Associate feature: Momentous change for the salmon sector
Having to appear before a parliamentary committee just two days after you’ve started a new job would count as a challenging start for most.
But for Tavish Scott, the new chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, the experience of giving evidence to Holyrood’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee in mid-November was tinged with the surreal.
It was the first time he had returned to parliament since stepping down as a Lib Dem MSP last year after 20 years representing Shetland.
“I game-faced it, I absolutely game-faced it, and I know they knew that because they all know me far too well,” he says cheerfully. “I was very careful to be respectful of colleagues in spite of knowing some of them for 20 years.”
It was not, to be fair, his first time as a committee witness. As a minister in the Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive, he was often grilled by fellow MSPs and learned the hard way not to expect easy balls, even from his own side – the worst question he ever had came at him, as a junior finance minister, from a Labour friend and colleague.
Going back before a committee as head of the SSPO, he had a positive story to tell about the salmon industry.
Two years ago, MSPs published a report detailing concerns about fish mortality, sea lice and other persistent issues it wanted the industry to resolve.
Scott was able to demonstrate all the work that had been done during the time of his predecessor Julie Hesketh-Laird: “We submitted to the committee a pretty decent dossier showing not only that we’d met all their recommendations and their requirements of the salmon farming sector but that we’d exceeded them.
“We showed the investment, we showed the technological advances, and what we would like to do in terms of innovation, and we wedded that submission to our new sustainability charter which sets out big aspirations for how we as a sector will play our part in tackling climate change.
“We want to be front and centre of the change Scotland needs to make to be net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.”
Scott describes the SSPO’s sustainability charter, A Better Future For Us All, as “a momentous change for the sector”.
It covers every aspect of salmon farming and includes a raft of pledges.
As well as the net zero commitment and signing up to use 100 per cent renewable power, it pledges to make fish feed ingredients 100 per cent sustainable and fully traceable, to work towards fully recyclable packaging and it sets key targets for fish health and welfare, community support, employment and the highest food standards.
Fish farmers will improve pen structures to prevent any fish escaping into the wider environment and work with government and regulators to establish innovation sites to try out new technology.
There will also be a new focus on qualifications, careers and a diverse workforce.
This won’t all happen in 12 months, notes Scott, because new technology has to be trialled and brought on stream, but he has confidence in the momentum for change.
Where salmon farming could use some assistance, however, is in having more streamlined regulation.
“We’re a very heavily regulated industry and rightly so, we should be heavily regulated. We’re not arguing for less regulation – that would be wrong.
“But we have argued for better and more efficient regulation.”
It makes no sense, he says, that a prospective salmon farmer has to apply for four different permissions from four different bodies.
This thicket of paperwork is hampering the sector which is losing market share globally, he notes. “The costs of production in Scotland are higher than in other salmon-producing countries.
“No system will be perfect. Norwegian farmers complain about their regulation too, but it costs us more as a sector than other comparable salmon-producing nations.”
The good news, he says, is that there is a sense of “shared endeavour” that action to streamline regulation is necessary among MSPs on the rural economy committee, ministers like Fergus Ewing, Roseanna Cunningham and Kate Forbes, and the sector itself.
He is pleased that Annabel Turpie has been appointed as the new chief executive of Marine Scotland, one of the regulatory bodies.
“I think she’s very sensible both in looking at the issue and addressing it, so I have lots of personal confidence that that’s going to be a very good step forward.”
Scott feels an affinity with the salmon sector which comes from his years representing Shetland (“I don’t know how many meetings, speeches, parliamentary questions and ministerial delegations I have been involved in about salmon in 25 years”).
He also has some experience of agricultural regulation, having a family farm on Shetland, which used to be run by his parents and is now run by the eldest of his four children, Lorna.
He describes salmon company managing directors as a “formidable group” he is pleased to be representing and is enthusiastic about championing the interests of workers on the ground.
“I know what those people are like and they really care about their industry, they care about growing healthy nutritious fish and they do so to the very best of their very considerable abilities.
“I don’t think they get a fair shout”.
Addressing past controversies in the sector, he says he is “absolutely confident” about the improvements that have been made.
“The sector is investing literally millions and millions of pounds to tackle all of the issues which caused us challenges in terms of public perception. We’ve already done a huge amount.”
He understands and accepts that salmon farming attracts a lot of interest from campaigners, and says that he is always available for a debate on “proper robust evidence-based terms” with anyone, but describes a “very small vocal minority who are utterly and implacably opposed to the sector”.
“Salmon is a sector that employs nearly 3,000 people directly in Scotland and has 3,500 supply companies across every constituency in the country, spending £600m of investment in the supply chain, so that’s jobs in every part of Scotland.
“We’ll always be able to have a discussion, but what I think we’ll do now is be, frankly, slightly more robust in dealing with those few who are implacably opposed to us. There is nothing we can do that will ever convince them.”
Scott is talking to Holyrood in the office of his new Edinburgh workplace which, like his old workplace at the parliament, has views of Arthur’s Seat. He arrived here via another job, having worked as head of government affairs for Scottish Rugby for 15 months.
He left parliament because of the appeal of that job – the 54-year-old has been going to Murrayfield since his student days at Napier University – and also because the “grind” of 20 years in parliament had left him ready for a change.
“The big wrench was Shetland. It wasn’t so much the parliament.
“I always had more of a buzz getting on that plane on a Friday morning going home, knowing I had a day in front of me in Shetland dealing with real people doing real things, than with some of the nonsense that goes on in Edinburgh.
“That was the wrench that I suppose I still miss.”
Scott’s farewell speech in parliament in June 2019 was to the Queen.
“It was the Scottish Parliament’s twentieth anniversary gig and Willie Rennie very nicely said would I like to speak in that, after Her Majesty had offered her thoughts on 20 years of devolution, which was a great honour.
“Actually, it was quite the most entertaining time I’d had writing a speech in 20 years.
“I could just reflect a little bit, in three minutes, which makes you really focus on all the great experiences and you can forget all the stuff that was, shall we say, slightly more challenging.”
After leaving, he spent July clipping sheep in Shetland. Scott still has a strong connection with the islands as two of his children are there and he helps with lambing for a week each spring, but he is based for now in Edinburgh.
(His eldest son is a plumber in Shetland while his younger grown-up son is a student at Stirling and his 10-year-old son from his second marriage is in Edinburgh.)
He started his job with Scottish Rugby last August and represented the mothballed sport during the pandemic, dealing with the government from the outside.
Inevitably it made him reflect on his own time in government.
“I thought, you guys are up against it. I dealt as part of the government with the odd crisis but the pandemic is a sustained crisis going on day after day after day with hideous decisions to make about shutting down people’s liberties and difficult calls to make about how to roll out a vaccine and so on. That’s genuinely difficult stuff.
“Irrespective of their politics, it reinforced my strong belief that on the whole people who seek representative office do it for the right reasons.”
Reflecting on leaving parliament himself, he says: “I suppose it’s now gone full circle because I’m back into a place where actually I’m representing people who work in a Shetland industry and one that is vital in so many other parts of Scotland too.”
He wants the industry to be robust in the coming decades, and sees both its sustainability commitments and efforts to streamline regulation as critical to that.
“It really matters, getting it right.”
This article was sponsored by the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation.