Salmon Farming

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

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Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I thank members of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee for their detailed work on the report. I am very pleased to hear from its convener that the earlier work that we did in the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee helped it to focus on the environmental issues. That is how the Parliament should be working—more collaboratively.

Both committees have recognised that the status quo is unacceptable and that fundamental change is needed. In many ways, this report marks a crossroads in the way we regulate the salmon farming industry in Scotland. In one direction, we can continue with weak regulation and an industry growing well beyond the limits of the environment that sustains it. In the other direction, we can drive high quality through regulation that demands that industry innovates to address problems before it can expand any further. We could call the latter direction a moratorium, but I believe that it is a way of delivering future growth and jobs in communities while addressing the problems head on.

Last year, I attended the Arctic Circle forum in Reykjavik with the convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, Gillian Martin, and I heard from those who are planning the future of the global salmon farming industry. It was an eye-opener because, although it is clear that we are not alone in Scotland in highlighting the problems, we are slipping behind in delivering the solutions by failing to adopt Nordic approaches to regulation and licensing.

The Norwegians in particular have recognised that they have reached a peak. The footprint of the industry in the fjords has got far too big. However, instead of seeking sticking-plaster solutions, they have driven transformative innovation through competitive licensing. This is a profitable industry, and the market price of farmed salmon has nearly trebled in the past 20 years, but the coastlines to rear salmon on are globally scarce, and listed companies are keen to show stock markets that they have a strong future. There can be no leakage of salmon farming to other countries, because every country faces similar problems. Limitless capacity does not exist, and the only way to survive is to innovate harder and faster.

The Norwegians have allowed companies to expand further, but only if they invest in innovation. Companies have come forward with an incredible array of closed or semi-closed systems, based in the sea, that address the issues of disease, parasitism, fish escapes and pollution from waste and chemicals. Many of those solutions are offshore and borrow technology from the oil and gas industry. Sites for new and expanded farms are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Last year’s licensing round in Norway generated over €300 million from just 23 auctioned sites, releasing a combined production capacity increase of 15,000 tonnes.

The auction of sites at high value creates the wealth that can be reinvested back into research. I recently visited the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre at the University of Stirling, which has already been mentioned by a number of members. It is doing excellent work that is focused on understanding and managing the problems that are associated with open-cage salmon farming. That work would be transformative if it was applied to the kind of sea-based, closed systems that are already being developed in Norway, so why does Scotland remain a dumping ground for old open-pen technology that Norwegian companies would not get away with using on new sites at home?

Meanwhile, the search for solutions to old problems is getting ever more desperate. For example, why are we compounding salmon farming’s destructive impact by allowing the use of an unregulated wrasse fishery that could drive species to extinction, to solve a parasite problem that could be largely avoidable by using contained systems? The wrasse fishery has no reliable stock monitoring, no statutory closure to allow recovery during the breeding season and poor regulation of landing sizes. As other members have said, the Government has in effect signed over control of the fishery to the salmon farming industry and, in so doing, is failing in its statutory duties under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. Without those safeguards, there is a clear case for a catching moratorium until the regulation has caught up.

Once again, we are caught in a calamity in which industry tries to externalise all its damages on to the public purse while we are left studying the impacts and scratching our heads about how to deal with them. Meanwhile, the industry is more than capable of innovating out of the problems, if only it had the right incentives.

We are at a crossroads. SEPA’s aquaculture review falls woefully short of the kind of transformative regulation that we are beginning to see in Norway. The conclusions of its review need to come back to the Parliament so that they can be scrutinised by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. We cannot strike a cheap compromise between the environment and the economy when it comes to salmon farming, because we need both, and the prize is there if the Government can start thinking in a more Norwegian manner.