BIG landed interests have been attacking the salmon industry in Scotland for many years and their portrayal of the sector was unrecognisable, said Shetland MSP and former Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott.
Speaking in a debate in the Scottish parliament today on the future of salmon farming, Scott said islands such as Unst and Yell wouldn’t exist without aquaculture.
The allegation that his constituents deliberately polluted the environment they worked in was a ‘line of argument I don’t recognise’.
He was responding to comments from Green MSP Mark Ruskell who called on the industry to address its problems before being allowed to move forward.
The Greens, along with the angling lobby, have been among the most outspoken critics of salmon farming in Scotland.
Scott pointed to the investment by salmon businesses in fish health – with one company alone employing more than 50 fish health specialists – and in jobs and green innovations.
Holyrood was discussing the report by the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee, which began its investigation into salmon farming early in 2018 following a shorter probe into the industry by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) committee, also last year.
The focus of the REC investigation, which took evidence from a wide range of stakeholders – including farmers, academics, government officials and anti-farming campaigners – was the impact of salmon farming on the decline in wild stocks. It was prompted by a petition drawn up by the wild salmon lobby.
The committee’s subsequent 148-page report, published in November, found that urgent action was needed to improve the regulation of the salmon farming industry and to address fish health and environmental challenges.
However, it stopped short of demanding a moratorium on new salmon farm development and expansion of existing sites, something anti-salmon farming campaigners had urged.
Despite criticism of the sector’s environmental credentials by several MSPs, there was cross party consensus during the debate that the industry provided value to Scotland and should be encouraged to grow.
Rural affairs minister Fergus Ewing said he was heartened by support across the chamber, as MSPs discussed the recommendations made by the REC committee.
He highlighted the economic contribution salmon farming makes to Scotland and said many people’s livelihoods were sustained by a sector that is the ‘cornerstone of the rural economy’.
Salmon farming has helped reinvigorate remote coastal communities with investment in housing, transport and broadband, he added.
He also mentioned the £63 million annual capital investment by farmers and the more than 10,000 jobs they generate throughout the country, in the wider supply chain.
However, he said he agreed with the committee that ‘we need to do more to get the balance right to protect the environment’.
REC committee convener Edward Mountain (Con, Highlands and Islands), opening the debate, said he did not believe the sector’s acknowledged contribution ‘should be allowed to mask a negative impact on the environment’.
The REC committee strongly believed that until it could demonstrate it was a good neighbour it was not appropriate for it to expand.
‘We don’t support business as usual and neither should the government nor the industry.’
But Ewing outlined work already underway by the government and salmon farmers to tackle industry challenges.
The sector was investing very heavily to improve fish health and had been doing so for some considerable time, he said.
And the work of the 10-year Farmed Fish Health Framework, set up by the government last May, was ‘a serious way to address concerns’.
‘We don’t want to delay action but it must be evidence based,’ he said, adding that steps to improve environmental monitoring would be introduced in the interim while longer term strategies are considered.
The government has already announced it is conducting a review of the sea lice compliance policy, which will be completed by spring. This will consider, among other recommendations, making compliance and reporting a mandatory requirement.
The need for one regulatory body to oversee regulation and enforcement, another recommendation by the REC committee, was raised by Mike Rumbles (Lib Dems).
Picture: MSP Tavish Scott