Salmon Farming

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

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

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.