Sustainable development must be at the core of the way forward for all activity in our precious marine environment. Such an approach underpins our national marine plan and is essential to the future of everyone who works in the salmon farming industry.
In our letter to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee said:
“Scotland is at a critical point in considering how salmon farming develops in a sustainable way in relation to the environment ... If the current issues are not addressed this expansion will be unsustainable and may cause irrecoverable damage to the environment.”
In view of the evidence in the committee’s scientific report and evidence that has come to light since we wrote that letter, if I were writing the letter today I would change the word “may” to “will”. In the short time that I have for this speech, I will set out some of the reasons why I would do so.
In the previous session of Parliament, I had responsibility for scrutinising and contributing to the bill that became the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Act 2013. The purpose of the act is to ensure that fisheries are managed to support
“sustainable economic growth with due regard to the wider marine environment.”
Let me start by talking about sea lice, which are a continuing, serious animal welfare issue that risks denting consumer confidence if it is not properly tackled. During our scrutiny of the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill, the Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee had to ask stakeholders to stop sending evidence about sea lice, because in our judgment a tit-for-tat situation had arisen. This time, we were a little wiser: the ECCLR Committee started by commissioning a peer-reviewed scientific report.
Back in 2013, I lodged an amendment that would have required farm-by-farm sea lice reporting in real time. My proposal was rejected by the Scottish Government and by the industry body, the SSPO. The latter rejected the proposal principally on the ground of commercial confidentiality. I found it extraordinary that the SSPO waited until it was giving evidence to the ECCLR Committee last year to announce the measures to tackle the issue to which it had agreed; that just does not wash.
I note that the cabinet secretary’s review of the farmed fish sea lice compliance policy will include consideration of mandatory reporting. “Consideration” can be a disappointing word, so I seek reassurance in that regard from the cabinet secretary in his closing remarks, without wanting to pre-empt the review group’s conclusions.
When I visited a Marine Harvest fish farm during the scrutiny of the aquaculture bill, the wonders of wrasse as a cleaner fish for sea lice were extolled. There are now serious questions about the sustainability of wild stocks, as we heard from Finlay Carson, and as it says in our briefing from the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust. Can it be acceptable for the aquaculture industry to self-regulate in relation to the wrasse fishery through voluntary measures? The industry still has a lot to do to prove its sustainable development credentials, as I very much hope it will do.
Colin Smyth and I will attend the opening of the salmon fishing season on the Nith, with the Nith District Salmon Fishery Board. Will the cabinet secretary update the Parliament on the timelines for the salmon interactions working group? There are fundamentally important issues, in relation to sea trout as well as salmon, for the fragile rural communities that depend in part on rod-fishing tourism, and for local people who fish.
As Fisheries Management Scotland has pointed out, both committees recommended urgent research into the development of closed-containment facilities. I hope that the cabinet secretary will take that on board.
Will the cabinet secretary today also update the Parliament on the reporting timescales for the welcome sub-groups of the strategic farmed fish health framework working group?
As we have heard many times in the debate, and as both committees said, the status quo is not an option. We all get that now—in the chamber, in the industry and in the agencies. The sustainable future of our fish farming industry must be a collective effort.
Further research is essential, and must be funded, in part, by the industry. However, how can that research be independent? That can be achieved if there is a charging regime that enables groups representing the industry, local authorities, community and concern groups and regulatory bodies to commission independent research into fish welfare and mortality, appropriate sitings of future applications and the effects of medicines on the sea bed, to name but some of the issues that we have to get right. I welcome the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, which will have a strong to play, and its briefing.
The provenance of our farmed salmon and its reputation, affordable food both here and for export, and the maintenance and development of work in our fragile coastal communities are all at stake. I hope that today the Scottish Government will unequivocally commit to the precautionary principle.