Salmon Farming

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

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Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer. You can read my mind.

I feel a slight uneasiness in speaking about an inquiry report that was published before I took on the post of convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. I record my thanks to Graeme Dey, who was convener at the time of the inquiry and report, and to the committee clerks for the work that they did then and the work that they have done more recently in bringing me up to speed on developments since the report was published.

Against a background of plans to extend production in the aquaculture industry to between 300,000 and 400,000 tonnes by 2030, the

Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee jointly commissioned a review of the scientific evidence on the environmental effects of salmon farming in Scotland. I pay tribute to the REC Committee, which took many of the recommendations in our report and did a great deal of further work on the topic, from its perspective. I echo Edward Mountain’s comments on the merits of joint committee working.

A year has passed since the ECCLR Committee’s report, and it is fair to say that a lot has happened since then. However, before I go on to talk specifically about our findings and recommendations, I want to say that salmon farming has done three very important things for this country. First, it has made salmon affordable for households. When I was growing up, salmon was something that came in a tin and was mashed up and spread thinly on sandwiches at christenings. Now, that rich source of protein and omega 3 oil is an affordable, healthy and fresh alternative option that is no longer the preserve of special occasions.

Secondly, salmon farming is a massive contributor to Scotland’s economy—particularly to our worldwide exports and in relation to job creation in rural areas, as has been mentioned—and its quality is respected the world over.

Thirdly, and most pertinently to the portfolio of my committee, salmon farming is one of the lowest-emissions farming methods, which is a point that is often missed when we discuss the industry.

The industry’s importance is why inquiries such as those that were done by the two committees are so important, as we move forward to expand the sector while enhancing and protecting our global reputation, and protecting the environment that supports the sector. The Scottish Government commissioned a report in 2002 that addressed six main areas of environmental impact. They were disease impacts on wild and farmed stocks, including the impact of sea lice; discharge of waste nutrients and their interaction in the wider marine environment; the effects of discharges of medicines and chemicals from salmon farming; escapes from fish farms and the potential effects on wild populations; the sustainability of feed supplies; and the emerging environmental impacts, including on wild wrasse and marine mammals.

The ECCLR Committee heard from the industry, regulators, communities and non-governmental organisations before reporting to the REC Committee ahead of its inquiry. It was mindful that rapid development and growth of the sector could not take place without a full understanding of the environmental impacts, and aimed to shine a light on them in order to open up a debate on identifying areas for improvement and action. It is clear that current concerns regarding the environmental impacts of salmon farming are the same as the concerns in 2002.

Many of our stakeholders pointed to the lack of a focus on application of the precautionary principle in the development and expansion of the sector. Scotland is at a critical point in terms of considering how salmon farming can develop in an environmentally sustainable way, while at the same time delivering the substantial benefits that I outlined at the beginning of my speech.

Our inquiry found that there are significant gaps in knowledge, data and research on, and in monitoring of, the potential risk that the sector poses to ecosystem functions, their resilience and the supply of ecosystem services. Further information is necessary in order that we can set for the industry realistic targets that fall within environmental limits. We recommended a requirement that the industry fund the independent and independently verified research and development that are needed.

The role, responsibilities and interaction of agencies require review, and agencies need to be funded and resourced appropriately in order fully to meet their environmental duties and obligations. Scotland’s public bodies have a duty to protect biodiversity. That thinking must be to the fore when we consider expansion of the sector. The ECCLR Committee saw that there is a need to progress on the basis of the precautionary principle, and asked the relevant agencies to work together more effectively in that regard.

The committee identified a need for the salmon farming industry to demonstrate that it can effectively manage and mitigate its impacts on the environment. In particular, adaptive management that takes account of the precautionary principle, through use of real-time farm-by-farm data, has the potential to reduce environmental impacts. We called for an ecosystems-based approach to planning the industry’s growth and development in marine and freshwater environments. Such an approach would include identifying where salmon farming can take place and the carrying capacity of that environment.

The ECCLR Committee wanted independent research to be commissioned, including a full cost-benefit analysis of recirculating aquaculture systems, and a comparative analysis of the sector as it currently operates in Scotland. Alongside that work, further development and implementation of alternative technical solutions should be supported by use of incentives.

The committee found that the current consenting and regulatory framework is inadequate to address environmental issues, particularly in relation to sanctions and enforcement. That will not affect the responsible majority of farmers, but a better approach would tackle the few operators that might damage their sector’s reputation if they are not dealt with appropriately.

The ECCLR Committee recognises that there has been considerable further discussion on many of those issues since it reported last year, and that there has been a great deal of Government-led action. We welcome the conclusions of the REC Committee, which supports our findings, and the continuing work that Government agencies are doing to address them. Both committees would like a full commitment—with the necessary urgency across the industry, agencies and the Government—to addressing the complex challenges that we have jointly highlighted. Immediate mandatory reporting on sea lice is still under review, and we look forward to strategic guidance on siting of fish farms, and to revisions to the consenting and regulatory framework.

The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, alongside the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, will continue to examine with great interest the actions of the industry, the agencies and the Scottish Government in responding to the challenges, in order to ensure that our marine and freshwater environments are afforded the necessary protections amid the growth of a hugely important sector for Scotland.