‘The most reliably devoted eco-warrior’ – in memory of Anna Novak

Tragically for us all, Anna died of a brain hemorrhage on the 20th of August 2020.  She was buried in a beautiful spot overlooking Loch Broom on the 6th of September – not far from another ecologically minded Scoraig resident, Tom Forsyth. Our hearts go out to Chris, her partner of 27 years, who shared her passion for the sea as well as the beautiful Scoraig garden overlooking Loch Broom which they gardened together.

Anna was a member of Sea Change Wester Ross,  joining in 2015-2016 just after Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (MPA) was created. During this time up until her death, she helped oppose the plans for salmon farm expansions in the Marine Protected Area and supported the return of the 3-mile limit.

I knew her as ‘Anna from Scoraig’ as did Don Staniford from his time living on the remote peninsula. Don echoed my feelings precisely when he said “Bloody tragic loss – so sudden. She was always so helpful and energetic.” I would add, that she had a real sense of humour too.  Her emails often made me smile. I’d receive quick missives like…..“ I hope the culprits who dredged here can be brought to justice.  If it keeps raining like this there will not be much dry land left and we will all be part of the marine ecosystem and in danger of being dredged!”

                                                 Anna as a young woman

When I heard that she had died, I felt her loss in particular because she had been such a support to me. Out of curiosity, I looked up my last email to her. In it, I called her “the most reliably devoted eco-warrior”.  She was too.  Anna and I never actually met, despite our intention to do so  – however, we did talk on the phone and I had many email exchanges over the years.  When it came to writing letters to Ministers she was always one of the first to respond, almost without fail. This genuine commitment to do whatever she could to help came from her own passion and an emotional connection to Nature.  Her emails gave me a glimpse of the way she lived… “trying to get some veg sown in the garden before it rains”. What I gathered across the years was that she lived in a wonderful haven and was planting and growing in her garden with Chris across the seasons  – but she always took the time to write.

Here is something she sent me about herself for a blog she planned to post but never got around to: “My name is Anna Maria Novak, age 57. I have lived on the remote south side of Loch Broom at Achmore, within Annat Bay for nearly 30 years with my partner who has worked in the past as a creel fisherman and with the wild salmon in the ’80s (and early ’90s) before their numbers declined to the point where it was no longer viable. 

We have a large organic garden, some forestry, and rough pasture and also a bothy by the shore for paying-guests and volunteer helpers.  We collect a lot of storm-washed seaweed from the shore which we use on our crops and compost as a traditional method of natural fertiliser – this has been used by crofters for generations. We take great care of our land and have created a haven for wildlife as well as fresh food for ourselves and others, but surrounding us the sea lochs and shoreline are sadly losing their bio-diversity. Overfishing, dredging, fish farms, plastic fishing gear and nets in various sizes and states washed up relentlessly on the shore,  all these I feel is a combination which continues to degrade our local seas and that is why I support the Marine Protected Area.”

What I appreciated most about her letters and comments – which she sometimes dismissed as ‘too emotional‘ was that she authentically cared about the plight of what she called the farmed “misfit fish”  as well as their wild cousins and other creatures. It was wider than just a concern for human wellbeing which so often is the case.  She often called our MSPs personally by phone to follow up on her letters. She didn’t mince her words either – as you will see in her letters below.

However, life in remote Scoraig, planting and the internet connection became a barrier to her blogging or getting more active despite her good intentions.  She also admitted to a level of ‘campaign fatigue‘ coming from being at the frontline of a long campaign for change which pre-dated the creation of Wester Ross Marine Protected Area as well as any of Sea Change’s lobbying.

Anna told me the story – this is an extract. “Years ago when Wester Ross Salmon wanted to site a massive farm just off our shore here (stretching from here to the graveyard where Tom Forsyth now rests) I didn’t have much idea of how bad salmon farming really was. 

I, along with Aaron Forsyth submerged ourselves (forgive the pun) with campaigning against it and we won at a public hearing with the Highland council in Ullapool.  Wester Ross Salmon appealed to the Crown Estate. Even the Highland Council were unaware of this, then the Scottish Government gave the site to WRS but at the time there was an Area Management Agreement between all the stakeholders and they managed to stop it on a technicality.  I even wrote to Prince Charles! 

It was all-consuming and I felt a bit burnt out as they say! It is so upsetting to see these salmon suffer even if they shouldn’t exist in the first place.  …. I was ‘burnt out’ due to the wester ross salmon stuff, and the agent of environmental justice course with Friends of The Earth Scotland and the idea of the Wester Ross Marine Reserve Partnership but I was really up for it at the time.  It was an education!  My motivation was high and I believed in it all completely, but my life just got in the way, living here and having shed loads to do constantly, juggling too many different things became impossible. Which is one of the major reasons why corporations and the like who are able to employ people full-time to do their bidding and lobbying for them get on so well in the world.  Can you imagine I only had a dial-up connection for the internet! To say that was a  handicap is a massive understatement. Seems to me that (supporting) the MPA should be a pleasure, not a constant fight against dredgers and fish farms – absurd.  You shouldn’t have to worry or deal with any of that at all, the clue is in the name Marine Protected Area!

She explained Aaron Forsyth had been the star, leading the campaign in opposition to Wester Ross Salmon and he had invented The Wester Ross Marine Reserve Partnership concept –  a forerunner to the Marine Protected Area we have now.

As a result of  Anna’s experience,  at times when I was feeling a similar level of exhaustion, her kind words made all the difference to my morale and staying power.  She understood the challenges for volunteers and also how sad it is when communities become polarised – often through misunderstanding.  I will miss her support a great deal – and the way she just said it how it is. She was hugely supportive of Sea Change and although her contribution was invisible to most she was always quick to do what she could to spread the word. When we printed our MPA leaflets she was the first to offer to help distribute them as widely as possible – in her case around all the homes in Scoraig and the two notice boards.

Below is her letter to our local MSPs, Edward Mountain and Gail Ross, ( the Chair and Deputy Chair of the RAC Committee which held the enquiry into salmon farming).  Anna had planned to blog this here on Sea Change but she didn’t get around to it….I am doing it for her now posthumously.

Dear Mr Mountain and Ms Ross, I am writing to you as I am alarmed to note that SEPA has allowed some of the salmon farms on the west coast of Scotland to use emamectin (slice) and azamethiphos above and beyond the regulated amounts which will result in wide-scale ecocide in sea lochs already burdened with the pollution created by this disgusting industry. The coronavirus is apparently the excuse for this toxic onslaught but I feel very strongly this is a very bad decision that will impact on the wider community who rely on non-fish farm income as well as our precious ecology. I do not wish to underplay the importance of adhering to social distancing and the devastation coronavirus is causing but what actual evidence is being given by the farmed salmon companies in support of deregulation of sea lice treatments in relation to staffing levels as this industry is highly automated and I am not convinced that the ratio of on-site staff to actual fish would be an issue when treating farmed fish for sea lice infestations?

I have no idea why the Scottish Government has allowed open sea cage fish farms to expand in light of the evidence we all now have access to in relation to the negative impacts of industrial-scale salmon farms, not only the local marine environment and the communities that live nearby but also in regard to the terrible cruelty inflicted upon these misfit fish. Unacceptable high mortality rates must indicate how awful the conditions are in these so-called farms. The impact of the greed for more profit and bigger fish farms is felt across the globe, from burning the amazon to grow soya for feed, hoovering the sea of anchovies off the coast of South America again for fish farm feed, leaving local people and sea birds starving and suffering from malnutrition, and also the binder used in the feed is palm oil, only 2% the fish farmers re-assure us, but considering that is 2% of 1000’s of tons this is morally outrageous. The whole business is an ecological disaster, please allow SEPA to be a watchdog, not a lap dog! 

Yours sincerely, Anna Novak

I will leave you with a few other comments from her as well as her letters below. These are her own words which I feel express her feelings best.  This one was a comment she made during the debate on the 3 Mile limit on the Sea Change Wester Ross Facebook page. She wrote “The fisherman who said that the 3-mile limit was originally dropped due to the lack of enforcement and the fact that fishing fleets simply flouted the law almost made me laugh out loud. Is that supposed to restore public confidence and reassure environmentalists in any way at all!!?   He was very dismissive of ‘so-called experts’ that falsely report dredging activity because they can’t tell their elbows from their oligarch’s yachts!  Ha! I know Chris can identify all types of fishing boats and whether they are actually fishing or not……

She also noted “I recently met someone from Tasmania who works for a marine scientist there, she told me about the massive salmon farms around the coastline of Tasmania but said that they also have marine protected areas that are exactly that, not just a PR exercise.  Apparently, it is creating marine life havens that spill out and are restocking the surrounding waters to such a great extent that even the local fishermen have realised they are a good thing and a benefit to all.  I wrote objections to Marine Scotland in connection with kelp dredging last week”

P.S. hope the fish farm at Horse Island gets the thumbs down – how can there be new fish farms in an MPA? Pure vandalism!

When discussing blogging, we talked about the expression of emotion when commenting on the impacts on other species in the sea – and how the expression of emotion was often seen by scientists as bad or irrational. (Often the very attributes used to dismiss women scientists in the past)  Yet it was Jane Goodall’s very empathy which had led to her breakthroughs in the scientific understanding of apes. Jane had clearly learned that the price of not saying what she felt, was higher than the price of saying it – as a result, her research led to a change in understanding.  I feel Anna and I shared the understanding that empathy is important.  She never said it, but her words conveyed that for her. I will miss her as an ally who refused to overlook the suffering of marine creatures and had no fear in expressing her empathy.

She was a breath of fresh air and never sought recognition. She said, ” I am not an ‘in the media’ kind of person!”  She especially expressed shock when her brilliant letter to the RECC committee was mentioned in their final report on salmon farming, which included a link to her letter (on page 33).  I add it below because it is an amazing first-person summary of what is at stake!   I regret I did not get the chance to film her telling this story. Please read on it is well worth it.


I would like to inform you that I feel very strongly that the expansion of the salmon farming industry is unjustified with regard to the environmental and economical damage this already has and will further create. I run a bothy for paying guests on the south side of Loch Broom, I am unable to sustain this business if salmon farms are nearby.  We already have several salmon farms in this loch and to introduce even more, and bigger ones, will have a very negative impact on my business, as well as our ability to remain self-sufficient in terms of our garden produce.  We are 5 miles away from the nearest road, this attracts tourists who walk to stay here with us (for reference please see ‘toms-bothy.co.uk’).

We collect storm washed seaweed (usually between tides after an easterly all times of the year) this is used in very large amounts for our garden compost.  If the expansion of salmon farms goes ahead in Loch Broom we don’t feel we will be able to continue using this natural resource any longer.  It will simply be too contaminated to risk using it.  I understand that in parts of Shetland the seaweed has turned pink from the dyes used in salmon feed and that sheep grazing it on the shore have become ill or died. Our fresh food production is essential for us to survive in such a remote place and we sell it in the season to our bothy guests as well as any excess to a local veg box scheme.

Without wishing to sound elitist the types of tourists who come to stay here with us are environmentally aware, they do not want to watch the scum from salmon farms lapping against our shoreline or look out onto floating factories which are well known not only for animal cruelty, (why would you put an eagle in a budgie cage?) But also because they are such disgusting polluters of what would otherwise be a largely clean and thriving marine environment.  I don’t want to see any more dead seals with bullet holes in them washed up here either. Not least to say Loch Broom is now a part of a newly formed MPA, this does not seem to carry any positive influence in relation to fish farms, I can’t understand this disregard for a project like this with a real vision for a longterm future for all. I feel it should be supported by the powers that be not thwarted by unfettered corporate greed!  Thank you for your time and consideration, Anna Novak,

She made a note to me: I actually think that what SEPA and the fish farm industry are doing here is absolutely horrendous, sneaking in new regulations under the banner of it being more environmentally friendly because the sites and tides are more exposed but what this will actually give them is unfettered fish farm expansion with no limits on scale and size at all!!  So I am very much against it and don’t think many realise the dreadful implications for the future of our seas that these new regulations will permit. Anyway, so yes I would be up for a blog.

She never did get to it, so perhaps somehow this is the occasion for me to express what I knew of what she felt. Again in her own words.

“Regarding the Regulation of Marine Cage Fish Farms: Updating the approach to protecting the sea bed. I most strongly DO NOT support the principle of trying to make it easier and more attractive for the fish farm businesses to develop in exposed, deep waters with strong tides as outlined in your Consultation document of June 2017. In this consultation, it is clear that SEPA’s sole environmental concern relates to the pollution of the seabed under and around caged fish farms or the DZR areas.  There is little change in regulations applying to the existing fish farms, which as you say are often in sheltered, inshore sites that we now know to have far-reaching harmful effects on surrounding marine wildlife and habitat.

1)  On the surface (please forgive the pun), it seems like a positive move, especially if the monitoring of sea beds is carried out by yourselves – SEPA – rather than left to the industry themselves, and I think it is also good that the areas for the new fish farms would be better sited with regard to the dispersal of fish farm waste through the action of the sea itself. Unfortunately, there appears to be no consideration of the overall effect of not only continuing to pollute inshore waters but in addition spread even more fish farm waste in an even greater local marine area.  I don’t think it is particularly helpful or responsible to isolate one single aspect of fish farming within a much wider scope of impact in this way and then claim it to be more environmentally acceptable. It seems to say that it is fine to contaminate the sea more and more so long as it is in certain new sites. As you say today’s fish farming techniques release faeces, uneaten feed and used medicines directly into the sea where they can interfere with marine ecosystems.  Why then create more of the same?  Is the marine environment less important a few miles in one direction or another, especially when it has been claimed that the effects of a large salmon farm (regarding sea lice) can cover a distance of 35km, as stated by the Salmon and Trout Conservation UK). There is no justification in putting any more pressure on what is referred to by the National Scot ‘the already impoverished Scottish ecosystem’.

2)     I have concerns for marine fish farm employees, I understand that large fish farms are highly automated but imagine they still need some hands-on staffing.  A few years ago my partner and I watched the Nitrox (a supply vessel often hired by fish farmers) try to leave Loch Broom to service the fish farm at Stattic Point (in the mouth of Little Loch Broom) over the course of 3 days the weather was too severe for it to get out of Loch Broom. This isn’t even what I would call an exposed site for a fish farm.  The weather can be severe for day after day at times, how would exposed fish farms be serviced in extreme weather?  The Marine Harvest fish farm at Stattic Point broke up and much of it washed ashore here.

3)  If there were to be damage to the cages resulting in a mass of farmed salmon escapees what would be the environmental impact incurred and would it be reported to yourselves? (Re genetic introgression)

4)  It has been widely published in the news and on the internet that SEPA had hoped to ban Slice, Emamectin Benzoate, in 2018 but dropped the idea when the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation warned it would undermine commercial confidence in the industry.  It is also known that since 2002 biomass in many Scottish fish farms have exceeded their permitted tonnage of fish, this has occurred 858 times, totalling  74,284 tonnes of illegal fish.  Bearing this in mind how can the public be assured that when you say “where farms fail to heed the ‘advice’ you give in improving environmental monitoring arrangements you will consider amending licence conditions and taking appropriate enforcement” if required would SEPA be able to stand firm in the face of any pressure from the fish farming industry or government again?

5)  As I understand there are 3 Marine Protected Areas in western Scotland, newly established, set-up and protected by groups of local people in those areas who come from all walks of life and backgrounds but have in common a shared desire to protect their marine environments. They have taken action in supporting the recovery of the sea, recording what lives in and around it and how it fares over future years, also promoting the development of low impact sustainable fisheries.  Dredging is banned in Wester Ross MPA and trawling is limited.  It is very hard to combine the kind of monumental effort involved in the setting-up of the MPA’s whilst continuing with busy, normal lives, work and family.  All are volunteers and it is easy to imagine how totally soul-destroying it would be to find any of these new large fish farms being proposed within an MPA, at the outset of their very existence and before those involved have barely been allowed the chance to discover or record what the sea state really is within these small areas, where the Maerl beds are, for example, all this done with fundraising, help and dedicated volunteers.  I feel at the very least new fish farms should not be built in MPA’s. Instead, a little respect, encouragement and support given to those who obviously care so much about their marine environment would be more appropriate and also democratic.  There are already hundreds of fish farms compared to just a few MPA’s.

6)   SEPA uses terms like ‘sustainable’, ‘contribution to food security’ and has a strategy entitled ‘One Planet Prosperity’, so if the biomass regulations are relaxed and fish farms have the potential to grow exponentially, at 10% per year ……. When you use these terms are you taking into account the fact that these extra farmed fish will need a massive amount of food.  Is this salmon feed made up from around 60% wild fish catches?  If so what percentage does contain fish or marine sourced food and how can that then be sustainable in a world where wild fish stocks are said to be on the decline?

7)   What of the marine mammals who may live by or near the new more exposed fish farms?  I know on the Summer Isles in the Minch here that in the summer seals gather in large numbers, will they also be shot in large numbers?  Also, there are many sea birds that breed, nest and reside on the uninhabited islands and they may be adversely affected.  Scotland has lost half it’s sea bird population in the last 50 years, this statistic is from BBC Radio Scotland.

8)  Sea lice infestations, as well as other diseases, are a big problem for fish farmers incurring large losses of their stock.  The use of toxic chemicals on salmon farms in Scotland increased 10 fold in the last decade.  If Scotland’s fish farm industry does not have the ability to manage sea lice infestations at the moment, then more fish farms will certainly not help the situation but possibly make it much worse, and in a much wider area, increasing the threat of sea lice multiplying out of control and impacting on wild fish in the new areas too.  Have any of the existing fish farms failed any of the new regulations concerning lice treatments introduced in April 2017?

9)   The recent discovery of Pacific, pink or humpback salmon in 2 east coast rivers in Scotland to me highlights the need to protect our natural fish as a primary concern.  These pacific salmon have themselves escaped from salmon farms and if they are successful in Scottish rivers will compete and no doubt take over the rivers leaving local wild fish without enough food. Cynical as it may sound past experience has shown me that where big business is concerned, especially when it is supported by the government, environmental and public concerns are put on the back burner so to speak. There are very few jobs provided by fish farming on the actual marine sites, I believe the number to be around 1,256 in an economically viable active population of 3.5 million.  What measures would be in place to staff the increased numbers of workers that would be required to work in the actual fish processing plants?  Currently, I believe these employ a great number of eastern Europeans if these people are no longer allowed to work in Scotland after Brexit, what is the alternative, these jobs are not exactly considered to be good ones.

I feel that whatever feedback you get from this consultation will be nothing more than an exercise in futility.  This expansion is going to go ahead, it is clear that has already been decided, the industry and the government are seeking short-term profit at any cost.  I would be surprised if you have many responses from members of the public, I only found out about this consultation by sheer accident a few days ago, it seems a little unfair to have them in the summer when ‘the public’ are generally very busy, school holidays, work in fishing, tourism and perhaps preparing and going on a summer holiday themselves, it isn’t a very practical time unless you are hoping to attract very little attention from the public in the first place. Thank you for your consideration and time. From: Anna Novak  2017

Again in an email to me, she comments: Unfortunately, the SNP is supporting the doubling of finfish farms by 2030, Wester Ross Salmon (now called something else I forget what?) has just been awarded a million pounds of EU funding for expansion and modernisation, this may be in Little Loch Broom where a wild salmon was caught in the Dundonnell river with nearly 100 sea lice attached to it! Unbelievable! 

There is no common sense applied where big business is concerned I sincerely hope all the folk actively involved in Sea Change and the MPA succeed in stopping any more finfish farms within the MPA. When I heard Marine Harvest had expressed an interest in building a salmon farm to the east of Bottle and Horse islands I couldn’t believe it in the wake of the newly established MPA!  It seems to me to be an act of wanton vandalism!   I do not support salmon/fish farming on any level but no-one could argue with the facts that they are environmentally destructive especially for the seabed and wild fish stocks as well as to seals/porpoises etc. I am unable to attend any of the meetings due to my remote location (Achmore, Annat Bay) but would be very grateful if you would pass on and count my vote if I am allowed one and also that of my partner, Chris Hurn, against the proposed fish farm, so that is a definite and resounding YES to Sea Changes opposition to fish farm expansion.

 Annas’ own words make quite clear her passion for Nature as well as her determination for her voice to be heard in the protection of it. She walked her talk too and lived lightly on the Earth herself. According to Chris, Anna’s contribution went way beyond Sea Change too.

Anna, you will be hugely missed.  We were lucky to have your help for a few years. Thank you Anna for all you did.