Associate feature: Testing the water
For the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO), the year 2020 was always going to be a time for working with the salmon sector to meet the bigger challenges facing the world.
The sector was busy setting a vision for the future of the key Scottish sector during what was already shaping up to be a historic period of change. What opportunities could be seized to make sure the Scottish brand could play a role in feeding a growing world, while being a positive actor in tackling climate change? These were some of the questions at the forefront of Atholl Duncan’s mind, as chair of the SSPO.
“And then COVID came along and it created a crossroads for the sector,” Duncan tells Holyrood.
“But coming out of this I think it makes the vision of how you reset the sector even more important, going forward.”
In the initial phase of the disruption caused by the coronavirus lockdown, the sector had to rapidly make adjustments to workflow, on farms and in processing plants, to make the workplace safe and to cope with the possibility of workers self-isolating and becoming unwell.
Then there was the task of protecting the supply chain, making sure product was still reaching supermarket shelves here in the UK. International markets shut down almost overnight – there was a 40 per cent drop in the volume of exports in the year’s first quarter, a period that only covers the initial impact of the lockdown. Q2 figures could be even worse for the UK’s biggest food export.
“Throughout it all has been the priority of how we keep our people safe,” Duncan says. And through it all, the sector has coped remarkably well, thanks in no small part, he believes, to the agility of producers.
“I think the sector has been very resilient through all this. It is an innovative sector,” he says.
Duncan points to some companies selling fish directly in the local areas where they are based. Others have begun freezing and shipping fillets to the re-opening Asian markets, while the passenger planes which normally deliver fresh fish to European and American markets remain grounded.
But, for the most part, salmon-producing countries have had to hold on to stock, creating a global oversupply.
“The world’s fish are in the water when they should be in the market,” he says.
Employees in the sector have largely remained in work over the lockdown, Duncan says consequently the sector hasn’t needed to rely on the UK Government job retention scheme.
“I think if anything good comes from all this it’s that it highlighted the hidden heroes of our food supply chains,” Duncan says.
“In the modern world people don’t think very much about how the food gets on the supermarket shelves. But here there are people working in very difficult operational circumstances and very difficult personal circumstances, concerned about their own health and about their family’s health and how their children were being schooled and where their children were going when they are at work through quite a scary period.
“The hidden heroes of the salmon sector deserve to be recognised, praised and applauded,” he adds.
As governments around the world survey the landscape of the post-COVID economy, Duncan thinks the salmon sector could play an important role in rebuilding and moving forward.
“The economic impact of this for Scotland is going to be massive and it’s going to go on for a long time. We need to focus on the sectors where there is opportunity,” he says.
“Scottish salmon is a world famous premium brand. I speak to some of the global chief executives of the salmon companies and they say to me ‘we can’t get enough Scottish salmon, why can’t you give us more Scottish salmon’.
“It brings this incredible employment to our rural areas and there are markets that would take more and more Scottish salmon and there are markets as yet under-developed.
“So, my message to the people who are thinking about the Scottish economy going forward after this is Scottish salmon has a huge part to play in getting Scotland and the Scottish economy back on her feet again.”
Re-establishing access to global markets is a pressing first step, Duncan thinks. But he argues that there’s more that could be done to ensure the sector flourishes post-COVID.
“It’s time to reset our vision for Salmon farming in Scotland and to do that in conjunction with government, regulators, stakeholders and the communities where we work,” he says.
“That vision is where we are world-leading in producing healthy and sustainable food.
“We need to be world-leading in our environmental responsibility, and that’s what needs to come out of this from the sector’s point of view. We need to set ourselves more ambitious, bolder targets about our environmental responsibility.
“At the moment, quite a lot of our regulation focuses on what’s happening in the water. We want to be the most environmentally responsible aquaculture production in the world.
“This is a moment to pause, reflect, reset and position ourselves to grow in a sustainable way after COVID-19.”
This piece was sponsored by SSPO