There was nothing very unusual about the dead fish lying in the early-morning darkness of a yellow bin, skin peeled away from some of their flesh, or the pungent smell that rose from them. We already know that, in the salmon farming industry, fish die.

The occasional mort, disposed of because of disease or gill-health problems, is a matter of routine. But there were signs elsewhere that these fish were part of something beyond the average – a bigger, more troubling mortality event.

Last year was a record-breaker for mortalities across the Scottish salmon industry, with death figures doubling to 15 million. This year, if early data is anything to go by, promises to smash through those records. June losses have been higher than for any previous June: 1.46 percent compared with 1.33% in June 2022 and 0.54% in June 2018. 

The conservation charity WildFish recently pointed out that, so far this year, more than 5.6 million salmon have died on Scottish farms, 1.6 million more than the same period last year.

The Herald: Vicky Allan on the cliffs at Ulva looking out over Geasgill

Vicky Allan on the cliffs overlooking Geasgill salmon farm

What took me to the Isle of Ulva and to Geasgill farm was the veteran anti-salmon-farm activist behind the campaigning group Scamon Scotland, Don Staniford, who had invited me after local intelligence had flagged up to him was suffering serious levels of mortality.

“A local said there was an exceptional mass mortality," Mr Staniford told me. "Last year, 2022, was the worst on record for mortalities across the salmon industry. 2023, with rising summer temperatures and jellyfish blooms, is looking like it could be worse. What we’re seeing on the ground suggests we are seeing the beginning of that.”

I met that local source and talked with him, though he did not want to be identified because of how fraught the issue is on the island where salmon farming provides employment for many (500 direct jobs in the whole Argyll and Bute area). 

The source said: “I had noticed there was a very unusual amount of activity at Geasgill. Then I started hearing that workers were talking about a very serious level of mortalities on the site. I was hearing that, between disease, lice and jellyfish, this is looking bad.”

From the cliffs on Ulva, we watched as boats of various sizes maneuvered around the farm. One, the small red Naomi Jennifer, hovered by one of the pens, its crane plunging a braille net into the waters, and then bringing its load up of dead salmon, before swivelling and dumping them into skips. What struck me was how large the fish were; now just waste. 


Another larger vessel, the Ronja Star, a so-called “well boat”, was running the fish through a hydrolicer, after which they were spat back out into the pens.

Footage filmed by a drone cameraman offered a close-up on the aftermath of the treatment: dead salmon floating on the surface, fished out by an operative, and dumped in a skip.

“They call them well boats, but they’re actually sick boats,” Mr Staniford said. “It’s an ambulance. And I call the Bakkanes 'the boat of death'”

Not long after I arrived, the Bakkanes, left the site, after visiting it for over five days. A 2021 Fish Health Inspectorate report described this boat as carrying a “hydrolicer”, as well as a “macerator/Ensiler” (a processing system for dead fish) and noted that it could “hold 1000 cube of morts”. 

WATCH: Vicky Allan visits salmon farm on Mull - and sees morts

It would not be the first time a farm that is now owned by Bakkafrost had been hit by mortalities. In 2019, the Faroese firm bought up The Scottish Salmon Company whose record has been among the worst in Scotland – with, between September 2021 and September 2022 the worst cumulative mortality of any salmon company. At its Druimyeon site in 2021 had a mortality of 82.1% and East Tarbert saw 80.2%.

"Yet," pointed out Mr Staniford, "Bakkafrost is RSPCA assured."

Even Bakkafrost is not flagging up 2023 as a bumper year. Last week the company presented its financial results for the first half of 2023, which included reporting on forecasts in Scotland, where, after a good start, there have been increases in mortalities at the end of the second quarter of 2023 and into the third quarter. 

I interviewed the company’s CEO, Regin Jacobsen, and he acknowledged that there had been severe problems, not just at Geasgill but two other farms.  

“As you know,” he said, “we acquired the Scottish Salmon Company back at the end of 2019. We saw that the activity in the company was heavily under-invested and we have committed ourselves to do everything possible to bring the level of activity up to the same level as we have in the Faroe islands. But it takes a lot of investment to do so. We have had a range of issues to do in Scotland. Unfortunately, it takes time to change it.” 

“What we see right now is mainly jellyfish which are coming in huge swarms or blooms. They are coming with the tide. It seems to be that specific sites are more vulnerable than others, and there is also a common factor that if the salmon is standing a very long time, meaning two years in the sea, they get more vulnerable after the second summer. We have three sites that have been hit - Geasgill is one of them - and these three sites have in common that the fish have been standing there for a second summer now.” 

The type of jellyfish causing this problem are less than 1cm diameter and one of the ways that they are thought to have an impact on the health of salmon is that they run through the gills of the fish when they breathe, burning them.

WATCH: Drone footage filmed by activists of Geasgill farm 

READ MORE: Why tiny jellyfish are such a big threat to salmon farming

Over five days at Geasgill, Don Staniford watched the pens, visiting them by kayak and also looking down at them from the cliffs. At one point he observed three of those large nets full of dead fish pulled out in just twenty minutes. 

It was a site which he had visited before, and at which he had seen jellyfish. Mr Staniford also recently filmed a viral video of what was described as a 'zombie salmon' at another Bakkafrost farm in Portree. The fish had such large chunks missing from its flesh that it looked barely possible that it could still be swimming. 

While Bakkafrost has seen some severe mortalities in recent years, they are not alone. On its website, Salmon Scotland cites an annual mortality rate across the industry of 14.5%, a figure that was submitted to the Scottish Parliament in 2020. But the situation has worsened, and, actually, current annual mortalities look more like 23 percent using the figures published by the body over the past two years, and 25 percent if we take only those in the 12 months leading up to June 2023.

Bakkafrost are also not alone in having downgraded their harvest forecasts for this year. Norwegian-owned Scottish Sea Farms also reduced its estimated harvest volume for 2023 by more than a quarter, as a result of "biological problems". 

In any form of farming, some mortalities are inevitable. What’s striking, though is how much higher salmon farm mortality rates are than those of any other sector.

It’s not easy to make direct comparisons. Rates vary and are often broken down in different ways. But data compiled by Compassion in World Farming, shows that mortality figures for chickens and hens are generally much lower: chickens reared for meat have a rate of around 5%, hens 3-4%. Most of the mortality in pigs happens at their pre-weaning stage. Later, they have only a 3% “finishing mortality”. Dairy calves have a rate of 6% before 3 months old in the UK.

A spokesperson from Compassion in World Farming said: “It’s important to note that salmon mortalities are usually only quoted from the moment they are put out to sea - they don't count early mortalities. At this stage in life, mortalities on terrestrial farms tend to be low and nowhere near the 25% in salmon farms.”

In the face of such high mortalities, the salmon industry is already experimenting with new methods.

The Herald: Bakkafrost's Geasgill salmon farm with  boats dealing with mortalities

Tavish Scott, chief executive of Salmon Scotland said: “Scotland’s salmon farmers have been open and transparent about the challenge we face due to warming seas, which is likely to have an effect on survival rates over the coming months. Like all other farmers our salmon farmers are working hard day in, day out, to provide the very best conditions for the fish in their care.

“With one of the lowest carbon footprints of any animal protein Scottish salmon can help feed a growing global population in a way that is climate-friendly."

“One thing which could make a big difference is reducing the time salmon spend at sea. Instead of two years in the ocean, ‘one summer’ salmon would cut the time it takes to grow salmon to harvest size.

“Our members are working on a number of initiatives to manage the risks posed by climate change that will ensure a positive future for the internationally important Scottish salmon sector for decades to come.”

READ MORE: A Scottish salmon farm visit. Haunted by mortalities and jellyfish

READ MORE: Scottish salmon farms failing to control lice, says report

Bakkafrost also believes a "one summer fish" is the answer - and has already invested in a hatchery at Applecross to this end. 

What the company has observed is that most of the problems are happening in fish during their second summer at sea. Hence, one of its key initiatives, Mr Jacobsen said, is to “produce the fish larger in freshwater in closed systems on land before putting them in the sea”.

However, the monthly mortality report published by Salmon Scotland for September 2022 shows that Geasgill was only stocked in September last year and that the fish, while they were placed there at the end of the summer, have been at that site for less than a year.

Not every farm is on the brink of a mortality event. But overall the data tells a story and getting a glimpse, as I did, of what it represents, visibly, in terms of bins of dead fish at Geasgill, brings home the reality.

How many one-tonne bins, I asked myself, would be filled by the cross-industry mortalities this year if the trend continues? At least, I would estimate, 55,000. 

The MSP Edward Mountain estimated that the 30,000 tonnes of fish that died on fish farms in 2021 would, if put in lorries, nose to tail… "stretch to nearly 11 miles of articulated lorries of dead fish.” Last year, that queue would have grown to almost double. Will we see 20 miles, or longer this year? 

This is a sector whose sustainability is seriously in question. Whether it’s one in four or one in five Scottish farmed salmon that end this way, this year’s figures or lasts, waste like this cannot go on.