By Vince McDonagh
THERE is now a strong case for accelerating the relocation of older, sheltered Scottish fish farms to larger and more open coastal locations.
That was one of the main developments from today’s session of the Scottish parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee inquiry into salmon farming.
The two-hour long hearing at Holyrood, which was mainly upbeat in tone, also brought a firm commitment to sustainable long term growth and an acceptance that biological issues remain the main challenges.
The committee debated a wide range of subjects, including sea lice, diseases, escapes and the lack of suitable housing for staff.
There was also agreement that although companies were working closer together to tackle many of the problems, more collaboration was needed – and that the hand of collaboration should be extended to wild fish interests.
The industry was represented by a strong line up and included: Scott Landsburgh, former chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation; Ben Hadfield, managing director of Marine Harvest Scotland; Craig Anderson, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Company; Grant Cumming, managing director of Grieg Seafood Shetland; and Stewart Graham, group managing director of Gael Force Group.
The convenor, Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain (Con), said that Scottish fish farming had made tremendous progress and gained much knowledge since its early foundations, and asked if there was now a case for relocating some of the original farm sites to less environmentally sensitive areas.
Grant Cumming from Grieg replied that such a transition was already underway, adding: ‘Where we once had 33 sites, that number has now been reduced to 17. Technology has moved on, which means we are now able to move into more open waters, and bigger cleaner areas, which is proving to be beneficial.’
The Scottish Salmon Company’s Craig Anderson said his company had been formed from several small operators, with ‘miniscule’ 700 to 800 tonne sites. The company was closing some of these down and moving to more exposed sites.
And Ben Hadfield from Marine Harvest agreed, saying the trend to have fewer, larger farms in areas that are less sensitive could help to reduce potential conflicts.
In reply to Banffshire and Buchan Coast MSP Stewart Stevenson (SNP), Hadfield said fish farming had brought significant economic benefits to Scotland. Marine Harvest Scotland had an annual wage bill of £47 million and employed 1,200 staff.
He pointed out that the development of new technology within the industry had also led to a structured career path and steady wage progression.
Anderson said his company’s annual wage bill was £16 million and had also led to improved training and education.
‘We feel that while taking out it is very important to put something back,’ he added.
Scott Landsburgh said the SSPO had contributed more than £1 million to local community organisations, with those groups being invited to bid for support.
Problems around suitable housing – or the lack of it – was raised by Caithness and Sutherland MSP Gail Ross (SNP).
Hadfield replied that there was a certainly a need for more homes, adding that Marine Harvest was working on plans to provide suitable accommodation itself.
Cumming agreed, adding that Grieg was also having to purchase accommodation on Skye, for example, as the arrival of a new gas plant had added to the pressure on housing.
West Scotland MSP Jamie Greene (Con) was met with a confident and united response when he asked if Scottish salmon stood out against the competition.
Cumming said: ‘Yes, there is a premium for Scottish salmon and our standards are very high.’
Anderson pointed out Scotland was noted for the pure quality of its salmon and Hadfield added: ‘We have the highest welfare standards – Scottish salmon trades at between 50 and 60 pence a kilo over Norwegian salmon. It is of very high quality and very desirable.’
Landsburgh said that at a poll at the Brussels seafood show, seven out of 14 judges voted Scottish salmon to be the best in the world.
The panel spoke of the large number and wide range of accreditations and standards within the industry. And these came on top of those demanded by the retail sector. But they all had one thing in common – maintaining high standards.
The companies agreed the recent mortality rate was too high, but said it was much lower than that of some sections of agriculture, where the issue was hardly raised. But mortality levels were being brought down.
In similar vein, the panel said the industry was working hard to reduce the number of fish escapes, stressing there have already been some notable successes.
Hadfield, who has a science background, told the committee on at least two occasions that some of the claims made against the salmon farming industry were not supported by sound scientific evidence.
He said the industry in Scotland had very good regulations and it was ‘frustrating to listen to comments that we don’t have that because we do’.
Grieg’s Grant Cumming said sea lice was a huge problem right across Europe, but pointed out that it was much worse in the south of England and in countries like France than in the salmon farms of Scotland or Norway.
Hadfield thought that while there were issues, the effect of lice on wild fish had been overstated. The industry panel also said sea warming and the impact from El Niño in particular was making things worse.
The threat by the United States to ban seafood imports from countries that supported shooting seals was raised by MSP Gail Ross. This met with the unified response from the panel that their companies were working hard to reduce the number of shootings to zero.
They said the gun was being replaced by physical (netting) barriers and acoustic deterrents. Cumming said the change was not just because of the US threat, but because his company felt it was the right thing to do.
The REC committee completes its evidence gathering sessions next Wednesday (May 9) when it will hear from Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity.
Picture: Marine Harvest’s Ben Hadfield at the REC committee hearing this morning