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”,
“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.