By Vince McDonagh
A STRONG defence of Scotland’s record on the regulation of its aquaculture industry was put up by the team giving evidence at the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee at Holyrood yesterday.
The committee, which is investigating the salmon farming sector, was told by the convenor, Highlands and Islands MPS Edward Mountain (Con), that during a video link the previous evening the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) had claimed that Scotland’s regulatory regime was poor when compared to other countries such as Norway.
But Heather Jones (pictured), chief executive of the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, argued: ‘Scotland’s regulatory system is up there as being among the best.’
She said the New Zealand government, for example, had looked at fish farming around the world and concluded that Scotland had one of the strongest set-ups.
She added that the UK retail sector had also found it had ‘very, very high standards’ in regard to fish and water quality.
James Withers, chief executive of Scottish Food and Drink, said in answer to Scottish Green Party MSP John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) that Scotland’s claim to possessing pristine waters was correct and critically important to its aquaculture industry.
Elaine Jamieson, head of Food and Drink at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, also agreed standards were high, adding that innovation was playing a big part in achieving positive outcomes.
Just before the questions got underway the convenor expressed disappointment that the product retail sector was not putting anyone up in person, although it has agreed to given written evidence.
Wednesday’s two-hour long session covered issues ranging from why Scotland had fallen back in the world production league to tackling the international issue of sea lice and working on the need for great innovation.
The panel was asked: ‘Is it true that Chile has a better regulatory system than Scotland, but its monitoring and maintenance of that system was extremely poor, and did Scotland need to look more at outcomes rather than methods?’
Jones replied: ‘Chile has had multiple major health challenges which has put pressure on stocks.’
This had led to some Norwegian companies pulling their investments from the country, whereas in Scotland the regulatory system was quite stable.
Asked if too rapid expansion could lead to problems, Withers said production was fairly static at present although its world share had fallen from 11 per cent to seven per cent over the last few years.
Growth, he said, needed to be carefully planned in order to maintain Scotland’s pristine water reputation. He also hoped for a stronger relationship in future between the industry and the regulatory bodies.
The committee members then turned to problems with the planning application process in the Highlands and Islands. Withers agreed there had been issues, but felt a nationally based system might be more effective in future.
Jamieson said her experiences with planning had been mixed but there had been some very good integrated approaches with growth and sustainability at their heart.
Asked why fish farming was not taking place around the entire Scottish coast, Jones said there were good reasons why there were no farms on the east coast. The main one was because the west coast was far better sheltered than that part of Scotland fronting the North Sea.
She pointed out that in Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands aquaculture was generally concentrated in the western areas of the countries.
And in reply to MSP Finnie who asked if growth was being pursued at the expense of high standards, she said: ‘All regulations in Scotland are enforced.’
Later during the session she said that caution may be a reason why Scottish growth has lagged behind other countries.
Meanwhile, Caithness and Sutherland MSP Gail Ross (SNP) raised the threat to Scottish salmon exports to the United States over seal culling.
Salmon farmers have four years to stop shooting seals or face a US ban on imports, following legislation in America regarding the welfare of mammals.
Jones said a lot of innovative work was now being carried out by Scottish companies on developing acoustic deterrent devices which, when completed, could become a major export success, selling to salmon farmers around the world.
The session then turned to fish mortality and welfare with Withers pointing out that compared to agriculture, fish farming was a relatively young industry.
But no industry could have a future without adopting zero tolerance to mortality and disease issues. Fish farmers realised there were challenges and were ready to meet them by embracing world class production standards.
Highlands and Islands MSP Kate Forbes (SNP) asked if the current level of mortality in fish farming is more acceptable when compared to other food sources.
Jamison said the short answer was that the industry was not satisfied with current mortality rates, but significant investment was now being made to address the issue, with businesses and other bodies working in cooperation.
MSP John Mason (SNP Glasgow Shettleston) ask the panel if Scotland should follow Norway on tackling sea lice.
Jamieson said farmers were talking to various companies about finding innovative ways to deal with the problem. And in the past 12 months some areas had seen a significant reduction in lice infestation.
Jones thought sea warming could be a major cause, adding that when fish are placed into a sea water environment there was always a risk of lice.
However, a recent study in Ireland had found that the mortality rate for wild salmon infected with lice was just one per cent. ‘We can’t change basic sea temperatures, but we can minimise the impact,’ she added.
On research and innovation Withers said Scottish companies and institutions were working together to meet many of the biological challenges that continue to face the industry.
MSP Gail Ross said lack of housing and infrastructure, especially in the remoter areas of Scotland, was making life difficult for fish farming companies when trying to attract staff.
Jamieson agreed, saying there was also a problem with mobile phone and broadband communications, suggesting that Scotland should consider following Norway’s example by improving basic infrastructure. Both her colleagues on the panel agreed more needed to be done in this area.
‘Is the industry becoming obsessed with growth?’ asked Finnie.
Wither replied: ‘I am obsessed with growth and I only want it to stop when it becomes damaging to the environment.’
Jamieson added: ‘We should not underestimate what this industry has done for the social fabric and rural economy (of Scotland).
‘This investment has brought high quality jobs and growth in employment, as well as new career opportunities.’
The REC committee will hear evidence next Wednesday from salmon farmers. Ben Hadfield, managing director of Marine Harvest Scotland, Craig Anderson, CEO of the Scottish Salmon Company, and Grant Cumming, managing director of Grieg Seafood will address MSPs’ questions, alongside the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation.
The final session of the committee will hear from Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, on May 9.