Can we imagine any farm in Scotland on which the animals are covered in flesh-eating parasites that cause disease, and on which up to a third of its livestock dies before reaching market? Such a farm would surely be the subject of many questions from politicians, its peers and the media, and it would feel the full weight of our regulatory regimes. Such a farm would make no environmental or moral sense, and it would make no commercial sense, even to the farmer. Why is a farm in water any different from a farm on land? One is an established form of practice, which we have been doing for hundreds—arguably thousands—of years, and the other is a fledgling industry in which there has been monumental growth in demand for its product during its relatively short lifespan.
That is the conundrum that I faced from day 1 of the salmon farming inquiry. How do we strike the balance between supporting what is undoubtedly and undeniably a proud Scottish industry of great importance to our economy, and, equally, being bold enough to say that the status quo is simply not good enough?
We spent months taking evidence—often in the face of hyperbolic and apocalyptic headlines—with emotions running high on all sides of the debate, as today has shown. From day 1, we were expected to assume one side of the argument or the other. Are we in favour of, or against, fish farms? Do we favour a moratorium, or are we against it? Are fish farms the reason for stock reductions in wild salmon, or are they not? Against that backdrop, it seemed as though the committee had an impossible task.
The role of the REC Committee’s report was partially, but not exclusively, to examine the environmental aspects of salmon farming. We also had a duty to consider the social, financial, employment and export aspects of the industry.
Recommendation 1 set the scene. It said:
“if the industry is to grow”,
it must identify solutions to the “challenges” that it faces. Recommendation 2 went on to say that
“if the industry is to grow ... meaningful action needs to be taken to address regulatory deficiencies”.
What is the difference between those two statements? The first shines a light on the need for the industry to tackle its own problems and the second says that we also need to sort out the regulatory environment in which it operates. Both are necessary.
The 2030 vision of growing the industry is admirable and, as a Parliament, we should be positive about it. The industry supports up to 10,000 jobs in Scotland and brings nearly £2 billion to our economy. A lot has been achieved and I want the industry to grow, but growth cannot and must not come at any cost.
Over the course of our deliberations, I have not met anyone who is blind to or ignorant of the massive challenges that the industry faces, but I, too, have stood in the cold waters of Scottish rivers—none of them my own—rod in hand, with nothing to catch but the cold. I believe that if we get salmon farming right, and with the right partnerships in place, we should and could work collectively to get to a place where we are proud of our product and the industry can grow in a responsible and regulated manner.
I will share some further thoughts. First, a recurring theme in the debate and from the report is that the current regulatory framework meets the needs of neither producers, nor those with serious concerns about the industry. Only a robust and enforceable approach to regulation will be acceptable in order to address the concerns that many have about animal welfare and about the environmental effects of the rapid growth that we have seen.
Secondly, the same goes for the planning and consent process. It relies on subjective interpretation of what is in the public good.
Thirdly, grow the industry, but do not grow for growing’s sake; salmon producers accept that. We must compete with Chile, Norway and Canada, but it is not a race to the bottom. Farmed Scottish salmon should enjoy the highest quality standards. Let us be world leading in every respect.
Last and more important is the siting of fish farms. My view is that we should give serious consideration to closed containment or onshore sites; moving sites that are in sensitive areas; and potentially closing those sites where everyone agrees that mortality levels are unsustainable or that are repeat offenders. Let us also have an informed and sensible debate about offshore farms; they are not the great panacea that some people believe them to be.
We should give serious consideration to the traffic light system that exists in Norway; it would allow the different parts of Scotland to do what it is right for their region and environment.
There is so much more that I wish I had time to cover. Debate is certainly not over. I support the growth of the Scottish salmon industry, but let the message also be heard: we are watching and we will act.