Minister fights for farmers

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SCOTLAND’S rural affairs minister, Fergus Ewing, repeated his determination to see the country’s salmon farming industry meet its growth targets, as he answered questions from MSPs in the final session of their investigation into the sector.
Ewing said: ‘I’m a very strong and public advocate for the sector in Scotland,’ acknowledging that it had come a long way and was not standing still, as suggested by an earlier parliamentary inquiry.
The Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee was taking evidence, in its sixth and final hearing, from Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity. Joining him were Mike Palmer, deputy director, Aquaculture, Crown Estate, Recreational Fisheries, EMFF and Europe Division, Marine Scotland; Alastair Mitchell, head of Aquaculture and Recreational Fisheries, Marine Scotland; and Charles Allan, head of Fish Health Inspectorate, Marine Scotland, Scottish Government.
The MSPs’ questions focused on the minister’s vocal support for aquaculture growth, and to what extent government, not industry, was providing leadership.
There was also much discussion about the current regulatory regime, particularly in connection with environmental safeguards, and the example set by Norway in managing its much bigger salmon farming industry.
And the committee asked about the challenges of sea lice and disease in fish farms, the recent high level of mortalities, and the impact of salmon production on wild stocks – the issue that sparked the inquiry in the first place.
Ewing said significant developments were underway in the industry, including looking at the current consenting regime, and how the different regulatory bodies mesh with each other; agreeing to sustainably manage the capture of wild wrasse; and addressing health issues through the Strategic Framework for Farmed Fish Health.
The latter, he said, would publish a document relatively soon but he would not be drawn on an exact date, although the committee convenor, Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands, Conservative), said it would be useful to have this when the REC drew up its own report.
The health framework would include commitments to publish annual mortality rates by cause, as well as focusing on greater transparency, gill health, sea lice, production regimes, cleaner fish, and climate change. Working groups would be set up to tackle each area.
The minister was taken to task again by Mountain over bullish comments he made about doubling growth during a speech at the Brussels seafood expo recently.
Ewing reassured the MSPs that he didn’t accept growth at any cost and that is must be sustainable growth. That reality is not lost on the sector, he added, which has a vested interest in the environment.
But he stressed the importance of salmon farming to the Scottish economy and said he hoped that, despite some ‘un-evidenced’ criticism of the industry and emotive language during the course of the inquiry, concerns could be addressed ‘without conflict’.
It was important to get all parties around the table to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.
Staying on the subject of growth, Peter Chapman (North East Scotland, Con) asked if the government had adopted industry targets without assessing their environmental impact.
Marine Scotland’s Alastair Mitchell said every new farm and every expansion plan undergoes a major assessment, while Mike Palmer said the regulatory agencies are constantly looking to review assessments they make, to ensure there is sufficient environmental protection to support growth.
But this did not reassure John Finnie, the Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands. He suggested that the ‘precautionary principle’ should be applied, with an immediate moratorium on expansion, based on the industry’s challenges.
This was rejected by the Cabinet Secretary, who said government was already doing what Finnie asked it to do.
‘Since this government came to power we have tightened up the regulatory framework. A moratorium is not justified, we already apply the precautionary principle.’
Mike Palmer agreed, saying the precautionary principle was ‘embedded at all levels of what we do as regulators…the precautionary principle is alive and kicking and something we very much cherish.’
Referring to the recent decision by the industry to publish farm by farm sea lice data on the SSPO (Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation) website, Stewart Stevenson asked why it was necessary to only give data three months in arrears when Norway published such information in real time.
Ewing said the industry wanted to be as transparent as possible but was not quite as up to date as Norway. The information would be published for every farm on a monthly basis.
But Stevenson wanted to know what the government was doing to help the industry raise its game, while Jamie Greene (West Scotland, Con) said he found the language used ‘quite troubling’.
‘Why is the industry being allowed to mark its own homework? Why is government not taking leadership in regulating this important data?’ he asked.
Ewing said the government ‘have been leading and will continue to lead’ and had made it clear to the industry ‘that we require transparency’. He said he hoped the REC committee would recognise the progress that is being made.
‘It’s heartening to hear the industry is listening and acting and improving the level of data, but we’re on a journey and that journey hasn’t ended yet.’
Mountain also mentioned Norway, as he had done in the previous evidence session, drawing attention to a website of the latest farm information. With many Scottish companies owned by Norwegian groups, why could the same not happen in Scotland?
Alastair Mitchell informed MSPs that the Norwegian website was relatively recent and the government had invested a lot in the system.
John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston, SNP) said he had found his recent visit to Lochaber with other committee members very helpful and noticed the ‘healthy’ relationship between farmers and wild fisheries interests there. But the same could not be said of other regions. The committee had been getting ‘very opposite views’ from the two sectors.
Fergus said he was about to set up a new ‘interactions’ group of experts, including from the angling lobby. They will be tasked with looking at all the evidence of salmon farming’s impact on wild salmon and their work will be completed as quickly as possible.
‘In Scotland the conflict is too tense and not proportionate to the discussion we should be having, where everyone should be trying to co-exist,’ said Ewing.
Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, SNP) asked about how closed containment systems could mitigate environmental concerns and what support the government could offer to the industry in terms of innovation.
Mike Palmer described the technology required as cutting edge and said development in this area was still ‘quite speculative’. There was also a consensus that energy use is high. Further work was needed and while the sector was very interested, this couldn’t be rolled out on an industrial scale yet.
Gail Ross (Caithness and Sutherland, SNP) asked about Sepa’s recent decision to allow farms greater biomass if they were in more sustainable offshore locations.
Mitchell said there were more advantages than disadvantages to support that direction of travel but better technology was needed and fish had to be bigger and more robust. There were also health and safety issues for staff.
That said, the move was ‘happening now in an incremental way’, with farms on the small isles and parts of Orkney that wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago.
Norway had developed offshore concepts faster by spending ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ and Scotland couldn’t support that level of investment.
Charles Allan said the biggest challenges were technical and engineering ones and the industry was not yet operating in truly open water.
Lib Dem MSP Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) asked about creating a single regulatory authority but Ewing said although he was ‘keen to see what emerges from this inquiry’ regarding any future approach to planning, this was not his priority.
He was ‘instinctively attracted’ to a simpler model, but the different bodies had different functions and the current regime was a good one.
‘To move from the four or five layer approach we have now to a simpler system is difficult to achieve…and I don’t think the lack of a single agency is a blockage to growth.’
Returning to Norway, Jamie Green wondered if that nation’s top-down approach would be a model for Scotland to adopt.
Ewing, perhaps tiring of hearing about Norwegian prowess, said if the committee could identify examples of where Scotland could learn more from Norway he would happily follow them up, and might even be able to justify a ministerial trip to the country.
Convenor Mountain brought the session, and the REC’s evidence gathering, to a close by quoting Ben Hadfield, the Marine Harvest Scotland boss, who had said the week before that farmers had a ‘moral responsibility’ to get it right.
As a committee the REC now also had a moral obligation to consider all the evidence provided, in written submissions as well as verbally, which had been detailed and excellent, said Mountain.

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