The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-15677, in the name of Edward Mountain, on behalf of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, on the committee’s inquiry into salmon farming in Scotland. I call the committee’s convener to speak to and move the motion.
Before I open the debate on behalf of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, specifically my interests in a wild salmon fishery.
I also give special thanks to the committee’s clerking team and the team from the Scottish Parliament information centre who supported us during the inquiry. They responded to the particular challenges of the inquiry with a professionalism that has enabled the production of a detailed report.
During 2018, the committee conducted an in-depth inquiry into salmon farming in Scotland. Our inquiry was prompted by a public petition on the impact of the farmed salmon sector on wild salmon stocks. It was clear that the problem went beyond that, so our inquiry looked at further matters: we looked at the current state of the salmon farming industry in Scotland; we identified opportunities for its future development; and we explored how the various fish health and environmental challenges could be addressed.
We took oral evidence from industry representatives, research bodies, environmental organisations, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and all the regulatory bodies. We were also extremely grateful to those organisations and individuals who took the time to submit detailed and often technical written submissions to inform our deliberations.
The committee’s inquiry was also informed by an important piece of work that was carried out in advance of our wider inquiry by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee on the impact of salmon farming on the marine environment. We were extremely grateful for that valuable contribution, which demonstrated the benefit of two committees working jointly together.
The committee was also aware of a range of relevant activity by the Scottish Government, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the salmon industry that occurred after we had finished taking evidence and which included: publication of the Scottish Government’s “Scotland’s 10 Year Farmed Fish Health: strategic framework” in May 2018; the announcement in June 2018 of a salmon interactions working group, which will examine and provide advice on the interactions between wild and farmed salmon; and the publication of a “Finfish Aquaculture Sector Plan” by SEPA in November 2018. Both the Scottish Government and SEPA also provided responses to the committee’s report just last week.
There are some key messages and recommendations in the report that I would like to highlight. First, I should make it clear that the committee acknowledges both the economic and the social value that the salmon farming industry brings to Scotland. It provides jobs in rural areas, brings investment and spend into local communities and stimulates economic activity in the wider supply chain. However, the committee believes that the contribution made by the industry to the Scottish economy should not be allowed to mask any negative impact on the environment. I will touch on some of those specific issues later.
It is clear to the committee that those in the industry wish it to expand. However, the committee strongly agrees with the view of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee that until they can demonstrate that they can truly be good neighbours, it is not appropriate for it to do so. The industry needs to rise to the challenges that it faces on fish health and the environment and the committee feels that in order to do so, the status quo in terms of regulation and enforcement is not acceptable. That view was shared by the majority of stakeholders, including industry representatives and, importantly, the Scottish Government, in its response to our report.
The committee is, therefore, of the view that urgent and meaningful action needs to be taken to address regulatory deficiencies in order to raise the bar for the industry and thus protect our environment and the industry’s future. The committee is also firmly of the view that a stricter regulatory and consent regime, which is also fair and proportionate, can only benefit the sector, helping to drive improvement and giving it confidence that it is meeting its environmental responsibilities.
Let us be clear: the reputation of Scottish salmon as a premium product must be maintained. The committee is in no doubt that consumers and markets see Scotland as a producer that meets the highest international production, fish health and environmental standards. We must ensure that that continues. Therefore, the committee welcomes the recognition by some key producers of the benefits that enhanced regulation would bring to their product and their support for the recommendations that we have made.
On sea lice, the industry must accept that currently neither chemicals nor cleaner fish can totally solve the issue. We strongly believe that there should be a mandatory and timely approach to the reporting of sea lice infestations. We recommend a compliance policy that is robust and enforceable with appropriate penalties. I note from the Scottish Government’s response that it is already reviewing the farmed fish sea lice compliance policy and expects to complete that by the spring.
Although that exercise considers the mandatory reporting of sea lice levels from March 2019, it will be done only monthly in arrears. In other countries in which our key producers operate, it is done weekly in arrears. One has to ask why the Government is content to achieve less. Overall, the work on sea lice is positive, but there can be no halfway house in what it delivers. Although we acknowledge the work that the industry is doing, there is a great deal of work still to be undertaken to tackle the sea lice problem.
On farmed salmon mortalities, the committee and the industry believe that the current level of farmed fish mortality is too high. Losing between 20 per cent to 25 per cent of all fish put to sea is not acceptable. The committee believes that until health issues are addressed to the satisfaction of regulators, no expansion should be permitted at sites that report high or significantly increased levels of mortalities. The Scottish Government has said that it will publish mortality reports monthly in arrears and will consider options around web-based and real-time site reporting on mortality. It has also said that it will consider a broader review of the transportation and disposal of dead fish. Again, that is a welcome step forward on reporting, but Scotland is again setting a lower bar than that set by our key producers elsewhere, and it is disappointing that the Scottish Government does not consider that there should be restrictions on expansion at sites with high levels of mortalities.
Turning to environmental regulation, the committee shares the view of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee that the regulatory tools that are currently available to SEPA are neither adequate nor effective. The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee recognised that SEPA has not been performing well on monitoring or enforcing the regulations, and that is our view as well. The sector has shown poor rates of compliance with SEPA’s current standards. That is borne out by the results of SEPA’s compliance assessment process for 2017, which showed an increase in the number of salmon farms that had failed to meet the required standards. The committee is clear that SEPA must respond to its failures. I am sure that the committee will want to monitor progress in that area with interest.
On the location of salmon farms, the committee made several important recommendations. It said that there should be a precautionary approach to applications for new sites and the expansion of existing sites; that there is a need to locate new farms in more suitable areas, away from wild salmon migratory routes; that there should be a more strategic approach to identifying areas across Scotland that are either suitable or unsuitable for the siting of salmon farms; and that work should be done to move existing poorly sited farms to suitable sites.
We called on the Scottish Government to provide strong and clear leadership to ensure that those actions are taken. However, it is concerning that, in its response, the Scottish Government suggests that the precautionary principle has been applied and
“will continue to be applied in a meaningful and effective manner”.
That is not what we heard in evidence.
I absolutely accept that some people said that the precautionary principle was being followed. However, as a generality, more people said that it was not than that it was.
Our report does not support a business-as-usual approach, and I do not believe that that is what the Government or industry should be promoting.
Before I finish, I feel that it is incumbent on me, as convener, to highlight the committee’s concerns about the leaks to the media that occurred as we were considering our draft report. Those leaks were clearly identified by the media outlet concerned as having come from a member of the committee, and they were sustained over several weeks; indeed, a journalist showed me private papers from a committee meeting that had been circulated to members only an hour or so before I was approached. The member who leaked the papers and made comment did so knowing that it was unlikely that they would be identified. Their actions significantly delayed the committee’s consideration of the draft report. However, worse still, they caused a level of mistrust within the committee regarding private papers and private discussions.
Although leaks are, of course, a matter for the code of conduct, unless a member is identified, no action can be taken. As convener of the committee, and as a firm believer in the importance of the integrity of the Parliament, I believe that the incident was totally unacceptable. Therefore, I suggest that the Parliament should consider strengthening the code of conduct in this area.
I have made no public comment on the unsubstantiated personal attacks that were made as a result of the leaks, and I will not do so now, but I want to say something directly to the person who leaked the private papers and made the comments to the press: you should reflect carefully on what you have done, because I believe that you have let the Parliament down, you have let the committee down and, perhaps more importantly, you have let yourself down.
I have mentioned some of the key points in the report. There are many other issues that I am sure will be picked up and discussed by other members. We have a real opportunity to build on the broad support that the committee’s report received, but we need to be clear that it and the ECCLR Committee report do not support business as usual, therefore neither should the Government or the industry. To do so would be to disadvantage Scotland and our salmon producers, damage our reputation as a quality food producer and potentially harm the environment.
I look forward to what I hope will be a lively and progressive debate.
That the Parliament notes the conclusions in the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s 9th Report, 2018 (Session 5),
Report on Salmon Farming in Scotland
(SP Paper 432).
It is kind of you to do that in public, Mr Chapman, although a note to me would have been sufficient—but there you are.
Do not look at me like that, Ms Martin—I will not take that off your time.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. You can read my mind.
I feel a slight uneasiness in speaking about an inquiry report that was published before I took on the post of convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. I record my thanks to Graeme Dey, who was convener at the time of the inquiry and report, and to the committee clerks for the work that they did then and the work that they have done more recently in bringing me up to speed on developments since the report was published.
Against a background of plans to extend production in the aquaculture industry to between 300,000 and 400,000 tonnes by 2030, the
Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee jointly commissioned a review of the scientific evidence on the environmental effects of salmon farming in Scotland. I pay tribute to the REC Committee, which took many of the recommendations in our report and did a great deal of further work on the topic, from its perspective. I echo Edward Mountain’s comments on the merits of joint committee working.
A year has passed since the ECCLR Committee’s report, and it is fair to say that a lot has happened since then. However, before I go on to talk specifically about our findings and recommendations, I want to say that salmon farming has done three very important things for this country. First, it has made salmon affordable for households. When I was growing up, salmon was something that came in a tin and was mashed up and spread thinly on sandwiches at christenings. Now, that rich source of protein and omega 3 oil is an affordable, healthy and fresh alternative option that is no longer the preserve of special occasions.
Secondly, salmon farming is a massive contributor to Scotland’s economy—particularly to our worldwide exports and in relation to job creation in rural areas, as has been mentioned—and its quality is respected the world over.
Thirdly, and most pertinently to the portfolio of my committee, salmon farming is one of the lowest-emissions farming methods, which is a point that is often missed when we discuss the industry.
The industry’s importance is why inquiries such as those that were done by the two committees are so important, as we move forward to expand the sector while enhancing and protecting our global reputation, and protecting the environment that supports the sector. The Scottish Government commissioned a report in 2002 that addressed six main areas of environmental impact. They were disease impacts on wild and farmed stocks, including the impact of sea lice; discharge of waste nutrients and their interaction in the wider marine environment; the effects of discharges of medicines and chemicals from salmon farming; escapes from fish farms and the potential effects on wild populations; the sustainability of feed supplies; and the emerging environmental impacts, including on wild wrasse and marine mammals.
The ECCLR Committee heard from the industry, regulators, communities and non-governmental organisations before reporting to the REC Committee ahead of its inquiry. It was mindful that rapid development and growth of the sector could not take place without a full understanding of the environmental impacts, and aimed to shine a light on them in order to open up a debate on identifying areas for improvement and action. It is clear that current concerns regarding the environmental impacts of salmon farming are the same as the concerns in 2002.
Many of our stakeholders pointed to the lack of a focus on application of the precautionary principle in the development and expansion of the sector. Scotland is at a critical point in terms of considering how salmon farming can develop in an environmentally sustainable way, while at the same time delivering the substantial benefits that I outlined at the beginning of my speech.
Our inquiry found that there are significant gaps in knowledge, data and research on, and in monitoring of, the potential risk that the sector poses to ecosystem functions, their resilience and the supply of ecosystem services. Further information is necessary in order that we can set for the industry realistic targets that fall within environmental limits. We recommended a requirement that the industry fund the independent and independently verified research and development that are needed.
The role, responsibilities and interaction of agencies require review, and agencies need to be funded and resourced appropriately in order fully to meet their environmental duties and obligations. Scotland’s public bodies have a duty to protect biodiversity. That thinking must be to the fore when we consider expansion of the sector. The ECCLR Committee saw that there is a need to progress on the basis of the precautionary principle, and asked the relevant agencies to work together more effectively in that regard.
The committee identified a need for the salmon farming industry to demonstrate that it can effectively manage and mitigate its impacts on the environment. In particular, adaptive management that takes account of the precautionary principle, through use of real-time farm-by-farm data, has the potential to reduce environmental impacts. We called for an ecosystems-based approach to planning the industry’s growth and development in marine and freshwater environments. Such an approach would include identifying where salmon farming can take place and the carrying capacity of that environment.
The ECCLR Committee wanted independent research to be commissioned, including a full cost-benefit analysis of recirculating aquaculture systems, and a comparative analysis of the sector as it currently operates in Scotland. Alongside that work, further development and implementation of alternative technical solutions should be supported by use of incentives.
The committee found that the current consenting and regulatory framework is inadequate to address environmental issues, particularly in relation to sanctions and enforcement. That will not affect the responsible majority of farmers, but a better approach would tackle the few operators that might damage their sector’s reputation if they are not dealt with appropriately.
The ECCLR Committee recognises that there has been considerable further discussion on many of those issues since it reported last year, and that there has been a great deal of Government-led action. We welcome the conclusions of the REC Committee, which supports our findings, and the continuing work that Government agencies are doing to address them. Both committees would like a full commitment—with the necessary urgency across the industry, agencies and the Government—to addressing the complex challenges that we have jointly highlighted. Immediate mandatory reporting on sea lice is still under review, and we look forward to strategic guidance on siting of fish farms, and to revisions to the consenting and regulatory framework.
The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, alongside the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, will continue to examine with great interest the actions of the industry, the agencies and the Scottish Government in responding to the challenges, in order to ensure that our marine and freshwater environments are afforded the necessary protections amid the growth of a hugely important sector for Scotland.
I hope that I have never stood here ill-prepared for the debate ahead, but I feel particularly well prepared today, having enjoyed a lunch of prime Scottish salmon.
I have to say that I had lunch in my office: it was not a posh affair.
Let me put on the record that my Cabinet colleague Roseanna Cunningham—who is here, listening to the debate—and I appreciate the diligence of the members of both committees during their inquiries into the salmon farming sector. As indicated in our response to the lead committee, we acknowledge and accept many of its conclusions and recommendations. I make absolutely clear the Government’s support for the farmed salmon and wider aquaculture sectors, and for their sustainable growth. We need to do more to get the balance right in order to protect the environment, and we acknowledge that the status quo is not an option.
Salmon farming is one of Scotland’s success stories. As the world’s third-largest salmon producer, the sector is a global player.
According to Highland and Islands Enterprise analysis in 2017, 10,340 jobs across Scotland were dependent on salmon farming and its supply chain, which generated £540 million in gross value added, and provided wages worth some £271 million.
Those are the macrostatistics. On a local level, in constituencies including those of my colleagues Kate Forbes and Gail Ross, Tavish Scott in Shetland and Liam McArthur in Orkney, a great many people’s livelihoods are sustained by this modern Scottish industry. All members will acknowledge its importance.
Scottish farmed salmon has become a key contributor to Scotland’s food and drink success. From Boston to Brussels, it attracts a premium. With sales in 2017 of £600 million to more than 50 countries worldwide, it is Scotland’s biggest food export.
The industry has reinvigorated and re-energised many of our coastal and remote rural communities, which has been a catalyst for vital improvements in social infrastructure, housing, transport and broadband.
Having recognised that continuous improvements in fish health and environmental impact are a win-win for aquaculture and other marine and coastal industries, the sector has constantly innovated in husbandry and farm management. Indeed, aquaculture is responsible for some of the biggest infrastructure investments in Scotland in recent times, thereby creating a broader supply chain that is of significant value.
Annual capital investment by the sector is about £63 million. Recently, there has been a significant amount of investment, including by Mowi—formerly Marine Harvest—in its feed plant at Kyleakin on Skye, and by Scottish Sea Farms in its hatchery near Oban, which had a cumulative price tag of more than £150 million. Incidentally, those investments contribute to improved fish health by increasing the length of time that salmon spend in the hatchery and reducing the amount of time that they spend at sea, so that they are stronger when they enter the cages at sea. Moreover, the salmon sector has created supply-chain and processing opportunities and jobs elsewhere in Scotland, from Stornoway to Rosyth.
There is no doubt that salmon farming plays a key role in our ambitions for our nation. It is a low-carbon industry with a small carbon footprint. As Gillian Martin said, it produces high-protein, healthy food products that are increasingly affordable to domestic consumers, including—through school meals—children. Through investment and innovation in research and development in our higher education institutions, the industry also helps to deliver our science, technology, engineering and mathematics strategy objectives.
The Government wants to support the key role that aquaculture plays in attracting more young people to live and work in rural and remote rural areas. Therefore, I am pleased to announce today that we are, with the aquaculture industry leadership group, Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, Lantra and other bodies, working to develop an aquaculture skills plan that will support young people to enter the sector.
We can be proud of the global nature of our role in this industry. Heather Jones, who is the chief executive of the SAIC, recently contributed to an expert group in Canada that was looking at how to address the industry’s challenges.
As members alluded to in their addresses on behalf of the committees, we must learn from other countries’ approaches to sustainable farming. I am pleased to announce that, in March, Scotland will host a meeting of European Union and northern European fish health inspectors and experts. We want the sector’s economic contribution to grow, but we recognise that it must develop sustainably, with appropriate regulatory frameworks that minimise and address environmental impacts. We are already taking steps to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck.
First, under an independent chair—John Goodlad—we have established a wild salmon interactions workstream, which will consider the relationship between farmed and wild salmon and the impact of farmed salmon on wild salmon. The group has been tasked with proposing an improved set of arrangements, and we expect to receive the group’s recommendations later this year.
Of course, we must keep it in mind that there is no single cause of the decline in wild salmon numbers around all parts of Scotland and in the north-east Atlantic. Therefore, the group will eventually explore other pressures that bear down on wild salmon, including climate change, predation, angling and man-made barriers in our rivers.
Secondly, we have published “Scotland's 10 Year Farmed Fish Health: strategic framework”, with four working groups, which have been up and running since autumn last year and are making good progress. In particular, we recognise the concerns that have been expressed about mortality and the links to sea lice, which is why that is one of the key workstreams. Control of sea lice on farms has improved. The most recent analysis that is available from Marine Scotland’s science division shows a decline over the four years 2014-17. However, we are not complacent. There is more to do.
I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for taking an intervention on that point. Of course, there is a lot of good news and that is welcome. However, if any other industry had such a level of mortality, there would be significant interventions. Does the cabinet secretary believe that the Scottish Government has made robust enough interventions to address the issue?
I will come to mortality in a minute. I was dealing with sea lice and want to finish the point, which is important.
I can advise today that we will complete a review of our sea lice compliance regime this spring. I will not prejudge the outcome of that review, which will be conducted by experts and will be evidence based, as is absolutely appropriate and right. However, it is important to say that I expect that the regime will be tightened, which will provide assurance to all interests—including fish farm businesses—that our fish health inspectorate is working effectively to tackle sea lice infestations.
Finally, independent of the Government, SEPA has published its draft “Finfish Aquaculture Sectoral Plan” and its response to the REC Committee.
John Finnie asked about mortality. I am pleased to say that mortalities are reducing in many instances, as are sea lice numbers. However, again, we are not complacent and more needs to be done. That is precisely why the fish health framework and the four groups that I mentioned, which have been doing a huge amount of work, are also considering the matter. We will also take interim steps to produce an environmental monitoring plan to be delivered as a condition of consents for marine aquaculture planning applications.
Going forward, it is key that everyone has confidence in a regulatory framework that encompasses the principles of adaptive management, best use of scientific evidence and clear advice to decision-makers, which stands up to scrutiny.
I see that my time is running dry. I will therefore skip three pages of my speech out of consideration for the Presiding Officer and, perhaps, others.
I will just say that I look forward to the debate with great interest and enjoyment, and will be very happy and keen to reply to points that members make in the course of it.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests with regard to both fish farming and wild fishing. I also state at the start that I was on the ECCLR Committee when it authored its report on salmon farming, and I was the ECCLR Committee’s rapporteur to the REC Committee during its evidence sessions.
It was an honour to work on the ECCLR Committee report. Although the work was at times challenging, I emerged with great respect for other MSP colleagues—many of whom are in the chamber today—as we combined collectively to produce that report. I mention in particular the departed Graeme Dey [
.] “Departed” as in departed from the committee—he is hale and hearty nevertheless. Gillian Martin has hit the ground running, as she showed in her speech.
Usually, for obvious reasons, I do not like to dwell on my entry in the register of members’ interests. However, I will make an exception to that today, not least because I hope to use my personal experience to explain one of the tensions at the heart of this debate.
My family business has a financial interest in a salmon farm on Loch Arkaig in Lochaber—Mr Finnie will know it well. It is a freshwater farm and is a relatively small operation. However, it has been there since the 1980s and has been a consistent local employer for several decades. It is owned and managed by the company formerly known as Marine Harvest, which is of course a major employer across the Highlands and Islands. From those who work on site on fish farms to those who process and package the end product, nobody can doubt the economic importance of the industry to a fragile area of Scotland. The cabinet secretary is quite right to highlight those points.
I also have an interest in the wild fishery side of life, in terms of the Arkaig, Spean and Lochy catchment areas. Wild salmon and sea trout numbers in those rivers, as in many other rivers on the western seaboard, have been in serious and severe decline over the past 20 to 30 years. The reasons for the decline are complex and not fully understood, but, undoubtedly, the increase in the number of fish farms in the west Highlands has had some detrimental effect on wild fisheries.
I have no issue with that. We can all agree that there has been a severe decline over a number of years and whether that has been over 30 or 50 years is beside the point. The real issue is that it is incredibly important—the cabinet secretary hinted at this—that a piece of work is done outside aquaculture that looks specifically at the decline of our wild fisheries.
Stepping away from my personal circumstances, I recall one of the first visits that I made as an MSP, which was to the Argyll Fisheries Trust in Inveraray, where, from a map on the wall, I saw that a salmon going to sea at the top of Loch Fyne was required to pass at least 10 fish farms before it reached the open sea. There was a sense of the negative effect of those farms on wild fish.
I would like to carry on. I do not have long and I have a lot to cover.
With that as background, I will set out the Scottish Conservatives’ position in the debate. We are committed to the fish farming industry in Scotland, but recognise that it must operate to the highest environmental standards. That commitment to the highest environmental standards is even more critical if the industry’s ambition to double production by 2030 is to be realised. I am heartened by the more constructive approach of the industry recently, notably from bodies such as the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation and the SAIC, which recognise the challenge before them.
I turn to the REC Committee report, which is the subject of the debate. We welcome its findings. As I said at the start of my speech, I have observed the process on both committees—REC and ECCLR—and I appreciate the work of the clerks and many witnesses, as well as the contribution of MSPs.
It is a balanced report, which takes a reasonable and measured approach to the challenges that the salmon industry faces, and also acknowledges what the industry has to offer. As other members have said, there are huge direct, indirect and induced impacts from salmon farming, which creates thousands of jobs in Scotland. Figures from 2016 show that Scotland is the largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon in the EU, with production worth around £765 million.
Nevertheless, the ECCLR Committee and REC Committee reports both highlighted significant failings that we on the Conservative benches feel need to be addressed in order to strengthen the industry. It is particularly pertinent that the very first recommendation of the REC Committee report states that, although
“The Committee acknowledges both the economic and social value that the salmon farming industry brings to Scotland”, it is
“essential that it addresses and identifies solutions to the environmental and fish health challenges it faces as a priority.”
There is a welcome acceptance by the industry that those changes have to happen. The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation said:
“the salmon sector supports many of the overall aims and ambitions of the RECC report and seeks to co-operate with the Scottish Government and the regulators to find the best way of ensuring the sustainable growth of this key Scottish industry”.
Of course, new growth must come with a view to reducing many of the concerns that exist, which the report highlighted. As other members mentioned, the REC Committee said:
“the current level of mortalities” is
“too high in general across the sector and it is very concerned to note the extremely high mortality rates at particular sites.”
In one example in the Highlands and Islands in 2017, 125,000 salmon died in Lewis following a bacterial outbreak. Instances such as that can be avoided, and the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation said that there has been investment and a small improvement in salmon mortality rates, so steps are slowly beginning to achieve results.
There is much more to do, and I welcome the series of recommendations on, for example, tackling sea lice and the fact that the REC Committee report agreed with the ECCLR Committee report that the use of cleaner fish should be explored further. Ensuring that we quickly improve our regulatory approach is vital, but there also needs to be clarity on who will enforce what. As the REC Committee report indicates, concerns were
“expressed in evidence that none of the existing regulatory bodies currently has responsibility for the impact of salmon farms on wild salmon stocks.”
I note that Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland felt that there has been a “general lack of urgency” from the Scottish Government. It is clear that that must change.
I end where I began, and on a positive note. In Lochaber, we have collaboration between the local salmon fishery board trust and the industry, which has invested in a number of wild fish restocking projects. There is collaboration and shared scientific and environmental expertise and a genuine hope that both sectors can assist each other.
We support the industry. It has to improve: it knows that and it is in its interest to improve. If it can grow sustainably and operate to the highest environmental standards, the salmon farming industry can continue to play a key role in the Scottish rural economy.
Scottish farmed salmon enjoys an excellent international reputation for quality and we should never take that for granted. It is important that an industry with exports that are worth £600 million continues to thrive—that point is lost in the committee report but it must be recognised, and I am glad that Edward Mountain emphasised it today.
Therefore, it is in all our interests to get salmon farming right in Scotland. To fail would damage the Scottish economy and put at risk high-quality jobs in remote rural areas. Some of those areas are barely surviving and the last thing that we want to preside over is dying communities. If we are to see the repopulation of rural Scotland, we need to ensure that those areas have thriving economies. Fish farming is part of that mix.
We need to skill our rural workforce for jobs in fish farming, and we need schools and colleges to get involved in attracting young people into the industry. Young people need to have their horizons broadened. No one says that they must all stay in the communities that they were brought up in but, far too often, young people are forced away from remote rural communities because of the lack of careers and opportunities. When we have an industry that can provide young people with that future and a career, we need to make sure that they know about it and that they have the opportunity to gain the skills that will allow them to work in it. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement today. We really need to capitalise on the opportunities that fish farming provides.
However, that does not mean that we accept or condone bad practice—we do not. Government, producers and agencies have to ensure that our reputation is not further damaged in order to allow the maximisation of the economic impact of fish farming. We need to aspire to be the best fish farming industry in the world—an industry that is sustainable and that has animal welfare at its heart.
For many years, the industry has said to me that the bureaucracy that surrounds fish farming is huge: there is a myriad of organisations, each pulling in different directions. When I read the committee report, and the Government’s response, that really came home to me. The report listed stakeholders and regulatory bodies, the Scottish Government, local government, SEPA, Scottish Natural Heritage, the EU, the Prince of Wales’s sustainability group, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, fish health inspectors from Marine Scotland, Crown Estate Scotland—my list had many more and a number are not on that list, but, frankly, I gave up counting them all.
We need to streamline the system for regulating, planning and managing fish farming. I wonder whether the complexity leads to some of the problems that we have seen; it certainly does not help with finding solutions. We need an industry that is well regulated and which meets the highest possible standards. However, in such a cluttered landscape, it is impossible to see how that can be done. I urge the Government to look at that. I do not think that the committee looked in depth at the Norwegian system of management and regulation, but I understand that it is much more streamlined and, because of that, its industry is much better regulated than ours.
E nsuring that fish farming thrives is not just an economic argument; it is also a health issue. We need to eat more oily fish, which is important to our health. We are not eating enough fish. The recommended amount is two servings a week, with at least one being oily fish. Obviously, vegetarians and vegans need to find those nutrients elsewhere, but those of us who eat fish should follow those guidelines.
Recently, I listened on the radio to a health specialist who recommended that people take supplements to get those nutrients.
They were clear that that was not what they would normally recommend, given that our diet could easily provide what we need. However, their view was that, because there is such a shortage of oily fish in our diet, we need to consider taking supplements.
Farmed salmon is part of the solution. Salmon is rich in long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, which are crucial to the fight against heart disease. It is simply not right that people need to rely on supplements when we can produce an abundance of a food that would help our nation to fight heart disease.
As others have mentioned, the report also touches on the tensions between wild and farmed salmon. Those tensions are long running. To be frank, the science has not reached a conclusion. Wild stocks ebb and flow throughout Scotland. That tends to happen in the same way on the west and east coasts, despite the fact that there are no fish farms on the east coast. It simply does not add up that salmon farming is to blame. I welcome the further research that is being carried out into that issue, because it is extremely important. We need to protect wild stocks and we need much more research into what is leading to the changes. Is it climate change, or is it something that is happening further out to sea?
The salmon farming industry and those who fish wild salmon have an interest in the species and in what helps the fish to thrive. Working together to find out more about the species and what is impacting them is the way forward for both industries.
The report mentions concerns about escapes. It is strange that it suggests siting fish farms in rougher water as part of the solution to the problem. Rougher water risks more escapes because of higher seas and worse conditions. If that is the way forward, we need to ensure that the science and the engineering of cages allow them to withstand those conditions.
Our salmon farming industry faces many challenges, including from those who wish that it did not exist at all. There are also natural disasters, some of which have been mentioned. Brexit poses a threat to fish farming, because it has been dragged into the backstop issue. All fish exports will be subject to controls and levies, which could damage the industry. I understand why the EU would want to have sea fish imports in the same bargaining space as access to United Kingdom waters, but that approach makes no sense for farmed fish.
We have to get it right for fish farming. There are huge health, social and economic benefits from the industry. We do not have to ignore the threats in order to get those benefits; we need to face up to them and get our house in order.
The cabinet secretary mentioned lunch. I commend the Parliament canteen for its fishcakes today. I am sure that they had salmon in them; they were very tasty.
I, too, commend parliamentary staff and the witnesses for their assistance in compiling the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s report and for providing briefings.
The debate has been very polarised. I am often asked whether I am for or against wind farms, which is a very peculiar question, and people have now moved on to asking me whether I am for or against fish farms. That is like asking me whether I am for or against houses. I like the right things to be in the right place in the right way.
The committee gave the issue a lot of detailed consideration in producing the report. I am a bit concerned about the criticism that has been voiced that we had not given due regard to the industry’s view, given that the first three lines of the report say:
“The Committee acknowledges both the economic and social value that the salmon farming industry brings to Scotland. It provides jobs to rural areas, investment and spend into communities and stimulates economic activity in the wider supply chain.”
I very much recognise and agree with that statement in the report. We have heard what the figures amount to. I am from the Highlands, and I may, indeed, have a relative who worked on the farm to which Donald Cameron referred.
It is important to mention recommendation 1, which says:
“the industry also creates a number of economic, environmental and social challenges for other businesses”.
Among our briefing papers for the debate is a copy of letter from the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation to the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy. I know that he wants to be transparent, so it would be good if the reply to that letter were made available, although it may well be that he has not seen the letter yet. It raises a number of concerns about
“the expansion of salmon aquaculture.”
The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee agrees very strongly with the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s view that
“The status quo is not an option.”
That is, the status quo in relation to the current regulation of the industry and the approach to enforcement is not acceptable. The ECCLR Committee has called for “urgent and meaningful action” in relation to issues that many members have already talked about, such as sea lice, mortality rates and the challenges of close confinement.
Recommendation 3 in the REC Committee’s report touches on the issue of a moratorium. The committee formed the view that there was “insufficient evidence” to support one, but in a very rare break from consensus on the committee, my colleague Colin Smyth and I dissented from that position. Perhaps there was a marked reluctance to call it a moratorium, but if we are saying that all these challenges exist, that the status quo is not acceptable and that producers can expand only if they resolve the issues, in effect a moratorium is what the committee discussed—and it is most certainly what should happen.
The aim is not to destroy an industry: we want to get things right. I have mentioned mortality rates. A number of members who are in the chamber today are farmers and would not tolerate or countenance a fraction of such mortality rates in their livestock. Therefore, a number of challenges remain.
In response to my intervention, the cabinet secretary was very open in saying that, as far as he was concerned, the Scottish Government had applied the precautionary principle. If that principle has genuinely been applied, why would we not have a moratorium? There is one very good reason why a moratorium would not be as challenging as it sounds. Given that the planning process in general is extremely onerous, I am told by industry representatives that the lead-in time for planning applications means that there is the potential for many such issues to be resolved satisfactorily prior to the granting of any permission.
Often, the effect of a single fish farm is not the problem. I spoke to someone in the tourism industry who operates a diving facility and who was unconcerned about a fish farm opening in their locality. They were not so happy about a second, but the third fish farm—and the deposits from them all—has had a significant impact on their business, to the point at which they are now asking themselves whether they should buy another boat for their business. When we discussed the impact on others, someone used the term “good neighbour”, which is precisely what we should be talking about.
The industry has provided a briefing paper, for which I am grateful. For the avoidance of doubt, I am referring to the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation’s briefing. It is very concise, with a few bullet points, from which I will quote.
The briefing says that
“The salmon sector supports many of the overall aims”, so it does not support them all.
The sector also supports
“the quicker publication of data” although
“The exact timeframe and the details of this have yet to be worked out”, so that has not happened.
On seals, of which there has been recent coverage, the sector is
“committed to moving to the situation where no seals are shot by farmers under licence. However”—
I am sorry, but that “However” is not acceptable, because such challenges are not new to the industry.
The briefing goes on to say:
“On sea lice, the salmon sector in Scotland is ready to move to a tighter action level”.
The sector has not moved yet, so that remains an issue. It also wants to establish better relations with the wild farming sector. We have heard from Mr Cameron that that is possible. If we are talking about being good neighbours, that should be about talking with everyone and not having a disproportionate impact on everyone else.
The briefing also talks about relocating fish farms further offshore. I am sorry, but that is simply rewarding failure. If something is not working effectively, the idea that we should put it further away, out of sight and therefore out of mind, is not the way to deal with it, particularly given the challenges of climate change and access.
As I have said, a number of challenges remain. Certainly, I have not been able to cover all that ground in the time that is available to me. The report was compiled in good faith and I hope that it will be accepted in good faith. However, that will be established, in the long term rather than the short term, by the Government’s actions. We need more urgency in the debate; quite frankly, I do not believe that that urgency is there at the moment. A lot remains to be done. We should have a moratorium pending resolution of the issues.
As we have already heard, f armed salmon is Scotland’s largest food export and our country is the third-largest farmed salmon producer in the world. The industry provides, directly and indirectly, more than 10,000 full-time equivalent jobs. According to the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, farmed salmon is worth more than £540 million to the Scottish economy. In itself, that is why it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that our industry operates to the very highest standards and that nothing is done to damage its reputation. If its reputation takes a hit, everyone will lose.
To be fair, the major producers in the industry recognise that, which is why, in its briefing for members, its trade body, the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, supports many of the overall aims and ambitions of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s report. I read the briefing quite differently from how John Finnie read it. The SSPO supports many of the committee’s recommendations, and I thought that John Finnie was a little unkind to it.
I want to highlight what I consider to be the main points of the committee’s report.
In recommendation 2, we say that we agree
“with the view of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee (ECCLR) Committee that if the industry is to grow, the ‘status quo’ in terms of regulation and enforcement is not acceptable.”
Everybody who has spoken in the debate so far seems to have referred to that quote, but we have done so for obvious reasons. It is the key to the whole issue. I am pleased that the Scottish Government agrees with that. In its response to the committee, the Government says:
“if salmon farming is to continue to grow sustainably then effective procedures need to be in place to address and pre-empt, where possible, environmental and fish health challenges.”
I welcome that.
The committee identified a solution to what we see as a lack of effective regulation so far. In recommendation 59, we say:
It was clear in the evidence that was given to the committee that, although many different organisations are involved in the regulation of the industry, each body takes an almost silo view of its responsibilities and looks after its own aspect of the regulatory process. Although it is obvious that each regulatory body needs to do its work—of course it does—there is no one body that takes an overview of the whole process, leading to what the committee described as a “light touch” regulation and enforcement regime. That is the key to the issue. That approach has not helped anyone, and it certainly has not helped the important industry of salmon farming.
In its response, the Scottish Government says:
Of course that is good, but it seems to me to miss the real point that the committee makes, which is that there needs to be one body with overall responsibility for ensuring that all our regulatory bodies work in a co-ordinated and effective way and move out of their silos.
That is a very interesting question, and I wish that I knew the answer to it. I will not be prescriptive. It is the job of Fergus Ewing, who is sitting in front of us, to answer that question. That is a very important and responsible task, and I am prepared to listen to what he says. I hope that he will answer it.
On planning applications for fish farms, the committee believes that a more strategic approach is needed. A strategy seems to be missing. The Scottish Government should develop guidance for local authorities on which areas across Scotland are suitable for new fish farms and which areas are not, so that, instead of local authorities judging specific applications that they receive relating to a specific place at a specific time—the law requires them to look at specific applications—they should be able to take a strategic view of an application in the round. That is really important.
I am pleased that the Scottish Government says in its response that it will meet the local authorities
“to discuss a more strategic approach to sustainable aquaculture across their areas of accountability”, but official guidance from the Scottish Government is needed.
Another important point is that members of the committee worked well together across party-political divides to produce the report. I hope that the Scottish Government has got the message about robust, effective and co-ordinated regulation to ensure that the very highest standards underpin a hugely important industry for Scotland.
We all want the industry to continue to succeed. The way to ensure success is to maintain the very highest standards of fish health and environmental protection. Those are what will underpin consumer confidence, and it is consumer confidence that will secure the success of this important industry.
We certainly worked long and hard on the report. However, after finishing taking evidence last June, the committee got to work on the report only after the summer recess and it took quite a number of weeks. That time included delays, to which the convener referred, as we discussed leaks along the way. It is public knowledge that I clashed somewhat with the convener as to how those leaks were dealt with, but I agree with him that such leaks are not acceptable.
Perhaps it was not surprising that, during that long period while we considered the report, the ground shifted as SEPA announced its new thinking on the way forward, which meant that we had to further amend our report.
Nevertheless, here we are, and I think we can say that we agreed on the bulk of the issues. Yes, farmed salmon is a huge export that provides jobs in fragile areas and has other economic and wider benefits. Yes, we agreed that there are problems in salmon farming with lice, pollution and the possible impact on wild fish and other wildlife. When we disagreed, it was more about the scale of benefits and disadvantages, respectively. The key disagreement was about whether there should be a moratorium, to which John Finnie referred, on new developments until regulation improves or whether improving regulation and industry expansion should go hand in hand. That is where my esteemed colleague John Finnie and some of the rest of us disagreed somewhat. The majority of the committee were not convinced that there should be a moratorium on expansion.
Unsurprisingly, we spent a lot of time focusing on problems rather than on all the good things that are going fine. That is human nature, and it applies in politics, football and most areas of life. Clearly, public trust in any food product is important, which is why we need to be particularly protective of our environment, our food production methods and our regulation. We need only think back to the BSE crisis to remember that it was not only the reputation of beef that was damaged at that time; the crisis reflected badly on the whole Scottish brand.
It can take a long time to recover trust after an individual product or country has lost it. That is why we need to be particularly careful of our environment and perhaps be more wary about taking risks, even if other countries do. Fracking is another example of how our food exports could be damaged through giving the impression that we are lax on environmental standards, which is why the recommendations that we made around transparency are important. Recommendations 11 to 13, 19 to 25 and 31 and 33 all touch on transparency. The issue of transparency also featured in our recommendations on wild and farmed fish interactions—for example, recommendation 39.
We were repeatedly told that there is a lack of data on many issues around the subject. There were strong claims that farmed fish are damaging wild stocks, but we also heard that wild fish numbers were falling before farms were introduced and that some rivers on the east coast have fewer wild fish despite having no salmon farms. It seems that salmon are not as keen as ospreys and golden eagles to carry around tracking devices so that we know where they are and what they do.
The level of feeling on the question of interaction became apparent to the committee as emails containing claims and counter-claims flooded in. The committee was subjected to repeated freedom of information requests as one side sought to find out what the other was doing. Prior to this debate, there were yet more emails and briefings. It was therefore refreshing to visit Lochaber and see a better relationship there in which there is at least some attempt by both sides to work together and understand each other.
There was broad agreement among witnesses that a precautionary approach should be taken on the location of farms and on other areas of planning and regulation. However, there was no agreement on whether such an approach is, in fact, taking place at present. Some members argued that the industry and the Government are being cautious, whereas others argued that they are not but need to be.
I will spend a bit of time on the positive aspects of salmon farming, which is a sector in which Scotland is a world leader. We and Norway are seen as the two leading countries, and Scottish salmon fetches a premium price on the world markets. I agree that everything is not perfect and that we should not be complacent, but we should not go to the other extreme and run ourselves down. We have a fabulous product in a fabulous environment. Yes, we can improve and develop each of those and we can learn from others, but we should be proud of both our environment and our product.
Salmon used to be a food that was so common and readily available in Glasgow that employers were restricted in how often they could feed it to their workers. Times changed and, like Gillian Martin, I grew up thinking of salmon as a luxury product that we would not see on the family table. Now that things have changed again, Scottish salmon appears in most of our supermarkets and I eat it regularly. It is widely seen as one of our healthiest foods, and I hope that other members support the industry by buying and eating Scottish salmon.
I believe that the debate marks an important milestone in the future of salmon farming in Scotland. Although it is centred on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s inquiry into salmon farming, much of the report highlights the work of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee for its report on the environmental impacts of salmon farming.
Fish farming is the fastest growing form of animal food production on the planet, with around half of the fish that are consumed globally being raised in artificial environments. The importance of aquaculture to the Scottish rural economy cannot be overstated. The industry is a mainstay of many rural economies, particularly along the west and north-west coasts of Scotland. It supports more than 12,000 jobs and the supply chain companies, and it boosts exports from Scotland and the UK.
The 2016 Scottish Government strategy predicts an increase in salmon production to about 350,000 tonnes per year, which will potentially be worth in the region of £3.6 billion by 2030. The industry has huge potential to expand in the future, but it depends above all else on the health of the environment in which it operates. Whether or not the sector expands, it is clear that, with regard to its impact on the marine environment, the status quo is not an option. The REC Committee’s report clearly indicates that expansion will be possible only with more effective regulatory standards that ensure both that fish health issues are properly managed and that the impacts on our environment are minimised to absolutely ensure an economically and environmentally sustainable industry.
One reason why the inquiry was undertaken is the growing body of evidence of negative environmental impacts despite the fact that the aquaculture industry in Scotland invests heavily in innovation to solve environmental and fish health challenges. The ECCLR Committee highlighted the fact that the same issues that existed in 2002 around the environmental impact of salmon farming exist now, including concerns about high rates of sea lice, outbreaks of disease and escapes. Indeed, some of those issues have grown in scale and impact since 2002.
The ECCLR Committee concluded that we are at a critical point in considering how salmon farming develops in a sustainable way in relation to the environment, highlighting concerns that expansion is being developed without a full understanding of the environmental impact. With that in mind, I agree that an independent assessment of the industry’s environmental sustainability is necessary. However, I welcome the committee’s conclusion that there is insufficient evidence for introducing a moratorium on further expansion. I believe that that would be devastating for the industry, which we must seek to grow, albeit with the right safeguards in place.
I am pleased that the ECCLR Committee’s recommendation in relation to wild salmon populations—in particular, around the interactions between farmed and wild salmon—was included. Although it may be difficult to deliver in practice, the sharing of data must be encouraged across the sector in order to ensure that there is best practice across the industry.
Unfortunately, there is too little time to consider all of the report, so I will look particularly at the challenge of sea lice infestation. The ECCLR Committee’s position is that a precautionary approach must be taken to address any potential impact of sea lice infestation in salmon farms on our iconic wild salmon population. However, sea lice are only one of many factors affecting the wild salmon population; I look forward to the committee doing further work in exploring the fall in numbers in our rivers.
It is important to note that, since reporting began in 2013, the numbers of sea lice recorded at salmon farms were at their lowest in September 2018. Without question, the industry has invested considerably in an attempt to address the impacts of sea lice infestation on both farmed fish health and wild salmon populations. However, it is clear that the industry has yet to identify an effective means to deal with the parasite.
There are growing concerns about the use of emamectin benzoate and other anti-parasitic chemical treatments, which SEPA research concluded
“is significantly impacting local marine environments”.
Recommendation 26 of the REC Committee’s report
“endorses the ECCLR recommendations on” the use of cleaner fish species such as wrasse and the
“urgent need for an assessment of future demand”, given the growing concern that the current unregulated fishery is wiping out local stocks completely.
Inshore fisheries and conservation authorities in England have introduced statutory regulation for the wrasse fishery. Will the minister consider replicating that best practice for Scottish waters? The industry talks about a shift to farmed cleaner fish, but the most recent data shows production of just 58,000 wrasse when projections show that the industry would need about 10 million a year by 2020. If the wild fishery collapses and farming cannot fill the gap, what is the future for alternatives to chemical lice control?
With the additional safeguards recommended by the committee, coupled with Scotland’s enviable history of innovation, I am confident that the salmon farming industry can continue to grow while taking into account the needs of our natural environment.
As I am a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, it gives me great pleasure to take part in the debate.
I support salmon farming in Scotland because it has potential for growth, because it is, in my opinion, sustainable and because of the contribution that it makes to our local communities. It is a Scottish industry that I want to see continue to grow and prosper. Salmon farming will bring increased benefits to Scotland, local communities and local economies.
The growth of the Scottish salmon farming industry started in the 1970s. According to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the industry has come to be dominated by operators who have companies in several countries, including many productions and job opportunities in Scotland. Aside from jobs growth, it provides 17.5 billion meals each year worldwide, which speaks volumes for its success. It is a leader in the salmon sector along with Norway, Canada and Chile, and Scotland’s salmon is of superior quality.
We have come a long way since the start of the industry. I want it to expand to be a global leader in production, but it must tackle some problems along the way. That is what being a good food provider means. In order to become a European and world leader in the production of salmon, the industry has declared its ambition to double the value of its salmon by 2030. Furthermore, it is currently spending about £400 million a year in Scotland on goods and services. As the industry continues to grow and reinvest, there is clearly an opportunity for Scotland-based businesses, and it is an opportunity not to be missed.
I fully support the industry because it aligns itself with our values. The sustainability report documents that salmon is a sustainable source of protein that leaves less of a carbon footprint than chicken, pork and beef. I did not know that. At present, 20 times more chicken, pork and beef is produced than salmon, but salmon farming in Scotland can contribute to reducing that statistic if it has the support of all who are present here today, which I believe it has.
I am proud that we will continue to support an industry that enriches the lives of the people of Scotland. Following the publication of the two reports by the committees, I suggest that protecting the environment is now one of the top priorities of the industry. SEPA has reported that over 87 per cent of the farms that produce salmon have been categorised as good or excellent. Salmon farms are rightly committed to protecting the health and wellbeing of marine life. With the advance of technology, they should be improving, with new ways of minimising factors that could result in any damage to the sea bed. Technology has reached new heights and it should be used by firms to resolve any local issues.
However, I am here not only to talk about what we can accomplish or what we have accomplished but to present to members the things that we have successfully executed. What the industry has done for our country and what it can do in the future will reflect the best of Scotland. It plays a vital role in enhancing the lives of people in our communities and it creates job opportunities for the people of Scotland, with salaries that tend to be higher than the Scottish average. It not only directly supports local employment but aids indirect jobs across the industry’s supply chain. The industry is vital to Scotland’s growth and must be supported as it continues to grow.
The industry’s ambition is well summarised by what it has done, what it is doing and what it is committed to doing for Scotland, and I would encourage it in that regard. A key element of that is the industry’s social and economic impact. Salmon farming directly employs 1,772 people at freshwater and seawater farms, and aquaculture contributes enormously to the rural economy by supporting 12,000 jobs. More than 1 million salmon meals are consumed in the UK every day—including the cabinet secretary’s meal today. The industry exports to more than 60 countries, and overseas sales are worth £600 million, making Scottish farmed salmon the UK’s most valuable export. Many of the jobs in the industry are helping to support and sustain rural economies, which helps to keep rural schools, post offices, shops and community halls open.
I could go on and on, Presiding Officer, but you are gesturing to me that I cannot do that. My support for the salmon industry is now on the record. I wish it well.
Sustainable development must be at the core of the way forward for all activity in our precious marine environment. Such an approach underpins our national marine plan and is essential to the future of everyone who works in the salmon farming industry.
In our letter to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee said:
“Scotland is at a critical point in considering how salmon farming develops in a sustainable way in relation to the environment ... If the current issues are not addressed this expansion will be unsustainable and may cause irrecoverable damage to the environment.”
In view of the evidence in the committee’s scientific report and evidence that has come to light since we wrote that letter, if I were writing the letter today I would change the word “may” to “will”. In the short time that I have for this speech, I will set out some of the reasons why I would do so.
In the previous session of Parliament, I had responsibility for scrutinising and contributing to the bill that became the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Act 2013. The purpose of the act is to ensure that fisheries are managed to support
“sustainable economic growth with due regard to the wider marine environment.”
Let me start by talking about sea lice, which are a continuing, serious animal welfare issue that risks denting consumer confidence if it is not properly tackled. During our scrutiny of the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill, the Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee had to ask stakeholders to stop sending evidence about sea lice, because in our judgment a tit-for-tat situation had arisen. This time, we were a little wiser: the ECCLR Committee started by commissioning a peer-reviewed scientific report.
Back in 2013, I lodged an amendment that would have required farm-by-farm sea lice reporting in real time. My proposal was rejected by the Scottish Government and by the industry body, the SSPO. The latter rejected the proposal principally on the ground of commercial confidentiality. I found it extraordinary that the SSPO waited until it was giving evidence to the ECCLR Committee last year to announce the measures to tackle the issue to which it had agreed; that just does not wash.
I note that the cabinet secretary’s review of the farmed fish sea lice compliance policy will include consideration of mandatory reporting. “Consideration” can be a disappointing word, so I seek reassurance in that regard from the cabinet secretary in his closing remarks, without wanting to pre-empt the review group’s conclusions.
When I visited a Marine Harvest fish farm during the scrutiny of the aquaculture bill, the wonders of wrasse as a cleaner fish for sea lice were extolled. There are now serious questions about the sustainability of wild stocks, as we heard from Finlay Carson, and as it says in our briefing from the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust. Can it be acceptable for the aquaculture industry to self-regulate in relation to the wrasse fishery through voluntary measures? The industry still has a lot to do to prove its sustainable development credentials, as I very much hope it will do.
Colin Smyth and I will attend the opening of the salmon fishing season on the Nith, with the Nith District Salmon Fishery Board. Will the cabinet secretary update the Parliament on the timelines for the salmon interactions working group? There are fundamentally important issues, in relation to sea trout as well as salmon, for the fragile rural communities that depend in part on rod-fishing tourism, and for local people who fish.
As Fisheries Management Scotland has pointed out, both committees recommended urgent research into the development of closed-containment facilities. I hope that the cabinet secretary will take that on board.
Will the cabinet secretary today also update the Parliament on the reporting timescales for the welcome sub-groups of the strategic farmed fish health framework working group?
As we have heard many times in the debate, and as both committees said, the status quo is not an option. We all get that now—in the chamber, in the industry and in the agencies. The sustainable future of our fish farming industry must be a collective effort.
Further research is essential, and must be funded, in part, by the industry. However, how can that research be independent? That can be achieved if there is a charging regime that enables groups representing the industry, local authorities, community and concern groups and regulatory bodies to commission independent research into fish welfare and mortality, appropriate sitings of future applications and the effects of medicines on the sea bed, to name but some of the issues that we have to get right. I welcome the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, which will have a strong to play, and its briefing.
The provenance of our farmed salmon and its reputation, affordable food both here and for export, and the maintenance and development of work in our fragile coastal communities are all at stake. I hope that today the Scottish Government will unequivocally commit to the precautionary principle.
I thank members of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee for their detailed work on the report. I am very pleased to hear from its convener that the earlier work that we did in the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee helped it to focus on the environmental issues. That is how the Parliament should be working—more collaboratively.
Both committees have recognised that the status quo is unacceptable and that fundamental change is needed. In many ways, this report marks a crossroads in the way we regulate the salmon farming industry in Scotland. In one direction, we can continue with weak regulation and an industry growing well beyond the limits of the environment that sustains it. In the other direction, we can drive high quality through regulation that demands that industry innovates to address problems before it can expand any further. We could call the latter direction a moratorium, but I believe that it is a way of delivering future growth and jobs in communities while addressing the problems head on.
Last year, I attended the Arctic Circle forum in Reykjavik with the convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, Gillian Martin, and I heard from those who are planning the future of the global salmon farming industry. It was an eye-opener because, although it is clear that we are not alone in Scotland in highlighting the problems, we are slipping behind in delivering the solutions by failing to adopt Nordic approaches to regulation and licensing.
The Norwegians in particular have recognised that they have reached a peak. The footprint of the industry in the fjords has got far too big. However, instead of seeking sticking-plaster solutions, they have driven transformative innovation through competitive licensing. This is a profitable industry, and the market price of farmed salmon has nearly trebled in the past 20 years, but the coastlines to rear salmon on are globally scarce, and listed companies are keen to show stock markets that they have a strong future. There can be no leakage of salmon farming to other countries, because every country faces similar problems. Limitless capacity does not exist, and the only way to survive is to innovate harder and faster.
The Norwegians have allowed companies to expand further, but only if they invest in innovation. Companies have come forward with an incredible array of closed or semi-closed systems, based in the sea, that address the issues of disease, parasitism, fish escapes and pollution from waste and chemicals. Many of those solutions are offshore and borrow technology from the oil and gas industry. Sites for new and expanded farms are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Last year’s licensing round in Norway generated over €300 million from just 23 auctioned sites, releasing a combined production capacity increase of 15,000 tonnes.
The auction of sites at high value creates the wealth that can be reinvested back into research. I recently visited the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre at the University of Stirling, which has already been mentioned by a number of members. It is doing excellent work that is focused on understanding and managing the problems that are associated with open-cage salmon farming. That work would be transformative if it was applied to the kind of sea-based, closed systems that are already being developed in Norway, so why does Scotland remain a dumping ground for old open-pen technology that Norwegian companies would not get away with using on new sites at home?
Meanwhile, the search for solutions to old problems is getting ever more desperate. For example, why are we compounding salmon farming’s destructive impact by allowing the use of an unregulated wrasse fishery that could drive species to extinction, to solve a parasite problem that could be largely avoidable by using contained systems? The wrasse fishery has no reliable stock monitoring, no statutory closure to allow recovery during the breeding season and poor regulation of landing sizes. As other members have said, the Government has in effect signed over control of the fishery to the salmon farming industry and, in so doing, is failing in its statutory duties under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. Without those safeguards, there is a clear case for a catching moratorium until the regulation has caught up.
Once again, we are caught in a calamity in which industry tries to externalise all its damages on to the public purse while we are left studying the impacts and scratching our heads about how to deal with them. Meanwhile, the industry is more than capable of innovating out of the problems, if only it had the right incentives.
We are at a crossroads. SEPA’s aquaculture review falls woefully short of the kind of transformative regulation that we are beginning to see in Norway. The conclusions of its review need to come back to the Parliament so that they can be scrutinised by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. We cannot strike a cheap compromise between the environment and the economy when it comes to salmon farming, because we need both, and the prize is there if the Government can start thinking in a more Norwegian manner.
The office window of Dennis and Katrine Johnson at Uyeasound in Unst looks out over a pristine marine landscape. They have been working in this industry for many years, for a variety of companies, and they would not recognise some of the things that have been said in the debate—they certainly would not recognise that last speech and the allegations of deliberate malpractice by people in the industry.
A lot of people do not seem to know the history of salmon farming. It started as a small crofting business in lots of part of Scotland, including on the west coast, and the industry is now owned largely by international companies. It has changed overwhelmingly. However, what has not changed is the number of people who are employed by the industry in parts of Scotland who simply would not have jobs if salmon farming did not exist. Unst, Yell and Fetlar are the best examples of that that I know of anywhere in Scotland. Salmon farming accounts for 110 direct jobs on those islands and any number of hundreds of indirect jobs. Those jobs and the communities on those islands would not exist were it not for that industry. The idea that those people deliberately pollute and deliberately do nothing about the issues of sea lice, mortality and so on is a line of argument that I simply do not recognise.
No, we have heard from you; we have absolutely heard the Green position. By gosh, was it clear. I assure you that that speech will go to every one of my constituents, so that they know where you are.
Presiding Officer, salmon farming provides 110 direct jobs in the north isles of Shetland; 23 per cent of Scottish production of farmed salmon is in Shetland; the industry employs 421 people in the islands that I represent; and the activity is worth £14 million to the local economy—such facts are never mentioned in that kind of speech from members on those benches.
There is another side to the report that I find puzzling. The minister rightly mentioned the food and drink strategy, but there is no mention of that in the committee report. There would be no food and drink sector in Scotland without the salmon farming industry which, as the minister said, exports to 50 countries, nor would there be the range of people who now work in the industry. In evidence to the committee, Ben Hadfield of Marine Harvest said:
“It used to be a job with a farm manager and farm hands; now it has become more technical, and we are employing a lot of scientists, veterinarians, people with information technology skills and so on.”—[
Official Report, Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee
, 2 May 2018; c 24.]
In its submission to members in advance of the debate, Scottish Sea Farms pointed out with regard to fish welfare, which has not been mentioned by many other members today, that there are now 36 farm-based fish health specialists, three in-house vets, two fish welfare auditors, two fish welfare officers and one head of fish health. That is a huge number of incredibly able people.
Men and women with degrees and huge numbers of very precise qualifications are now working in this industry all over Scotland. That is something that we should champion and support, not run down, as some people have chosen to do today.
I want to make some points about innovation and investment. We have heard Claudia Beamish
’s take on those issues already.
Scottish Sea Farms is trialling an innovative new device to convert wave energy to power—a green measure that I would have thought would have been worth mentioning by some in this place. The MANTA converter has been introduced on a farm in Shetland and it is hoped that it will produce enough electricity to power feeding systems, underwater lighting and acoustic predator deterrents, which will reduce the company’s reliance on diesel and, indeed, will do something about the predator issue as well. In Shetland, we do not expect to need any licences at all for seals this year, because of the work that the industry is doing and the investment that it is making. I wish that a few more members had mentioned that.
Many things are being invested in but have not been mentioned, although a number of members rightly mentioned the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, which does strong work in conjunction with the industry. The centre’s briefing for the debate points out that, in the first phase of funding, the centre
“turned its £5.4 million project spend into a total applied R&D investment programme of £39 million across Scotland, of which £14.2m has been direct industry contributions.”
That is the industry investing in exactly the kind of measures in relation to the environment and the future that are desperately needed.
The issue is not just about the direct jobs in the industry; it is about the indirect jobs that go with it. It is about the well boats and haulage companies. If people drive down the M74 and happen to look out on the right-hand side as they go past Larkhall, they will see a bunch of logistics centres, all of which employ people from constituencies in the central belt of Scotland who work supporting the salmon farming industry. The issue is not just about rural areas; it goes right across Scotland.
On sea lice—
M aybe this is the point that Claudia Beamish wanted to make, but Scottish Sea Farms is investing in sea lice shields to deal with that issue, which I recognise must be dealt with. Thirteen farms already have measures to deal with the issue, and the number is growing.
I will finish by making just one observation—
Mr Ewing and I have been in Parliament for a long time and, over the years, the industry has been attacked by big landed interests with fishing rivers and by the Greens. I hope that he stands up to them for a few more years.
I joined the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee after it had taken its evidence on the salmon industry, so I had to start by reading the ECCLR Committee’s report, all the written evidence and the
Official Report of the meetings in which the committee took oral evidence, so that I could contribute to the report as it was being written.
It is important that the REC Committee framed its report around the significance of the industry to the rural economy and that it did not produce an environment committee report mark 2. As others have said, in 2017, the salmon farming industry harvested 189,000 tonnes, which was the sector’s highest-ever output. Exports reached an all-time high and were worth £600 million, going to 50 countries worldwide, with the US, France and China being the top three countries. Interestingly, salmon sales to the EU account for 40 per cent of export value. As the cabinet secretary said, according to HIE, employment in the industry and its wider supply chain has topped 10,000 full-time equivalent jobs, with direct and indirect earnings valued at around £271 million. As Tavish Scott said, the jobs are well paid with good promotion prospects. Salmon farming has a gross value added for Scotland of £540 million. In 2016, salmon farming companies spent £164 million on suppliers and services in the Highlands and Islands alone.
The importance of this relatively new industry to rural and remote communities and their sustainability cannot be overstated, but the industry’s importance to other parts of Scotland, such as Rosyth and Bellshill, should also be recognised. As others have mentioned, it is also important to Stirling, through the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre. I, too, recognise that a huge amount—almost half—of the money that is provided to the centre for innovation and research and development comes from the industry.
As Gillian Martin said, the industry has transformed our population’s access to a healthy source of food and protein. It is now an affordable source of food and is on school dinner menus and in supermarkets. However, in relation to the supermarkets, the sector is only as strong as its weakest link. That is why in my view, in the view of everyone connected with the industry, and as Heather Jones, the chief executive of the SAIC has said, the industry needs to be
“stable, well-regulated, animal-friendly, and scientifically robust.”
She went on to say:
“That’s why we welcomed” the report’s
“publication and focus on how aquaculture can deliver benefits to the Scottish economy and local communities.”
I have not come across anyone in the industry who believes that the industry should continue to grow in anything other than a sustainable way. The industry recognises the problems of mortalities, gill disease and sea lice, and it is already taking action to address those issues. It is not in the industry’s interest, in terms of its markets or profitability, not to deal with such issues. We know that the business is highly competitive and how hugely competitive the industries are in Norway, Chile and Canada.
In my remaining time, I will address the role of the regulatory bodies, particularly SEPA, in improving the industry. On 7 November last year, members will know that SEPA published its draft “Finfish Aquaculture Sector Plan”. SEPA held a drop-in event in Parliament to allow members to discuss the plan, and it has consulted widely with the sector, NGOs and partner public bodies. By my calculation, I think that 14 of the recommendations in the committee’s report on salmon farming are directed at SEPA. In its briefing, SEPA goes through the recommendations and outlines how it is addressing them. Recommendation 2 addresses
“regulatory deficiencies as well as fish health and environmental issues”.
SEPA believes that its “Finfish Aquaculture Sector Plan” deals with that.
Other recommendations relate to medicines, and the UK technical advisory committee, of which SEPA is a member, is dealing with that issue. Recommendations 40 to 42, which relate to the protection of wild salmon, are addressed by the interactions working group. It is important that regulatory regimes are co-ordinated, enhanced and robust, and that they effectively enforce compliance with high environmental standards.
In order to meet all the recommendations in the committee reports, I am sure that everybody is engaged in the continuous improvement of the industry. As legislators, we must enhance this exciting industry.
Can we imagine any farm in Scotland on which the animals are covered in flesh-eating parasites that cause disease, and on which up to a third of its livestock dies before reaching market? Such a farm would surely be the subject of many questions from politicians, its peers and the media, and it would feel the full weight of our regulatory regimes. Such a farm would make no environmental or moral sense, and it would make no commercial sense, even to the farmer. Why is a farm in water any different from a farm on land? One is an established form of practice, which we have been doing for hundreds—arguably thousands—of years, and the other is a fledgling industry in which there has been monumental growth in demand for its product during its relatively short lifespan.
That is the conundrum that I faced from day 1 of the salmon farming inquiry. How do we strike the balance between supporting what is undoubtedly and undeniably a proud Scottish industry of great importance to our economy, and, equally, being bold enough to say that the status quo is simply not good enough?
We spent months taking evidence—often in the face of hyperbolic and apocalyptic headlines—with emotions running high on all sides of the debate, as today has shown. From day 1, we were expected to assume one side of the argument or the other. Are we in favour of, or against, fish farms? Do we favour a moratorium, or are we against it? Are fish farms the reason for stock reductions in wild salmon, or are they not? Against that backdrop, it seemed as though the committee had an impossible task.
The role of the REC Committee’s report was partially, but not exclusively, to examine the environmental aspects of salmon farming. We also had a duty to consider the social, financial, employment and export aspects of the industry.
Recommendation 1 set the scene. It said:
“if the industry is to grow”, it must identify solutions to the “challenges” that it faces. Recommendation 2 went on to say that
“if the industry is to grow ... meaningful action needs to be taken to address regulatory deficiencies”.
What is the difference between those two statements? The first shines a light on the need for the industry to tackle its own problems and the second says that we also need to sort out the regulatory environment in which it operates. Both are necessary.
The 2030 vision of growing the industry is admirable and, as a Parliament, we should be positive about it. The industry supports up to 10,000 jobs in Scotland and brings nearly £2 billion to our economy. A lot has been achieved and I want the industry to grow, but growth cannot and must not come at any cost.
Over the course of our deliberations, I have not met anyone who is blind to or ignorant of the massive challenges that the industry faces, but I, too, have stood in the cold waters of Scottish rivers—none of them my own—rod in hand, with nothing to catch but the cold. I believe that if we get salmon farming right, and with the right partnerships in place, we should and could work collectively to get to a place where we are proud of our product and the industry can grow in a responsible and regulated manner.
I will share some further thoughts. First, a recurring theme in the debate and from the report is that the current regulatory framework meets the needs of neither producers, nor those with serious concerns about the industry. Only a robust and enforceable approach to regulation will be acceptable in order to address the concerns that many have about animal welfare and about the environmental effects of the rapid growth that we have seen.
Secondly, the same goes for the planning and consent process. It relies on subjective interpretation of what is in the public good.
Thirdly, grow the industry, but do not grow for growing’s sake; salmon producers accept that. We must compete with Chile, Norway and Canada, but it is not a race to the bottom. Farmed Scottish salmon should enjoy the highest quality standards. Let us be world leading in every respect.
Last and more important is the siting of fish farms. My view is that we should give serious consideration to closed containment or onshore sites; moving sites that are in sensitive areas; and potentially closing those sites where everyone agrees that mortality levels are unsustainable or that are repeat offenders. Let us also have an informed and sensible debate about offshore farms; they are not the great panacea that some people believe them to be.
We should give serious consideration to the traffic light system that exists in Norway; it would allow the different parts of Scotland to do what it is right for their region and environment.
There is so much more that I wish I had time to cover. Debate is certainly not over. I support the growth of the Scottish salmon industry, but let the message also be heard: we are watching and we will act.
I am pleased to speak in this debate on the conclusions of the “Salmon farming in Scotland” report by the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee.
I have a particular interest in the report, as I sat on the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee during its inquiry into the environmental impacts of salmon farming in Scotland. While listening to evidence and reading up on the issues, I found myself shocked by some of the concerns that were raised. As someone who ate salmon on a regular basis, the levels of disease, mortality and the use of harmful chemicals in the treatment of disease left me concerned.
Given that farmed Atlantic salmon is Scotland’s and the UK’s largest food export, and that Scotland is the largest producer in the whole of the EU, addressing failings in the industry should be a priority. That is not to be negative about the industry; it is surely common sense if we want the industry to grow. In truth, the industry has shown that it cannot self-regulate. That is why we need and must demand much stronger regulation and action from the Scottish Government. The ECCLR Committee’s report makes that point when it says that
“the same set of concerns regarding the environmental impact of salmon farming exist now as in 2002 but the scale and impact of these has expanded since 2002. There has been a lack of progress in tackling many of the key issues previously identified and unacceptable levels of mortality persist.”
It is clear that something is not right if the problems in the industry are still present nearly 20 years later and are, in fact, getting worse. That is why it is incredibly important that the Scottish Government takes note of the recommendations of the REC Committee’s report as well as those of the ECCLR Committee’s report, both of which highlight a desperate need for urgency in tackling the problems of intensive farming, sea lice, disease and escapes of farmed fish.
Those problems mean that questions need to be raised about transparency and the publication of data, which are mentioned in both committee reports. By making data on mortalities, sea lice, disease and escapes more transparent, we will be able to get a much clearer picture of what is actually going on in the industry. The public has a right to know what chemicals are being used in those farms and what the impact of those chemicals is in lochs across Scotland as well as in our food.
The committee reports also highlight action that can be taken now to address and alleviate those problems. The Scottish Government could commit to the development and introduction of full closed containment farming. I recognise that that would need further research, but by outlining a realistic target, the Scottish Government would be taking a bold step and showing a commitment to addressing the negative effects of salmon farming on wild stocks.
Questions around the pace of growth in the salmon industry mean that there remain very real concerns and that the industry must get its act together before any major expansion takes place. Again, that would show commitment to tackling the issues so that, 20 years from now, we are not simply talking about the problems that exist now.
With regard to the concerns that have been raised about the impact of salmon farms on wild stocks, it is clear that
“the Scottish Government has not understood and appreciated the urgency of the situation in merely talking about ‘a mechanism to inform the longer term determination of a regulatory framework in this area and ... a staged approach to building a long-term set of arrangements to fill the current regulatory gap’.”
Those are not my words, but those of Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland, which is clear that the Scottish Government’s response shows a general lack of urgency in key areas. Urgent action and enforcement are required to control the negative impacts of the salmon farming industry. There is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to show leadership by taking on board the recommendations of both committee reports.
Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland also states that
“MSPs should be suspicious of announcements of further working groups on fish health or further repeat reviews of existing licencing and permitting, designed to kick the Committees’ concerns into the long grass. We have been there before. This time we need action, not words.”
I hope that the Scottish Government will realise the seriousness of the situation and take the action that is necessary.
I start by thanking Tavish Scott’s constituents for the excellent products that they produce at their salmon farms; indeed, I thank constituents all round Scotland for that. That produce supports industries in my constituency—Sutherlands Of Portsoy, for example, has been smoking salmon for a hundred years. It originally smoked wild salmon, but now we have the salted salmon being smoked with shavings from whisky casks to produce that marriage made in heaven that is the taste of whisky on smoked salmon, which I so enjoy—particularly if it is anCnoc, Glen Deveron or Glenglassaugh whisky from my constituency.
Fiction has been running through the debate a lot—the fiction that the producers of farmed salmon like sea lice on their fish. No: if there are lice on the fish, its commercial value goes down because it looks ugly in the fishmonger’s display. There is a fiction that the fish farmers are indifferent to mortality, but every time a salmon dies on a fish farm, that is income lost to the salmon farmer. We must not pretend that the industry does not want to engage on the genuine and properly expressed challenges that it meets.
Donald Cameron referred to Loch Fyne in an attempt to show a link between fish farms and reduced salmon runs. Martin Jaffa’s book refers to Loch Fyne in relation to sea trout, which is essentially the same species. Of the three rivers that run into Loch Fyne, the one in which there has been the greatest reduction is the one in which the fish have not swum past the fish farms. The river in which the fish have to swim past all the fish farms has had the smallest reduction.
There are many causes of reductions in numbers of salmon in the wild environment, and many things affect both salmon farms and the wild environment. When my brother and I were water bailiffs for the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board in 1968, the talk of that and previous seasons was the reduction in fish. Why did it happen? There was illegal exploitation: as bailiffs, we experienced dynamiting, hangnets and sniggering. I arrested somebody for sniggering, which is an illegal method of catching fish, on the island in Perth.
We had the Klondikers from Russia sitting in their vessels in Loch Broom catching salmon offshore. That was when the limits were 3 miles and 12 miles, rather than the 200 miles that we have today. We had predation from, for example, seals. The closure in the 1970s of Wee Bankie, which was a sprat fishery out in the North Sea, caused quadrupling of the number of seals in the North Sea. Guess what? Seals like eating salmon.
It is not just one thing that causes reductions in salmon numbers, but a complex environment of different things. I first saw sea lice in the 1950s. While standing on the bank trying to catch salmon with rod and line, I, unlike Jamie Greene, look in the mirror when trying to find the cause for my failures. I am an indifferent fisherman; my failure is not because there are no fish in the river. I have never seen Jamie Greene fishing, so I cannot judge his confidence. However, I saw sea lice in the 1950s.
In our rivers, we have crayfish that consume almost anything in the river, and there are some rivers in which there is nothing left but crayfish. We have acidification of rivers from the artificial fertilisers that run off our farm land. We have rising temperatures in rivers. We have the clearing of vegetation from the edge of rivers, which allows pollution and cattle—and what they produce—to go into the rivers. There is dredging of rivers, which makes it more difficult for salmon.
There are good examples, too; there are dams and weirs. There is the Pitlochry fish ladder, which is famous for supporting proper up-river passage of salmon. There are other examples elsewhere.
Let us not turn this into a simple-minded battle between the fish farms and the wild fish industry, because the issue is much more complex than that.
I wish our industry every success in the future. I will continue to enjoy eating the industry’s products and I will watch with interest as we regulate in an appropriate way.
Today’s debate has shown that business as usual is not an option for salmon farming in Scotland. The industry has been encouraged by the Scottish Government to hit ambitious growth targets, but the Government has not yet put in place the necessary regulatory framework to manage that expansion in a way that properly protects our environment and animal welfare. As a result, environmental and welfare shortcomings are in danger of adversely impacting on the economic and social benefits of salmon farming that many members have highlighted in the debate.
The committee also highlighted those benefits. The very first sentence of the report states:
“The Committee acknowledges both the economic and social value that the salmon farming industry brings to Scotland.”
The report goes on to highlight that aquaculture is worth £620 million a year. It supports 12,000 jobs—many of which are high skilled—that are of huge importance to peripheral rural communities, which can be fragile, with limited alternative employment markets. In its public evidence to the committee, Grieg Seafood Shetland Ltd set out the broader social and community benefits that the jobs provide. It stated that they help
“to support sustainable rural communities by providing year-round stable employment. This in turn helps to keep rural schools, post offices, shops and community halls open.”
The economic and social contributions of salmon farming were well aired during the committee’s inquiry. However, despite the importance of those contributions, unless the Government and industry tackle the environmental and animal welfare issues that are highlighted in the report, the industry will not grow sustainably and the economic and social benefits will be at risk.
It is not just salmon farming that is at risk of being undermined by the type of poor practice that is highlighted in the RECC report and in the earlier report by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. Fin and creel fishers told the committee that salmon farms can make their work more difficult and potentially dangerous by pushing them out of the most productive areas. Others mentioned the environmental damage that is being done in respect of marine tourism and wild salmon.
What are the issues that could undermine salmon farming that we need to tackle? As several members have highlighted in the debate, farmed salmon has exceptionally high mortality rates. OneKind’s written evidence to the committee stated:
“Mortality rates are estimated to be over 20%. In 2016, over 10 million salmon died on Scottish salmon farms. Recent data published by the Scottish Government on the Scotland’s Aquaculture website suggests that this figure increased to over 11 million in 2017.”
The RECC highlighted that particular sites had especially high mortality rates and made it clear that we believe that expansion should not be permitted at such sites. There were recommendations on the need to collect more up-to-date data on mortality rates, and the committee rightly called for more tangible enforcement powers, including the ability to prevent expansion at sites at which there are high mortality rates, and a mechanism to limit or to close down production when particularly severe events occur.
Enforcement also needs to be strengthened through a revised compliance policy that includes appropriate penalties. I appreciate that the strategic farmed fish health framework working group is looking at a number of the issues, but after years of problems—and not one, but two, damning committee reports—there is still no commitment from the Government to make in full the changes that are needed.
The changes are not just about placing more requirements on the sector, but about how we support the industry to make improvements. The RECC received evidence on the frustration that is felt by many people in the sector about the disjointed and inconsistent nature of the regulatory systems. Local authorities, Marine Scotland, Crown Estate Scotland, SEPA and the Animal and Plant Health Agency are all involved in decision making in the industry, which has created a confusing and fragmented regulatory landscape.
Dr Richard Luxmoore from Scottish Environment LINK called for
“a single streamlined process in which a person submits a single application for a fish farm and all the impacts are considered together.”—[
Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee
, 14 March 2018; c 27.]
Although the feasibility of such a system remains to be seen, it is undeniable that we need a more integrated process. The committee’s report reflected that important point. It noted that the system is
“spread across several regulatory bodies” and described the current situation as
“confusing and ... poorly coordinated”.
The committee highlighted the need for significant improvements to the
“co-ordination of and interaction between the various elements of the regulatory regime”.
I appreciate that work is under way to address some of those issues, in particular with regard to SEPA’s responsibilities, but further bold action is needed.
If there is one aspect of the report that I am disappointed by, it is the committee’s decision to dismiss calls for a moratorium, on which it stated in its recommendations that there is “insufficient evidence”. The committee set out the changes that we need the industry and Government to make: I agree that it is only fair that they have an opportunity to make those changes. However, I believe that if significant improvements are not made, a moratorium should at the very least remain an option, which is why I dissented from the committee’s recommendation to rule it out completely. In many ways, the committee agreed with me and somewhat contradicted itself by going on to state in the report that there should be no expansion in the industry until some of the serious problems have been sorted out. Frankly, that sounds a bit like a moratorium to me.
Salmon farming is too important to our economy and to communities to be managed unsustainably. The future of the sector requires that we hold the industry to the highest environmental standards, and that we ensure that it takes animal welfare in aquaculture more seriously. The Government needs to put in place the regulatory framework to achieve that. Work on that has begun, and there have been a number of initiatives and announcements in recent months.
We should be in no doubt that that is in no small part thanks to the work of the ECCLR and REC committees, which have shone a light on the environmental and animal welfare failings of the industry. The recommendations of both committees provide a strong starting point for developing solutions to those failings, and the Government and industry should ensure that the recommendations are fully delivered.
It has been a long process from the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s agreeing to conduct the inquiry in June 2017 to our getting to this point. I, too, thank everyone who helped us to produce the report, and who worked so well with the committee throughout the consultation process and during our evidence sessions. I also thank everyone who hosted the committee on site visits last April. We also received 160 written submissions and met Norway’s Minister of Fisheries, Per Sandberg. It has been a big job, and that thorough process has delivered an important report.
Two things have been made abundantly clear by all parties across the chamber today. First, we all recognise the huge importance of the salmon farming industry for Scotland. It provides economic prosperity, and good well-paid job opportunities in some of our most remote and disadvantaged areas. In those remote areas, as my colleague Donald Cameron mentioned, the industry provides huge social benefit through sustaining rural schools, shops and local businesses.
Salmon farming has created an estimated 12,000 jobs. Farmed salmon has become our biggest food export, having an estimated value of £600 million in 2017. We are the top producer in the EU and one of the top three producers globally. There is no doubt that the economic benefits are huge.
Farming has made salmon affordable. It is no longer a luxury food, as Gillian Martin said. As she does, I remember well when it was a luxury food.
As the cabinet secretary said, salmon is sold in 50 countries worldwide, so it is a huge export success story. Rhoda Grant said that we should all be eating more oily fish. It is good for our health. Despite what the vegans and vegetarians might say, I believe that it is good for us.
The second thing that became clear during our inquiry, and which has been expressed multiple times by members across the chamber, is that the status quo is not acceptable. More enhanced and effective standards of production and environmental sustainability must be introduced. We need to ensure that the regulatory deficiencies that exist in the industry are addressed in order to improve fish health and to reduce environmental impacts.
There is no doubt that rates of compliance have, in the past, been poor, as the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s convener, Edward Mountain, mentioned. He also said that we must locate farms in more suitable areas. Some farms are in the wrong places; we need to be able to move them. I totally disagree with John Finnie: there are right places for fish farms, and there can be wrong places, too.
We also need to understand better the effect that salmon farming has on the wild salmon population. That is a hugely difficult subject. Stewart Stevenson addressed many of the issues in that regard and highlighted just how difficult the problems are: they are multifaceted.
I agree that mortality levels on salmon farms are often too high, but there is no doubt that the industry takes the issue very seriously, so I am pleased that mortality levels are beginning to fall.
Rhoda Grant spoke about escaped fish. Thankfully, that does not seem to be a big issue right now, but moving to more exposed sites could make escapes more likely.
Mike Rumbles made the important point that no single body takes responsibility for regulating the industry, which he considers to be a huge failing. I agree.
There are many issues to consider. The industry should expand only with care until those issues are addressed. With the Scottish Government’s target to grow our food and drink industry to be worth £30 billion by 2030, it is vital that we grow our biggest food producer—the salmon industry.
I welcome SEPA’s “Finfish Aquaculture Sector Plan”, which was published in November 2018. The consultation on the plan referred to the proposed world-leading framework for regulating marine cage fish farms. It is vital work, and I look forward to hearing its results.
The focus on the necessary environmental improvements for the industry has resulted in significant improvements in sea lice numbers. As Finlay Carson pointed out, numbers in Scottish salmon farms in September 2018 were the lowest for that month in five years. That has been achieved by various methods, and certainly not only by using chemicals. The use of cleaner fish is a new and important way to tackle the issue. Finlay Carson and Mark Ruskell highlighted the dangers to wild wrasse stocks, but the increasing numbers of such fish being grown on farms rather than being caught in the wild will help to keep that method of control sustainable.
I also want to say how much I agree with Tavish Scott’s comments on Mark Ruskell’s entirely negative speech, which I, too, do not recognise as being fair comment on the industry.
No. I have no time.
Such improvements are only the beginning. I welcome SEPA’s efforts so far, and I look forward to seeing its implementing what is in the “Finfish Aquaculture Sector Plan” in order to continue the improvement in standards and regulation. I also welcome the Scottish Government’s fish health framework, which is expected to lead not only to a huge reduction in fish mortality, but to much-needed improvement in transparency in reporting of mortality rates, lice levels and disease outbreaks at salmon farms.
I conclude by saying that I support the industry and want to see it grow. However, that must be done sustainably, with high welfare and environmental standards at its heart.
I again thank the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee for calling the debate, which has provided an opportunity to discuss issues that are of great import to a sector that, in a short period, has become a cornerstone of this country’s rural economy. I have been heartened by the support from across the chamber—or most of it—for the industry, which is qualified by the need for it to meet the challenges that it currently faces. It was very fair of Mr Chapman to point out that some of those challenges, such as sea lice and the use of cleaner fish, are already being tackled successfully, but there is more to be done.
I hope that those few short sentences sum up where the Parliament is—or most of it, because, plainly, not everyone is in that place. I very much welcome the consensus that exists in support of a sustainable industry. For my part, given the responsibilities that fall to me, as Mr Rumbles said, I will do my best to ensure that the direction of travel of Government policy and its implementation reflect the overall tone of the debate.
I thought that those words would be a useful way in which to start my speech, because, in the short time that I have available, I will not be able to reply to every one of the many questions that have been asked.
It is fair to say that the sector is investing heavily to improve fish health. It has been doing so for some considerable time and, in some cases, with success. For example, Scottish Sea Farms Ltd’s sustainability report points to an £11.8 million investment in fish health in 2017. Some 85 per cent of that was spent on non-medicinal measures, while 91.3 per cent was spent on fish survival at sea in 2018. There was also a 50 per cent reduction in the use of medicinal treatments and a 25 per cent reduction in the need for sea lice treatments. Surely, all of us welcome such results.
Interactions is a vital area that we are working on—we will not be kicking that particular can down the road. Claudia Beamish sought assurances about time limits. I will resist the temptation to respond too specifically to that request, which is generally a prudent course for a minister to take, but I reiterate my determination that we will act swiftly. However, members should bear in mind that each of the groups that we have set up—some of them some time ago—requires to do its work, which involves considering the evidence, and that, as we know from the committee’s reports, considering the evidence takes time. It is a long time since the committee’s inquiries began, and we need similarly to allow the groups—the interactions group, in particular—time to do their work. John Goodlad’s leadership and the technical expertise of those on the interactions group are a big advantage for us.
The REC Committee came to the view that we should not go so far as to say that there should be compulsory arrangements between salmon producers and wild fisheries. Does the cabinet secretary have any views on the nature of those relationships and whether the arrangements should remain voluntary or be stronger than that?
That is a very important and relevant question. I am not trying to dodge it, but the primary issue is what the impacts are. One needs to establish those first, evidentially.
Many members have referred to the fact that the issue is multifactorial—I think that Stewart Stevenson referred to that. I believe that there are 12 factors, at least, that can contribute to the mortality of wild salmon. That needs to be considered first, and then the appropriate action should be taken. Whether that should be done on a voluntary or a compulsory basis falls to be considered sequentially at that stage.
I do not want members in any way to gain the impression that we wish to delay action or seek to interpret what I am saying in that way. I am saying quite the opposite, but the approach must be evidence based, orderly, thoughtful and considered. In the interim, we will take steps to ensure that environmental monitoring takes place. We will be able to do that ad interim without waiting for the outcomes from the various groups that we have set up.
I welcome the fact that many members have recognised that the setting up of those groups is a serious piece of work. It is a serious way in which to address the concerns—actually, it is the only way in which to address them. Few—if any—of us are experts, so we must reach out to those who have the experience and knowledge, gain the benefit of their work, which is provided pro bono in most cases, thank them and appreciate and value their work. We will take that approach.
We have touched on the importance of the sector to rural Scotland, and I cannot emphasise enough the reach and significance of the investments that are being made. In my constituency, Gael Force Group is investing £914,000 to develop new fish farming pens. The Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre has overseen 14 projects worth £11.4 million, £7 million of which the industry has contributed. Substantial sums of money are being deployed in seeking solutions to the problems that we have discussed.
I cannot, because I have very little time.
There are also substantial community benefits. I have all the figures with me, but I do not have time to go through them. Some major companies are contributing to the communities in which they are based, and that is appreciated, although we encourage them to do more, of course. When I visited Orkney some months ago, Scottish Sea Farms was celebrating 10 years of operating there. I learned that the average wage of its employees in Orkney is £37,000. Let me repeat that figure: £37,000. I met several of those employees. They are hard working and young—at least in comparison with me—and they are all at the heart of rural communities. Tavish Scott made that point trenchantly and effectively.
I am afraid that the cloud of Brexit is hanging over the sector, and it is clear that the approach of continuing to be in the single market, which we recommend, is one that the sector would recognise.
I wish that I had time to say more, but I do not. I very much welcome the support for a sustainable aquaculture sector in Scotland and pledge to do my bit to ensure that that is precisely what we will continue to achieve and deliver.
This has been an extremely interesting and worthwhile debate. It is clear that there is broad recognition across the Parliament of the economic and social value of the salmon farming industry. However, at the same time, there is a clear acknowledgement that action must be taken to address the fish health and environmental challenges that the industry faces if we are to grow it sustainably. As Mark Ruskell said, we are at a crossroads.
The debate has involved members not only of the
Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee but of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. I thank them, the clerks, SPICe and everyone who gave evidence for both reports.
We have heard that the status quo is not an option. That was the conclusion of the ECCLR Committee, and we agree with that view. The cabinet secretary also stated that view in his opening statement, and many other members expressed it. The salmon farming industry is only as strong as its weakest link. As we heard from Maureen Watt, the farms that are underperforming need support and guidance to perform better. One of our asks is for Marine Scotland to take responsibility for improvements and to assume the overarching role of regulator, as Mike Rumbles suggested. It is a multimillion-pound industry, and everyone needs it to succeed. It is also a big employer in constituencies such as mine. In uniquely fragile communities, even one or two jobs could be the difference between the local school closing and its staying open, as Peter Chapman and Colin Smyth said.
Nearly every member who spoke in the debate, including the conveners of both committees and the committee members who spoke, managed to state the benefits of salmon farming. Even Jamie Greene managed to say something nice. Tavish Scott gave a robust defence of the industry, and he was right to talk about Scotland’s food and drink strategy. Richard Lyle said that Scotland’s salmon is of superior quality. In the short time that I have left, I will not go over the stated benefits of the industry but will turn to members’ contributions to the debate.
Gill disease is one of the serious challenges that the industry faces. The fish health framework will take action on that disease to understand the underlying factors, support more research, establish good practice and formulate a long-term approach. As Maureen Watt stated, the industry recognises those issues. Sea lice are another challenge, as we heard from John Mason, Finlay Carson and—I do not know whether I am allowed to say this—the queen of sea lice herself, Claudia Beamish.
That title is based on her past experience and nothing else.
The committee took quite a bit of evidence on sea lice and heard differing opinions on how the challenge is being dealt with. We even heard disagreement about whether the numbers are decreasing or increasing. We made a number of recommendations, including on the creation of an easily accessible information source and on compliance and reporting being mandatory and effectively monitored. Alex Rowley talked about the reporting issue. As Stewart Stevenson stated, producers do not want sea lice on their fish.
The issue of cleaner fish was mentioned by Finlay Carson, Peter Chapman and Mark Ruskell. The Scottish Government has confirmed that Marine Scotland and the industry have agreed a range of voluntary measures for wild wrasse fishing and there are positive moves towards increasing the number of hatchery-reared cleaner fish, although Finlay Carson said that we will need more and more, and Mark Ruskell stated that we might not need cleaner fish at all if we move to a closed containment system.
Most members spoke about the interaction between farmed and wild salmon. However, as Stewart Stevenson rightly pointed out, there are many reasons for the decline in wild salmon. A lot of members noted that fish farms are only a small contributory factor in that decline and that wild salmon stocks are also declining on the east coast, where there are no fish farms. I believe that Rhoda Grant stated that. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement of the setting up of a group to look at the issue, which Claudia Beamish mentioned.
Members talked about other matters including planning, the role of local authorities, poorly sited fish farms and how we can support the industry in ensuring that farms are sited in the right places. Further, we had good news recently on the shooting of seals—again, that is an animal welfare issue. Nobody wants to see seals shot. By using new types of netting, Scottish Sea Farms managed to reduce the number of seals that were shot by 31 per cent last year. Tavish Scott referred to that.
We must support the industry to strive. I heard and read a lot in the run-up to the debate, and I take this opportunity to thank every person who has been involved. As John Mason rightly said, a lot of people got in touch. It is not about right and wrong or about winning and losing. We have heard about the range of activity that is being undertaken by the Scottish Government, via its farmed fish health framework and its salmon interaction working group, and we know that SEPA intends to introduce proposals to strengthen regulation, driving operators towards full compliance and improving environmental protection.
The REC Committee believes that it is critical that those proposals result in meaningful and tangible action that will allow the salmon industry to continue to be an economic success story while ensuring that it operates to the highest possible health and environmental standards. I am sure that I speak for the members of both committees in saying that we hope that our inquiry reports have made a worthwhile contribution to achieving that ambition.