Salmon Farming

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 6th February 2019.

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Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

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.