You could call it a tale of three big fish versus one little fish. The three biggest salmon producers in Scotland, which account for over 70% of Scottish salmon farming, have made legal actions to ban one activist from coming near their farms.

In October, it was announced that Mowi, the Norwegian company that was, last year, the biggest salmon producer in the world,  had won an injunction to prevent the veteran activist Don Staniford coming within a 15-metre distance of its 48 Scottish farms, or flying drones or taking underwater footage at the sites.

The same month, Norwegian-owned Scottish Sea Farms issued a similar writ – and, last week, Bakkafrost became the third company to issue a legal letter requiring that Staniford cease from approaching within 15 metres of its farms, flying drones and sending in underwater drones or face legal action.

Among the nine incursions Bakkafrost listed as examples, was one I witnessed myself, at its farm just off Ulva.

The company states in the letter: “Your client escorted Vicky Allan to our client’s site. While there your client opened a mort bin and filmed within it. Your client also kayaked out to our client’s marine farm with the intention of filming within the pens.”

The Herald: Drone footage of Geasgill salmon farmDrone footage of Geasgill salmon farm (Image: Scamon Scotland)

In May 2023 Mowi’s suit was designated a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) by the Coalition against SLAPPs in Europe (though this is a matter of opinion) - making it the fifth designated SLAPP in Scotland. 

The most famous of these Scottish SLAPPs was the defamation suit against Andy Wightman by Wildcat Haven - which the former MSP and land reform campaigner ultimately won.

Earlier this year, the former SNP MP Roger Mullin, put forward a petition urging ­Scotland to tighten the law to ­prevent the rich abusing the court system to suppress free speech.

It described SLAPPs as "abusive defamation or privacy cases, often initiated by mega-rich individuals with the intention to intimidate and harass individuals and publishers, and prevent them from publishing information of wide public interest."

Most SLAPPs are against journalists, media outlets, activists and NGOs. In the UK there are no anti-SLAPP laws - and they are a lawful form of litigation -  though concern about the muzzling of journalists is such that a taskforce has been created around the issue and new provisions have been made in the UK Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act.

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In a talk delivered at the UK Anti-SLAPP conference in London earlier this week,  Mr Staniford said he felt he was in “the eye of a SLAPP storm” and that the series of legal actions and threats felt like “David versus three Goliaths”.

“We’ve heard a lot about journalists being sued. I think as an environmental activist and animal welfare campaigner there are a lot of cases like mine lurking beneath the surface.”

Mr Staniford regards himself as operating, he said, in “the murky waters between activism and journalism”.

“A lot of my stories,” he said, “and a lot of my footage, gets given to newspapers. I went to a land-based salmon farm to see a skip full of dead salmon with Netflix for the film Seaspiracy.... It’s in the public interest, what we do.”

However, salmon farm companies say that legal action is necessary to preserve safety and protect their staff, fish and infrastructure. 

Scottish Sea Farms head of health and safety, Gerry McCormick, said: “Unauthorised visits to our places of work, without understanding the strict health, safety, and biosecurity protocols in place, put lives at risk – that’s no overstatement.

The Herald: Don Staniford approaching Geasgill salmon farm. Image: Scamon ScotlandDon Staniford approaching Geasgill salmon farm. Image: Scamon Scotland (Image: Vicky Allan)

“So, whilst we understand and respect an individual’s right to protest, we simply cannot stand by silently while someone puts their own life, and those of our team and fish stocks, in danger.

“Having tried repeatedly over recent years to convey the potential risks and dangers, but having had this advice ignored, we are left with no other option than to seek legal intervention in order to help keep everyone free from harm.”

For the past five years, Mr Staniford has chiefly been working on stories in which he kayaks up to salmon farms and films underwater using a GoPro attached to a stick. Staniford's footage has been behind numerous exposes of the salmon industry - including this summer's viral 'Zombie salmon' which was shared globally and appeared in Newsweek.

Speaking after the talk, he said: “This is a restraint of trade. This could shut me down as a campaigner. I campaign against salmon farming in Scotland and these lawsuits, if they win, will mean I will be fenced off, blocked from 70-75% of the industry. They’re trying to silence me. They’re trying to shut me out and they’re trying to stop my campaign. I’ll just be left behind a desk doing freedom of information requests.”

“These salmon companies," he added, "are seeking to privatise the coastal commons and waters in Scotland."

A key question is to what degree Mr Staniford is a threat to safety and security; and how much this is about reputational damage.

 On August 1 when I observed Staniford’s surveillance actions and approaches to Bakkafrost farms near Ulva, there were no obvious signs of harm to the fish, salmon farm operatives or structure. But this, of course, is only a subjective view and one example of such an incursion. The companies have listed many others. 

“There’s no vandalism,” said Staniford. “There’s no impact on the fish. The claims by Mowi, Scottish Sea Farms and Bakkafrost that I’m impacting on the welfare of the fish or health and safety of workers are complete codswollop. There is no substance to those claims.”

Mowi Scotland, because of time constraints, gave no new response for this article. However, the company did supply quotes from COO Ben Hadfield, from the time of the legal proceedings.

Mr Hadfield said: “This person’s behaviours and actions that we have borne witness to over the past two years gives cause for great concern, and is not something that our staff should have to endure whilst going about their daily work. Everyone should be able to go to work and expect their workplace to be free of harassment and intimidation.”

“The basis for these court proceedings is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our employees, our fish and Mr Staniford and his associates. Our business also receives much oversight from licensed professionals, government regulators and third-party auditors, and therefore does not require the services of self-appointed individuals.”