The barge, which served a fish farm off Portree, on the Isle of Skye, was damaged during Storm Arwen in November 2021 and lay underwater there for more than 12 months.
It contained around 690 tonnes of waste water and rotting fish feed, with surveys also detecting hydrogen sulphide and methane gases and warning that fumes were “toxic in composition” and in the “explosive range”.
In December the giant barge was towed round to Reraig Bay, across the water from the well-known village of Plockton and on the edge of the Loch Carron marine protected area – which is home to rare flame shell beds – where it was beached to allow the remaining contents to be removed and the damaged vessel to be towed away for repair or scrap.
But locals are furious over repeated delays in shifting the barge – owned by Faroese fish farm operator Bakkafrost, which bought over the Scottish Salmon Company in 2019.
And now a second derelict Bakkafrost feed barge is also awaiting disposal nearby, at the firm’s Loch Carron fish farm, after it was burned out in a fire on New Year’s Day.
The company has indicated that it will relocate the Portree barge to the Loch Carron site once emptied, then both will be taken away.
Professor John M D Storey, a pharmaceutical chemistry academic at the University of Aberdeen, has a home at the head of Loch Reraig – close to the spot where the Portree barge is aground and “directly downwind” most of the time.
He is worried about risks to people’s health and harm to sealife.
"The barge contained high-protein fish feed when it sank, initiating the decomposition of the feed that it contained,” he said. “This is now emitting hydrogen sulphide – a highly toxic, explosive gas which has potential to cause extensive damage to both humans and the environment, and in particular the aquatic environment where it has been dumped.”
He added: “From my perspective there are several important issues that need to be considered – the environmental impact, the social and human health impact and the seeming ability of these large companies to do as they wish without the authorities doing much to curb their activities.”
He said operations to transfer the barge contents to a boat were “continuously noisy and disruptive” and it was possible to smell the sulphurous gas in his house and elsewhere.
“This concerns me, as long-term low-level exposure is rather dangerous,” he said. “Others have also smelt this as well.
“In addition, the very fact that the barge has been placed on the seabed will have killed all sealife beneath it. Loch Reraig is rich in shellfish – winkles, muscles, razor shells and more – these will all have been killed in the area under the barge.”
Lou-Lou Troup and her husband Chris also have a home in Reraig. They feel they have been kept in the dark by Bakkafrost, which has repeatedly failed to meet its own target dates for uplifting the wreckage.
“We seem to be being regularly fobbed off with deadlines that Bakkafrost cannot keep,” Ms Troup said.
“The barge is still smelling of rotten eggs – hydrogen sulphide. There have never been any warnings of any risks involved, only platitudes about it being ‘safe’.
“We consider that, given the circumstances, the company may be liable for a criminal prosecution and we are aware that the police are investigating this.
“Our main worry is that this becomes a regular dumping ground for similar activities and situations like this unless prosecutions are made by the environment agency or the police.”
Bakkafrost Scotland has also not responded to requests for comment.
Following concerns raised by a number of constituents, local MP Ian Blackford has been in touch with Marine Scotland, Highland Council and Scottish rural affairs and islands secretary Mairi Gougeon.
He said: “I have been assured that all organisations involved in the response to the sunken salmon feed barge worked to ensure its removal without major environmental or public health consequences and that, throughout this process, Bakkafrost ensured that appropriate notifications were given to the public, including information about the safety zones put in place around the barge.”
He added: “I was further advised that evaluation of the risk to the public caused by the release of gases was extremely low and a monitoring system was put in place to detect and provide warning of any potential release. The owners of the vessel have stated they will carry out an investigation into the loss of the barge and share the findings with the industry.”
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) is responsible for ensuring waste inside the barge is removed or disposed of legally.
A spokesperson for the regulator said: “On November 27, 2021, Sepa was informed by the Scottish Salmon Company [now Bakkafrost Scotland] that the feed barge for their Loch Portree sites had sunk the previous day during a storm.
“A multi-agency group was set up in response to recover the barge involving Sepa, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), Marine Scotland, Highland Council and other organisations.
“Sepa's regulatory role as part of this operation is to ensure the waste feed within the barge is recovered or disposed of in accordance with waste management legislation. This work is currently ongoing.
“We will continue to work with partners and provide advice as required.”
A MCA spokesperson said: “The MCA continues to attend multi-agency Highland Emergency Liaison Group meetings, which are supporting the barge recovery works being undertaken by Bakkafrost Scotland (formerly Scottish Salmon Company).”