The upcoming government inquiry into a controversial proposal for a semi-enclosed salmon farm at Loch Long has triggered a wave of anger and mistrust from residents in the area who fear their voices will not be heard.

David McDowall, a campaigner against the Loch Long site, said : “We’re the people who will be most affected, yet we’re the ones being silenced time and time again. It’s totally unacceptable.”

The inquiry coincides with local backlash against a consultation to develop a second similar farm in Loch Linnhe. Locals living in the vicinity of both of the semi-enclosed fish farms proposed by Loch Long Salmon Company, hit out at the plans.

There are currently two proposals put forward by salmon producer, Loch Long Salmon, for pioneering,  semi-enclosed sites. These differ from open- net farms in that an impermeable bag separates the salmon somewhat from the sea. Water is pumped in from below the pen, and solid waste, which gathers at its base is collected, brought ashore and treated. 

The first application, for Loch Long, was rejected last year by Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority, following which the company made an appeal.

In a rare intervention, the  Scottish Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning 'called in' the proposal for decision by central government by, citing the fact that the "new technology ... raises issues of national significance".

David Liddell, a reporter with the Scottish Government's Planning and Environmental Appeals Division, has been appointed to examine the case, and hearing and inquiry sessions will take place from Monday September 25.

READ MORE: Scottish salmon: What dead fish I saw tells us about sector

A Loch Long local and member of Portincaple Residents Association, Hilary Worton spoke out about her worries: “I share concerns that have been expressed by many people locally, especially the concerns around fish welfare. There’s a lot that has been said by the applicant of the benefits of lice reduction, but none of the other issues have been properly addressed and they’re simply greenwashing”.

She asked: “What about the liquid waste? They’re not making any attempt to remove any of the fish urine, secreted through their gills. All of that will be flushed out straight into the loch… the pollution impact if this goes ahead is really quite significant and could be devastating to the area. I hope that it doesn’t go ahead”.

The Herald: xxxImage: Planning application/Loch Long Salmon

David McDowall, a key figure in the AfftheClyde campaign which fought proposals for a fish farm at Ardentinny, and is now campaigning against the Loch Long development said: “Around the loch the biggest concern is the waste management of the faeces and other pollutants that would emanate from the site.

"Loch Long Salmon has never been able to demonstrate that this technology has been used anywhere else in the world. They’ve cited an installation in Norway, but they’ve not offered any information, as they consider it commercially confidential If this plant exists, we would suggest that the DPEA Reporter arranges a visit to view it first hand. “

In Appin, a spokesperson for Long Live Loch Linnhe, a group whose website declares as protecting the loch "against industrial fish mega-farms", echoed concern over the issue of waste from the farms. “They haven’t explained in detail how this is going to work. They are saying that they will extract 85 percent solid waste - but 100 percent of the pee, with all its nitrogen, will go into the sea. We have asked where can we see the design that you are putting forward in action and working - and they have never been able to respond.”

Long Live Loch Linnhe Facebook group now has over 1400 members, over 95% of them being local. The group’s spokesperson also questioned whether the area would see much benefit in terms of jobs - 16 of which, it has been said, will be delivered by the Loch Linnhe plan. 

“We don’t have an unemployment issue here at all. Often the words that go with these proposals are ‘supporting fragile rural communities’. We are not a fragile community. We are a very buzzing, positive, vibrant community, with cafes and restaurants that are struggling to find staff and also struggling to find accommodation for the staff that they can get. We need accommodation, yes, but not for this.”

With Scottish salmon farming suffering huge mortalities this year, and in the wake of a record-breaking 17 million mortalities in the sector last year, semi-enclosed pens are being touted by some as a possible solution to many of the problems afflicting the industry - from lice levels to seal predation.

The Herald: A diagram of semi-closed aquaculture technology by FiiZK that would be used by Loch Long Salmon (Credit: FiiZK)A diagram of semi-closed aquaculture technology by FiiZK that would be used by Loch Long Salmon (Credit: FiiZK)

For David McDowall however, the issue was not one of open net or closed - but one of location. He said: “This semi-enclosed system may be better than open net. But in a National Park? The land there was gifted to the people by Archibald Corbett in 1905 and he said that it was only to be used for the good of the people. “

"His exact words on gifting the land were 'My general object is to preserve a grand and rugged region for the best use of those who love the freedom of the mountains and wild natural beauty. While I would not object to the erection of simple cottages, I should greatly repel anything being done which would disturb the naturalness of such scenery'."

Loch Long Salmon was established by CEO  Stewart Hawthorn, a salmon industry professional with thirty years working in the sector. He hit out against the idea that the company was greenwashing.

“This is so far from reality. We’re actually committed to doing something that makes a positive difference around food production which accounts for between 20-25% of global emissions. Even if we switch the whole world to wind turbines and solar energy we won’t solve climate change unless we solve the way we eat. What we’re trying to do is produce salmon, which the way it’s done now is already a low-carbon protein. 

“With these semi-enclosed containers what we’re doing is bringing a technology in that completely elminates sea-lice, completely eliminates interactions with seals, practically eliminates escapes – there have been no escapes in any of these systems around the world, to date – and allows us to capture 85% of the salmon poo and all of the uneaten feed. 88% of the solid waste.”

The Herald: Stewart Hawthorn, Managing Director, Loch Long Salmon. Picture: Nicol CraigStewart Hawthorn, Managing Director, Loch Long Salmon. Picture: Nicol Craig

He also refuted the idea that the technology was not proven. “There are peer-reviewed papers. There is the work, for instance,  of the Centre for Closed Containment Aquaculture CtrlAQUA,  a Norwegian government-assembled consortium to look at closed-containment systems [equivalent to semi-enclosed] a project that lasted eight years and recently wrapped up.”

Mr Hawthorn  quoted from one of their documents, which states that closed containment farms  "significantly minimize sea lice and prevent breeding populations becoming established, and less lice infestation has been seen also after transfer of adult fish from semi-closed systems to open net pens “

They also, the document said, “prevent escapes of farm-raised salmon and maintain very good health and welfare in the systems shown in several generations."

READ MORE: 210,000 salmon dead at one salmon farm in one month

“We are living in,” said Mr Hawthorn, “and responsible for a climate and nature crisis. Business as usual will not be enough if we are to reverse this trend.

"We have held community events in Duror and Kentallen and Appin areas. We have attended community council meetings in these areas and beyond. We are open and transparent and have provided detailed information that supports our project plans and objectives. As I said, I am surprised that people continue to express fear and doubt.”

Mr Hawthorn expressed his concern that rural Scotland will lose all industry other than tourism.

“I went recently to the Aran Islands in Ireland," he described, "and it was a stunningly beautiful place and quite unusual, but it also left me with a feeling of sadness - because we had all these people, mainly men, driving you around and showing you the island, and they used to be fishermen. Now they were driving tourists around and talking about stuff that had happened, not stuff that was happening now.

"I’m not against tourism. I think tourism is a great industry. But tourism and salmon farming can and do live side by side.”

Loch Long community members were backed by animal welfare charities. Abigail Penny, Executive Director of NGO Animal Equality UK, said: “Communities will bear the brunt of decisions about newly proposed fish farms and so I find it deeply troubling that those more directly affected are being silenced.

 “Salmon farms are an eyesore across Scotland’s beautiful landscape - they risk deterring tourists and polluting local environments, and are responsible for mass salmon suffering. Communities are rightly concerned - it’s critical that the Government hears their pleas.”.

Graeme Corbett from Animal Concern, said: “Local people aren’t speaking out because they’re worried about the view from their windows and house prices. They share our view that salmon farming is cruel and an environmental risk, and that’s what they don’t want on their doorsteps.”