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.