Fine balancing act: The future of Scottish fishfarming
At a time when the image of Scottish fish is very much in the ascendancy, ministers will be faced with a very tough decision later this year.
Having decided more regulation is needed on the country’s fisheries – particularly on the fishfarming industry – it now needs to find a way to bring it about without risking harming both the reputation and profitability of industries which depend on it.
The new Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill will be launched this autumn and during consultation earlier this year, more than 1,000 workers in the salmon farming industry responded with concerns about the potential detrimental effect on employees’ livelihoods.
The Bill is geared towards improving the environment of sea and freshwater fisheries and among its proposals are on-the-spot fines of up to £10,000 for salmon farm workers who breach marine licences, A strict liability rule would mean there is no need to prove the offender had broken the rules deliberately.
It could see powers granted to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to revoke fish farm consents and force the industry to make public data on the level of sea lice in fish farms, which can infect wild salmon.
Jamie McGrigor, Scottish Conservative environment spokesman, a former trout farmer, said there needed to be a balance between improving regulations and ensuring the rural economies were not damaged.
The Highlands and Islands MSP said: “The Government has to get this right. Fish farming started in the late 1970s, early 1980s, it’s high time that the impact of that fish farming was reviewed in the light of what we know now.
“The Bill is going to bring forward a system of regulation and we have to be sensible about this.
The regulations make it possible for fish farmers to fish farm practically and to make money. This is a very important point because a rich fish farm is much more liable to be concerned about wild fish interests than one that is hanging on by its fingertips.” He highlighted the importance of fish farming and the fact that Scottish farmed salmon has attained the French Label Rouge as proof of its quality.
But he added: “Unfortunately, there are side effects that the cages harbour enormous hosts, swarms of sea lice, which can kill the young salmon and sea trout smolts when they are descended to the sea. There’s a perception among the wild fish interests that the salmon farm cages in west coast bays are to blame for much of the decline in the wild runs of salmon and especially sea trout, which used to be very prolific before the 1980s.
“This is a good stage at which to review the situation and learn the lessons of past experience. This is a relatively new industry which has been successful but has also caused a few problems for other stakeholders. Surely, now is a time to iron out what these problems are and see if something can be done about them.” But he said it had to be done in such a way as to avoid damaging farm interests.
“If the Government can come up with a suitable regulatory framework, which doesn’t get too much in the way of fish farmers while at the same time promoting the increase in wild fish numbers, they will have come up with the right formula,” he said.
“If you have too many different regulatory bodies, you increase the red tape and getting through red tape is expensive. Therefore, I would like to see strong but fair regulation which results from a good consultation between all the stakeholders who need to use the marine environment. If that happens, I’m sure they will find a way of improving the present arrangements.
“There’s no point in legislating if you’re not going to police the legislation, it’s pointless, it’s like a toothless dog. So you obviously have to have penalties for people who break any code of conduct or code of good husbandry.” But he added: “The most important thing that this Bill should achieve is a profitable fish farming industry and an improved wild angling industry; they must be able to live in sustainable coexistence with each other.” Salmon is the country’s top food export, and second only to whisky in food and drink exports. More than one million salmon servings are eaten every day across the UK – and much of it comes from Scottish farms, Scott Landsburgh, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, has said the new Bill is not needed and could undermine the industry’s reputation – calling it a “disabling piece of legislation.” While sea lice had been cited as a reason for the decline in wild salmon, he said the main decline was due to other factors, such as a lack of food resources and feeding grounds diminishing with climate change.
“Any potential impact from sea lice is therefore minor in comparison,” he says, but adds that farmers are unhappy about the level of detail they would be expected to provide, although they are happy to produce reports that show when treatment has been necessary when sea lice reach “trigger levels”.
He said: “The reality is that 68 per cent of our production is RSPCA Freedom Food accredited. We have the highest standards of all protein production industries in the UK on animal welfare. Now, we’re not saying we won’t have an impact on the wider environment, but sea lice starts in wild fish, it doesn’t start on the farm.
“If the Scottish Government are serious about wanting our stats on our sea lice numbers in farms, then in order to create the whole picture and understand the picture, they need to at the same time measure what the sea lice occurrence is in the wild fish in the rivers around salmon farms, in the immediate vicinity of salmon farms. You can’t have one rule for us and another rule for them.” He warns that the Bill will have a negative impact on the industry. “Certainly, there has to be a much more considered approach with regard to management reporting from salmon farms,” he said.
“Investor confidence will erode if we keep pushing this idea of backstop legislation because it is so ambiguous that it creates massive uncertainty.
“The unintended consequences of all of these things will end up massively eroding the current premium value of the Scottish brand.
“If the Government introduces strict liability and fixed penalty notices, we will see a flight of highly qualified people to other agriculture developing countries who are more amenable, more encouraging to the industry, such as Tasmania, New Zealand, Canada and Chile as well.
“We’re the third largest producer in the world at the moment; we may end up not producing any,” he warns.
Officials are analysing the consultation responses over the summer before preparing the new Bill.
But the Government has insisted the proposals are aimed at helping the industry grow.
Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson said: “The Scottish Government is fully committed to ensuring aquaculture can continue to be successful in the years to come. “We are analysing the consultation responses and continue to meet and discuss with all those involved as we are listening to their views.
The proposals are designed to support the development of the industry, not hinder it.
“We will not legislate where it isn’t necessary and we will not be taking forward any proposals that contradict the wider sustainable growth agenda – so long as this can be achieved without prejudice to the wider marine and freshwater environments.
“I fully accept that there may be areas of principled difference and I agree we need to say more about how we will measure success.
As plans for the new Bill are progressed over the summer months, there will be continued engagement between the Scottish Government and the aquaculture industry– and indeed all other interested stakeholders – as we work towards a bill that is fit for purpose.”