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?