waters of Cour Bay, on the Kintyre peninsula, are crystal clear. But locals who swim there and live by its shore have become concerned that, with the arrival of a new large Mowi salmon farm in the North Kilbrannan sound, they may cease to be so pristine.

Swimmers and water users are putting up a new type of fight against salmon farms – one that revolves around human health and safety, around the tensions between tourism and the growing fish-farm industry.

Their claim is that pesticide chemicals used by salmon farms, which are known to be hazardous to human health and include organophosphate azamethiphos, will contaminate the bay, and that, since no guidance or studies are held by Sepa (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency) to demonstrate what safe levels are, swimmers may be at risk, as may all those using the water near salmon farms.

Leading the fight is Harry Nickerson, a hill farmer who runs rental properties at Cour, providing employment for six people. He said: “The local community have been swimming in Cour Bay for centuries and it has been a holiday destination for over 100 years. The sheltered, unspoiled bay is the major attraction with swimming, water sports and the scenery.

“When Mowi applied for a licence to site a massive fish farm here, locals warned Sepa that the pollution would ruin the bay and our business. We were bewildered by their apparent lack of interest and they went ahead and granted a licence.”

Cour Bay local Jackie Lamond is such a keen swimmer that she was even back in the water four weeks after a heart attack. But she said: “I wouldn’t be happy to swim if there was a fish farm right there. I wouldn’t be happy to go in the water at all. I wouldn’t let the grandchildren paddle, or indeed swim.”

HeraldScotland: Maggie Richmond at Cour Bay

Maggie Richmond in Cour Bay

John Aitchison, a wildlife cameraman who worked on David Attenborough documentaries, is also involved in the fight against the farm. “If we’re trying to attract people to these areas,” he said, “in which of course tourism is much bigger business than fish farming, then you’ve got to take into account that a lot of the people coming are coming for reasons which are incompatible with having these farms there.”

READ MORE: Rivers of no return: What's happened to Scotland's salmon?

Effluent concern

Other wild swimmers in Scotland are also voicing concern about fish farms and their effluent – and are part of an increasing body of wild swimmers campaigning around issues relating to water pollution. Georgina Maclean, a regular swimmer in Lamlash Bay, last year turned a 60-mile swim she did round Arran into an awareness-raiser around the impact of a planned fish farm at Millstone Point. Her local Lamlash Bay salmon farm has long been an area of water she had avoided swimming in. “The more I learn about the chemicals used,” she said, “the more I have started to wonder what am I ingesting when I’m swimming around that area. Because you can’t not swallow water. I’m a very competent swimmer but it does happen occasionally. You do sometimes wonder, what on Earth have I swallowed? What’s getting on my skin?”

One of the key chemicals that will be used in the North Kilbrannan Sound farm – and one used by most fish farms – is organophosphate azamethiphos. Sepa, on its website, publishes a safety data sheet for on this pesticide which warns of “acute toxicity”. Other warnings include the following: “Contaminated work clothing should not be allowed out of the workplace.” “Swallowing a small quantity will result in serious health hazard.”

Through a freedom of information request, Nickerson discovered that while Sepa does assess the impact of fish farms on marine animals, it holds no guidance or studies relating to the impact of the chemicals on humans using waters into which it has been discharged.

In the absence of other research, he also commissioned a model of how chemicals would disperse down the Kilbrannan Sound. He said: “Our evidence proves that pollution from the fish farm will flow into and linger around the bay, including organophosphate pesticides.”

The model, produced by flow researcher Dr Tom Scanlon, revealed the chemicals would wash into the bay and gather in significant concentrations, above 40ng/l, which is is the environmental standard maximum limit set by Sepa, set because of impact on crustacea, not humans.Nickerson has asked Sepa to suspend the licence for North Kilbrannan Sound farm and put it under review due to risk to public safety. “Argyll and Bute Council are about to decide whether to grant planning consent based on faulty and misleading advice from regulatory authorities."

READ MORE: Swimming in sewage - the swimmers cleaning up our shores

National relevance

GIVEN the growth in the salmon-farming industry -– the 2016 Scottish Government road map stated the intention of doubling Scotland’s fish-farming industry by 2030 – Nickerson believes this is an issue not just of local but national relevance. Wild swimming has soared in popularity with the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Facebook membership increasing by 73 per cent in the last year.

Nathan Tyler of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation said: “Our farmers pride themselves on being good custodians of the marine environment and good neighbours to all who use our coastal waters: that includes, swimmers, divers, kayakers and sailors. Most water users know that our sites are working farms with submerged pipes, netting and moorings, many of which could be dangerous to people coming too close. But, to ensure everyone knows the risks, the Scottish salmon sector will launch a major new safety campaign this spring, asking recreational water users to stay outside the buoys that mark the boundaries of our farms – not because of the occasional medicines or treatments that our farmers may use but because of the unseen physical hazards in and around our farms.”

HeraldScotland: Georgina Maclean swimming past Lamlash bay fish farm

Georgina Maclean swims past a fish farm

Dougie Hunter, Technical Director at Mowi Scotland, said: “Our staff often witness and also participate in wild swimming near our salmon farms. We can understand people not familiar with our business voicing these concerns and encourage anyone with questions about our farm to contact us directly. Only if required to improve animal health will we apply medicinal treatments that are safely administered under veterinary and regulatory permissions. Any medicines that we use are approved for use by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency following a rigorous and precautionary environmental risk assessment and there is no evidence that limited medicinal use in fish farming accumulates or persists at sea at levels that risks human health.” 

David Harley, head of water and planning at Sepa, said: “At Sepa, we recognise the growing popularity of wild swimming, particularly through the Covid-19 pandemic, and we’ll continue to work with public partners to respond to the changing uses of Scotland’s coastal waters. The National Marine Plan already provides a vision for managing Scotland’s seas to meet the long-term needs of people and nature and a framework for decision-making, which includes consideration of recreational uses. Sepa is a statutory consultee in the planning system, has responded to Argyll and Bute Council, and will continue to provide further information and support to the council where requested.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are supportive of the continued growth of aquaculture but we are clear that growth must be sustainable, with due regard to the marine environment and alongside other marine users.”

This article has been amended to include the response from Mowi, formerly omitted in the original article.