Pride and provenance are secret ingredients to Scottish food success
Nick Nairn is one of our best known chefs and a passionate supporter of great Scottish produce. His first visit to a Scottish salmon farm came early in his career when the industry was still finding its feet.
“Back then, it felt like a bit of a cottage industry,” Nick recalls. “People were doing their own thing and there was no sense of scale.” How things have changed. Salmon is now Scotland’s biggest food export with an export value of over £400m. Global demand for Scottish produce has never been so high and there is great scope to increase salmon exports in the coming years.
From farms in remote areas in the north-west Highlands and Islands, salmon is now shipped to more than 60 countries worldwide. Export value to the Middle East rose by more than 40 per cent last year. The US is currently the largest importer, followed by France which awarded Scottish farmed salmon the prestigious Label Rouge mark of quality twenty years ago this year.
China allowed imports of Scottish salmon for the first time last year and that market is now growing very quickly. When the Japanese are importing fresh Scottish farmed salmon for use in their sushi, you know you are doing something right!
At home too we are consuming increasing amounts of salmon. Twenty years ago, it was a rare treat but now 1 million fresh farmed salmon meals are eaten in the UK every day and 1 million smoked salmon meals every week. From salads to fishcakes to curries and pasta, salmon has become an integral part of family meals.
There is plenty of advice around about healthy eating and most people know that fish is good for us.
And this is particularly true for oily fish, like salmon, which is packed full of Omega 3 essential fatty acids.
It seems that we’re listening to this advice as fresh fish has been the fastest growing protein consumed over the past eight years, with spending up 64 per cent.
This positive dietary shift and economic impact wouldn’t have happened without salmon farming.
In 1980, 8 per cent of fish consumed in the world was produced by aquaculture – that’s now nearly 50 per cent. Aquaculture is increasingly used across the world to feed demand for fish. Our waters are especially well-suited to salmon farming and so far, we have capitalised on this.
Recently Nick Nairn visited the Scottish Sea Farms site at South Shian near Oban to investigate how the industry has changed and developed in the past decade or so. The staff on farms have a strong sense of professionalism and pride in what they do. Geoff Kidd has worked in salmon farming for more than 30 years and gave Nick a sense of the changes that have taken place.
“The challenge now is we are competing on a world market. We have to emphasise quality not quantity.
Our production is very heavily regulated. There are a lot of hoops to jump through and the whole industry wants to monitor to make sure we are the best we possibly can be,” said Geoff.
“It’s been a number of years since I was last on a fish farm and I was immediately struck by how clean and tidy and organised it was. Everything feels pristine and the fish looked in magnificent condition – really healthy fish,” Nick said.
The salmon farming industry is possibly the most regulated food production industry in the world. It can demonstrate very high standards of production, fish health and welfare and environmental responsibility. Recognition by top chefs and a place on the menu in top restaurants in Paris, Dubai and Moscow are testimony to the quality and production standards here in Scotland. But there is a fear that additional regulation will damage competitiveness and that prized market position.
The Scottish Government’s proposed Aquaculture & Fisheries Bill, which is due to be introduced to Parliament this autumn, has cast a shadow over the industry.
In response to the consultation, over 1,000 salmon farm employees and their families registered their fears that more legislation in an already highly regulated industry could prove deeply damaging.
Industry surveys reveal 86 per cent of salmon farmers want to increase staff and grow substantially over the next five years. The fear is that instead, the Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill could send investment overseas if extra layers of bureaucracy make it harder to operate in Scotland.
Scottish companies have to compete on the same level with the bigger farms and lower costs in Norway and Chile. More regulation could damage profitability and restrict access to capital development and future growth of the industry in Scotland.
If the proposed Fisheries & Aquaculture Bill goes ahead, it would have wide-reaching consequences beyond the industry and have an impact on the 2,124 people directly employed in Scottish salmon farming.
Last year the industry created 272 new jobs and spent £435m, supporting a network of processors and associated businesses around the country. The Scottish Government estimates that 6,200 jobs are dependent on the salmon farming industry. All could be affected by the legislation.
Most of these jobs are concentrated in economically fragile rural communities. For example, there are 680 people employed on fish farms in the Highlands alone. Ninety of those were created in the past year. Over the past five years, £72m in local wage payments in Highland region alone generated £330m of economic benefit as local wage payments tend to be spent locally.
These sorts of figures can be seen in all the areas where salmon farming operates. In fact there is a reported 83 per cent increase in value to the Highlands and Island communities over the last five years.
These days, fathers and sons working together is relatively rare but salmon farming is a business where members of the same family can and do work for the same employer. Experienced workers relish the opportunity to share their knowledge with young people coming into the sector. Davy Corrigan, farm manager for Marine Harvest has a team of 11 young people aged 18-25, all of whom were born and brought up in the Fort William and Arisaig area.
There is a waiting list of other youngsters keen to get a job there with Marine Harvest. Young, enthusiastic people with energy and commitment want to work in an industry that gives them a chance to live and work where their families are, to be active in the local community, and to have a career path and new opportunities.
Davy said: “Scottish salmon farming is already very highly regulated and on top of that, farm managers like myself spend hundreds of hours handling audits from major UK supermarkets, RSPCA Freedom Food, the industry’s Code of Good Practice and the Global Gap scheme. We know from these audits how well we perform and how successful salmon farming is and what it does for the Scottish economy.” Ten years ago, Nick Nairn’s book, Top 100 Salmon Recipes shot to the top of the BBC list of best-selling books. It remains a firm favourite on kitchen shelves around the land.
“When I sat down to write it, I was worried about finding 100 great salmon recipes,” remembers Nick.
“In the end, the real problem was what to leave out.” “It’s easy to see why the industry is going through such a strong period of expansion,” says Nick. “You only have to look at the end result. The flesh is firm and not flabby or greasy, it is a brilliant specimen and fit for anyone’s plate.
“The industry has changed beyond all recognition from what I saw on my first visits, all those years ago. It is modern, efficient and well run and I’m not surprised the international export market has woken up to what it has to offer.
“Scottish farmed salmon is a world-class product – so let’s not legislate to lose it.”