Today’s debate has shown that business as usual is not an option for salmon farming in Scotland. The industry has been encouraged by the Scottish Government to hit ambitious growth targets, but the Government has not yet put in place the necessary regulatory framework to manage that expansion in a way that properly protects our environment and animal welfare. As a result, environmental and welfare shortcomings are in danger of adversely impacting on the economic and social benefits of salmon farming that many members have highlighted in the debate.
The committee also highlighted those benefits. The very first sentence of the report states:
“The Committee acknowledges both the economic and social value that the salmon farming industry brings to Scotland.”
The report goes on to highlight that aquaculture is worth £620 million a year. It supports 12,000 jobs—many of which are high skilled—that are of huge importance to peripheral rural communities, which can be fragile, with limited alternative employment markets. In its public evidence to the committee, Grieg Seafood Shetland Ltd set out the broader social and community benefits that the jobs provide. It stated that they help
“to support sustainable rural communities by providing year-round stable employment. This in turn helps to keep rural schools, post offices, shops and community halls open.”
The economic and social contributions of salmon farming were well aired during the committee’s inquiry. However, despite the importance of those contributions, unless the Government and industry tackle the environmental and animal welfare issues that are highlighted in the report, the industry will not grow sustainably and the economic and social benefits will be at risk.
It is not just salmon farming that is at risk of being undermined by the type of poor practice that is highlighted in the RECC report and in the earlier report by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. Fin and creel fishers told the committee that salmon farms can make their work more difficult and potentially dangerous by pushing them out of the most productive areas. Others mentioned the environmental damage that is being done in respect of marine tourism and wild salmon.
What are the issues that could undermine salmon farming that we need to tackle? As several members have highlighted in the debate, farmed salmon has exceptionally high mortality rates. OneKind’s written evidence to the committee stated:
“Mortality rates are estimated to be over 20%. In 2016, over 10 million salmon died on Scottish salmon farms. Recent data published by the Scottish Government on the Scotland’s Aquaculture website suggests that this figure increased to over 11 million in 2017.”
The RECC highlighted that particular sites had especially high mortality rates and made it clear that we believe that expansion should not be permitted at such sites. There were recommendations on the need to collect more up-to-date data on mortality rates, and the committee rightly called for more tangible enforcement powers, including the ability to prevent expansion at sites at which there are high mortality rates, and a mechanism to limit or to close down production when particularly severe events occur.
Enforcement also needs to be strengthened through a revised compliance policy that includes appropriate penalties. I appreciate that the strategic farmed fish health framework working group is looking at a number of the issues, but after years of problems—and not one, but two, damning committee reports—there is still no commitment from the Government to make in full the changes that are needed.
The changes are not just about placing more requirements on the sector, but about how we support the industry to make improvements. The RECC received evidence on the frustration that is felt by many people in the sector about the disjointed and inconsistent nature of the regulatory systems. Local authorities, Marine Scotland, Crown Estate Scotland, SEPA and the Animal and Plant Health Agency are all involved in decision making in the industry, which has created a confusing and fragmented regulatory landscape.
Dr Richard Luxmoore from Scottish Environment LINK called for
“a single streamlined process in which a person submits a single application for a fish farm and all the impacts are considered together.”—[
Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee
, 14 March 2018; c 27.]
Although the feasibility of such a system remains to be seen, it is undeniable that we need a more integrated process. The committee’s report reflected that important point. It noted that the system is
“spread across several regulatory bodies” and described the current situation as
“confusing and ... poorly coordinated”.
The committee highlighted the need for significant improvements to the
“co-ordination of and interaction between the various elements of the regulatory regime”.
I appreciate that work is under way to address some of those issues, in particular with regard to SEPA’s responsibilities, but further bold action is needed.
If there is one aspect of the report that I am disappointed by, it is the committee’s decision to dismiss calls for a moratorium, on which it stated in its recommendations that there is “insufficient evidence”. The committee set out the changes that we need the industry and Government to make: I agree that it is only fair that they have an opportunity to make those changes. However, I believe that if significant improvements are not made, a moratorium should at the very least remain an option, which is why I dissented from the committee’s recommendation to rule it out completely. In many ways, the committee agreed with me and somewhat contradicted itself by going on to state in the report that there should be no expansion in the industry until some of the serious problems have been sorted out. Frankly, that sounds a bit like a moratorium to me.
Salmon farming is too important to our economy and to communities to be managed unsustainably. The future of the sector requires that we hold the industry to the highest environmental standards, and that we ensure that it takes animal welfare in aquaculture more seriously. The Government needs to put in place the regulatory framework to achieve that. Work on that has begun, and there have been a number of initiatives and announcements in recent months.
We should be in no doubt that that is in no small part thanks to the work of the ECCLR and REC committees, which have shone a light on the environmental and animal welfare failings of the industry. The recommendations of both committees provide a strong starting point for developing solutions to those failings, and the Government and industry should ensure that the recommendations are fully delivered.