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Sustainable Aquaculture

– in the Scottish Parliament on 5th June 2019.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The first item of business is a statement by Fergus Ewing, on progress in delivering a sustainable aquaculture sector. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am pleased to set out to Parliament the progress that is being made to deliver a sustainable aquaculture sector in Scotland. Last year, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee contributed to the debate on the farmed salmon sector. The committees concluded that in relation to regulatory arrangements for the sector the status quo was not an option. The Scottish Government agreed with that conclusion: today’s statement demonstrates our determination to deliver the necessary changes to strengthen the arrangements.

Before I describe those changes, I want to make reference to wild salmonids and the potential impact on them from sea lice in and around fish farms. We are, of course, extremely concerned about the serious declines in wild Atlantic salmon populations right across the north-east Atlantic. The reasons for the declines are multifactorial.

We have identified 12 major groups of pressures that are impacting on wild salmon stocks, and we recognise that aquaculture is one of the pressures. Sea lice are, of course, ubiquitous in the marine environment and have the potential to impact on wild and farmed fish. That is why we established a salmon interactions working group, which is making good progress in collating recommendations for a future approach to managing farmed and wild fish interactions. That group is aided by a technical working group, which is developing practical arrangements for improving regulation in the area. Its work is informed by regulatory regimes elsewhere, including Norway. Discussions are on-going to develop proposals: the group aims to issue those for public consultation this summer.

I have mentioned those developments simply to emphasise that we are serious about delivering a broad programme of reform; the changes that I am announcing today are only the first part of that programme.

The Scottish Government has completed its review of Scotland’s farmed fish sea lice policy. Two years have passed since changes to the policy were last introduced. To put that in context, that represents one fish farming cycle in the marine environment. As a result of the review, we will be making the following changes to the current policy.

First, we will in 2020 introduce new legislation that will require all marine fish farms to report a weekly sea lice number to the Scottish Government’s fish health inspectorate, one week in arrears. The sector has already recognised that it must become more open and transparent, and has in the past year announced its own sea lice publication plans. However, we will take action to strengthen the statutory basis of our sea lice regime in order to ensure a consistent approach and to deliver confidence in the system.

The introduction of legislation will remove any ambiguity about reporting requirements and will deliver more detailed information about salmon and rainbow trout farms. Crucially, it will provide data to enable monitoring of specific farms and issues as they arise, and to allow for further policy change, if needed. To ensure openness and transparency, every sea lice report will be published.

Secondly, from the next reporting week, we will reduce the current reporting and intervention thresholds from three and eight average adult female lice per fish to two and six, respectively. Those thresholds are an average of adult female lice per fish on the farm, and are calculated by following established counting and recording protocols. That change means that fish farms will now be expected to report at much lower sea lice levels to the Scottish Government’s fish health inspectorate, which will allow for earlier intervention and enforcement action being taken. We will publish an updated enforcement information sheet to that effect, which will include a simplified enforcement process.

Thirdly, today I am also committing in the medium term—unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary—to a further reduction of the sea lice reporting and intervention thresholds to two and four average adult female lice per fish. That further reduction will happen, if confirmed by a review of the evidence, 12 months following the implementation of the new statutory reporting regime. I mentioned that the changes to the intervention levels are being introduced following just one fish farming cycle in the marine environment. It must be recognised that those timescales are actually very short in terms of the fish farming production cycle, and we must ensure that farmers can adapt and make necessary investments.

Finally, I am announcing today that we will explore how to introduce third-party independent checks on fish farms’ sea lice counts to ensure the accuracy of the information that is provided to the Scottish Government.

Taken together, the new measures signal a major shift from self-regulation to statutory regulation. They also seek to move to an approach that supports prevention through robust and independent monitoring. The new sea lice management policy will not operate in isolation. All marine salmon producers will continue to follow the code of good practice for Scottish fin-fish aquaculture, which includes points of compliance on sea lice and national treatment standards. Adherence to the code, alongside voluntary monitoring and early intervention by salmon producers, as well as investment in new technologies, has resulted in 2018 having the lowest annual average reported sea lice levels since records started to be made available, which was back in 2013.

The changes that I am announcing will ensure that efforts to control and minimise the prevalence of sea lice will be maintained and, indeed, exceeded in the future. The improvements to date have been supported by investment since 2016 of £13 million of European Union and Scottish Government funding, through the European maritime and fisheries fund, in 48 aquaculture projects, which has unlocked more than £25 million total sector expenditure in innovation and new technologies to address the issue. Hydrolicer, Thermolicer and permaskirt technologies to tackle sea lice have all been supported, in addition to cleaner-fish hatchery projects being supported. At the same time, the sector has invested about £53.5 million over the past three years on lice-removing technologies.

The review of the farmed salmon sea lice policy has been progressed as a key strand of Scotland’s 10-year farmed fish health framework. Work is also under way, through the framework, to ensure that we lead on information sharing, that we support and promote innovation in fish health management, and that we deliver on other sea lice actions, such as creating a sea lice modelling and farm connectivity action plan. A wider update on progress on all those strands will be provided to Parliament in due course.

This week, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency published a new fin-fish regulatory framework, which seeks to strengthen protection of Scotland’s marine environment and enable sustainable growth of aquaculture in the right places. The framework will be implemented through improvements to the existing controlled activities regulations—CAR—licensing process. SEPA is now using the best modelling available so that it can better predict and monitor environmental effects. In addition to the introduction and enforcement of a tighter organic waste standard, the improved modelling will mean that risks to local environments will be better understood and can be better managed. That approach will allow assessment of larger-scale impacts, including interactions with other farms, to be carried out.

Tougher regulation will ensure that farms are sited in the most appropriate areas. It will also mean that sites that might have the potential to increase sustainably without threatening sea-bed environmental standards will be able to do so.

Taken together, the measures demonstrate the progress that is being made in changing our approach to regulating the aquaculture sector. They also show our intention to continue to work with the industry and alongside our independent regulator to ensure that appropriate and proportionate action is taken to allow the sector to grow sustainably while protecting our marine environment. Ensuring that growth in Scottish aquaculture is sustainable is key to its future success.

We must continue to apply high health and welfare standards in order to ensure that Scotland can continue to produce a world-class and high-quality product that is one of the most eco-efficient and sustainable forms of healthy protein available to feed the growing global population.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow about 20 minutes for questions.

Photo of Peter Chapman Peter Chapman Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for the prior sight of his statement.

Let me be quite clear: I welcome the statement. The reports on Scottish salmon from the REC Committee and the ECCLR Committee showed that the status quo is unacceptable, and it is positive to hear of the progress that the salmon interactions working group and technical working group are making. It is important to recognise that, if the industry is to grow, it must grow sustainably.

I welcome the announcement that there will be legislation to require salmon farms to publish lice numbers weekly, and I welcome the announcement of a reduction in reporting and intervention thresholds, which follows the advice in the REC Committee report.

It is important that the weekly reports on lice numbers are published. Will the cabinet secretary say when the figures will be published?

I appreciate that the cabinet secretary acknowledged that his planned timescale for the introduction of legislation is short. It is important that fish farmers are able to plan and make the necessary preparations and upgrades to make the new system happen. However, it is also important and correct that the legislation should be introduced early in 2020. Will the cabinet secretary give us a clearer timescale for when new regulations will come into being?

The appropriate technologies are essential to the carrying out of lice checks, especially if that is to be done weekly. What support will be made available to smaller fish farms, which might not have the funds or infrastructure to achieve what is required timeously?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I very much welcome the approach that Mr Chapman, speaking on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives, is taking. That is very much appreciated and I think that it reflects the cross-party support for sustainable aquaculture that was expressed in the major debate on the committees’ reports.

Mr Chapman asked when the legislation will come into force. The Parliament will be aware that uncertainties around Brexit remain and that there is potential for changes in the legislative timetable. Those are practical aspects, which the First Minister, the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans and the Cabinet must take into account. Given the uncertainties, it is not possible to be categoric at the current time.

However, I expect that the legislation will come into force in 2020. It might be helpful to Mr Chapman if I say that my officials are considering the reporting requirements of new legislation, and if I confirm that draft legislation will be put to public consultation for full scrutiny—openness, transparency and straightforwardness are what we require.

Mr Chapman asked about support for companies in the farmed salmon sector that are smaller and perhaps less financially resourced than the majors, which are very robust and substantial companies, by and large. We want all possible practical support to be available to all players who operate on such a basis.

I recognise that, across the board, there has been a tremendous desire and tremendous action on the part of all the companies involved to take the necessary steps, including substantial investment, to address problems such as sea lice levels and amoebic gill disease in a robust and comprehensive fashion. I am very pleased that the sea lice levels that the sector reported last year are the lowest for six years, which I think proves that substantial progress has been made. I am pleased that Mr Chapman welcomed that.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for the prior sight of his statement.

Aquaculture is extremely important to the economy of rural Scotland, so it is imperative that we get the regulation right and build an excellent reputation for our produce. That is important not just for our economy but for our health, as our diets often lack enough oily fish.

The cabinet secretary states that the technical working group is developing practical arrangements for improving regulation. The Norwegian system, which is more streamlined and crucially also focuses on animal health, is cited by the industry and those expressing concerns as providing the best regulatory regime. Therefore, why is the cabinet secretary delaying the implementation of a system along the same lines?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I appreciate Rhoda Grant’s support for the sector. I do not think that it is fair to charge us with delaying. As I made clear in my statement, changes must be made to the two-year cycle.

I am often questioned as to why the Norwegian fish farming industry works in a different way. The Scottish Government sea lice compliance policy does not operate in isolation. It acts as a backstop on occasions when things go wrong. The two systems are different. In many ways, the system in Scotland is said to be very robust by stakeholders, but there are areas in which we need to improve. One of them is regulation of sea lice, which is why I have taken the steps today to announce that tighter standards will be introduced.

I am pleased that the industry has worked closely with us in developing the policy, and that industry and stakeholders are working on the various groups of the fish health framework and the various sub-committees, including those relating to wild salmon. It is key that we work together in Scotland and, in particular, listen carefully to practical ways in which we can make progress. Today illustrates that we are taking steps to tighten the regulation on sea lice, and I am pleased that the industry has welcomed the approach that we are taking.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have 10 members and 13 minutes, so I ask members to be neat with their questions to let others get in.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

The cabinet secretary will be aware that there is still a serious concern with large fish farms being granted consent by breaking up into two or more applications, when in fact they are operating as a single farm. That means that cumulative environmental impacts are not fully considered. SEPA has said that the new modelling—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I want your question please, Mr Ruskell.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

Will the cabinet secretary commit to reviewing existing farms that were granted permission under multiple applications, using the new modelling that SEPA has just announced to give an accurate picture of their impacts.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The existing system contains provision for monitoring, as we well know. Today, we are indicating that tighter standards will apply in relation to sea lice. That is one of several aspects. I also covered the measures that SEPA is taking on the use of treatments in my statement—which Mr Ruskell heard.

I am very pleased that the industry has invested substantially in alternatives to treatment—thermalisers, cleaner fish, skirting and other techniques—and substantial progress is being made.

I do not think that I can agree to Mr Ruskell’s request. I note that SEPA has suggested a different form of modelling. It will bring that forward and put it into action, and we look forward to working very carefully with it to achieve the shared aim, which I hope we all support, of an increasingly sustainable aquaculture sector in Scotland.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Norwegian industry is trialling a mechanism to filter fish medicines out of the water that is used to treat fish. Will he immediately ensure that those trials are replicated in Scotland, to the benefit of the marine environment and the industry, and will he reject any further consideration of a fish farm feed limit, given its well-known damaging consequences on fish quality, as Norway again has demonstrated?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I welcome Mr Scott’s support for the sector, as always. He is a stalwart supporter of the aquaculture sector, and it is extremely important in his constituency. We absolutely welcome the development of Benchmark’s CleanTreat system, which has been trialled in Norway. I am delighted that discussions are already taking place with Scottish regulators regarding a Scottish trial. It is not up to me to decide whether that trial should go ahead but, as Mr Scott has indicated, it makes sense that we should be trialling new innovative products and techniques that can help to secure the objective of a sustainable sector that we all share.

I am advised that SEPA is considering whether to move to using a feed limit or to retain a biomass limit to regulate fish farms. Over the next three months, SEPA will consult with all interested stakeholders on the options. I am pleased that it will engage substantially with the industry, and I am sure that Mr Scott will ensure that the companies that operate in his constituency will play a part in those discussions.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Salmon is one of our most important food exports. How has the industry performed this year, and what is it doing to improve its environmental sustainability credentials?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The industry is performing well. It directly employs more than 2,000 people and contributes around £220 million in gross value added to the economy. The wider impacts across the supply chain are estimated to represent £620 million in GVA and 12,000 jobs. Further, as I have said before in the chamber, those jobs are well remunerated; the average annual salary in the fish farming sector is around £34,000, and many of the jobs are on the periphery of the country, where there are no alternative opportunities of that type. That is extremely important.

Companies have contributed enormously to improving their operations and sustainability. Mowi has invested around £100 million in its Kyleakin feed plant and £26.5 million in its new Inchmore hatchery at Glenmoriston, which I had the privilege of opening; Scottish Sea Farms has invested around £50 million in its new hatchery at Barcaldine; Loch Duart recently announced that it will invest £1.2 million in new feed barges; and substantial investments have been made by the Scottish Salmon Company, Cooke Aquaculture, Gael Force Aquaculture and others. The industry is investing heavily, and those investments are going directly to improve the sustainability of aquaculture.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

I welcome the general thrust of the proposals, which, I believe, will help fish farms to become better neighbours to those who share their environment. Is there a plan to increase enforcement once the proposals are brought in? We know that, in the past, enforcement in this sector has been very poor.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Obviously, enforcement plays a part. The higher standards are primarily intended to further drive forward improved practice.

Although we have tightened up the reporting and intervention thresholds from three and eight adult female lice per fish to two and six, respectively, the actual performance of most of the companies is far higher. I see that Mr Mountain is shaking his head, but the facts that I have seen indicate that the actual levels of sea lice that are found are much lower.

Enforcement is important and must be dealt with independently by those who are responsible for it. That approach will continue. I am not sure that I accept Mr Mountain’s thesis, but I would say that we take enforcement seriously, and that the steps that I have announced today, which involve an aspect of independent audit of the process, will increase transparency, which I hope everyone supports.

Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

On the sea lice numbers, will the cabinet secretary outline why a phased approach is being taken and say how the chosen figures were arrived at?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

We believe that a phased approach is the correct approach to drive forward best practice while enabling companies to alter and improve their practice in practical terms. We have today indicated that regulation will be tightened up, which I think is something that the companies regard as being welcome in order to demonstrate the good work that is being done to further improve fish health in Scotland.

Photo of Claudia Beamish Claudia Beamish Labour

I welcome the commitment on compulsory public reporting of sea lice data on a farm-by-farm basis, and other measures, as it reflects an amendment that I lodged during the passage of the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Act 2013, but which was rejected by the Scottish Government.

On the welfare of farmed fish, will the cabinet secretary assure the chamber that any plans for closed containment will be fully tested against animal welfare standards? At the other end of the scale, will he assure the chamber that SEPA’s shift to encouraging applications for larger fish farms in deeper waters will not simply disperse the fish faeces and medicines more widely in the marine environment, pushing them out of sight and out of mind?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That question was at the edge of being too long, but never mind.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Yes, I can confirm that impacts on all forms of the marine system, including marine life, will be considered carefully. I assure Claudia Beamish that all aspects of providing a sustainable aquaculture industry in Scotland will be considered in relation to future applications.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that any proposals that are taken forward will not impact adversely on businesses that work closely with the aquaculture industry, such as W & J Knox in Kilbirnie? Founded in 1778, it employs 130 local people who clean and repair nets, and it is at the forefront of developing technology to stop lice penetrating fish tanks and to dissuade seals, in non-lethal ways, from eating the fish.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

If I may say so, that was an excellent question from Mr Gibson. It illustrates the point that not all the jobs are on our coasts and islands; many of the jobs that the industry sustains are inland, in our towns and cities, and throughout Scotland.

It is an important Scottish industry, which is not confined solely to the periphery. Companies such as

W & J Knox are vital to the success of the industry. Seal management is a priority, and Mr Gibson eloquently pointed out the improved practices that the company in his constituency is contributing towards.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

The cabinet secretary said:

“tougher regulation will ensure that farms are sited in the most appropriate areas.

However, one of the committee’s recommendations was about addressing the issue of the relocation of historically poorly-sited farms. What special assistance will be given to fish farms that want to relocate, but which face regulatory or financial barriers in doing so?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The appropriate location of sites is a material factor that is taken into account for all applications. That approach will be followed by the various parties that are involved—as Mr Greene knows, various parties are involved—in the operation of existing sites as well as in the appropriate siting of new sites; those matters will be taken into account. If Mr Greene has any particular concerns, I would be happy to hear from him about them.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

In light of the cabinet secretary’s welcome announcements today, what steps does he intend to take to promote closer working between SEPA, Crown Estate Scotland and other agencies?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

My colleague Roseanna Cunningham has joined me, and has pointed out that she has responsibility in respect of SEPA.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

And the Crown Estate, she adds.

We all accept in the Scottish Government the duty of all public bodies, Scottish Government agencies and regulators to work together as a team to achieve our different purposes and, in the case of regulators, statutory functions. Of course, as I am sure is uppermost in the minds of members, all regulators are bound by the terms of the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014, in particular, section 4.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

The key to success in this relatively new industry is innovation. A great example of that is the creation of the international centre for aquaculture research and development at the University of Aberdeen, with its innovative farm-to-fork approach. What other investment is going on in that area in our learning institutions throughout Scotland?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

As I outlined in my initial statement, substantial investment is going on in respect of research. That investment is seen in bodies such as the Scottish aquaculture innovation centre—SAIC—which is headed up by Heather

Jones and which does excellent work.

In addition, the Scottish Government has invested around £13 million in research, which has levered in around £25 million from industry. My colleague Roseanna Cunningham recently enabled the investment of £500,000 in research into how we improve the general issue of interactions between wild salmon and other multifactorial issues. We are investing heavily, because that is extremely important for Scotland and the objectives of both the industry and a clean environment—those go hand in hand.