Given the importance of salmon farming to Scotland, it is hard to believe that just 50 years have passed since the first harvest of farmed salmon. It wasn’t until 1979, that the Scottish Government started to officially record and publish production, and, in that year, it had grown by 15% on the previous to a grand total of 520 tonnes. Scotland now produces over 200,000 tonnes.
I might have been around for a long time, but even I cannot claim to have seen these early harvests. My first summer job on a trout farm was in 1974 and very few people had then heard about aquaculture. Now it features regularly in the press, albeit not always for good reasons. How times have changed.
Industrial companies like Unilever, then owners of Marine Harvest and BP, invested in salmon farming because they perceived that it was a “green” activity that might offset their industrial impacts and certainly in the early days, there wasn’t any criticism of such good intentions. These major players have all since departed the aquaculture sector, because of problems elsewhere that required them to focus on their core businesses.
It is easy to forget that the salmon industry in Scotland was driven by corporates from the very beginning. There was a view that salmon farming might be integrated into local crofting or fishing, but this was never realistic. Salmon farming could never have been a “backyard” activity or something akin to the traditional agricultural family farm. Salmon farming was always going to be a large-scale venture.
During the 1990s many of the small Scottish companies established in the Klondike years of the 1980s realised that salmon farming was not the get-rich-quick industry that they had thought it might be. They opted to get out by selling on. Unfortunately, most local companies did not have the foresight to recognise the benefits of consolidation and so it has been left to others from elsewhere to take up the mantle. Out of more than 100 operating companies during the 1980s, just a few have emerged as those who could see the way to the future.
This was entirely predictable. The key feature of the boom years of the 1980s and early 1990s were high market prices. These were high enough to offset the then high production costs but as the number of new entrants boosted production, the market soon became saturated. There had been no consideration of market development, and why should there have been? This was a new industry, providing a luxury food to a market boosted by Mrs Thatcher’s growing economy.
In the early 1990s, however, the market for high priced luxury salmon became swamped with fish. Salmon farming changed overnight from an industry of low volume, high margin production to one of low margins and high volume. This was like asking consumers to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for a Rolls-Royce car even if it were produced in the same volume as a Ford Fiesta.
This evolution of salmon production is the main reason the industry underwent consolidation in the ensuing years and is why the industry has so few players now. Industry critics complain about foreign ownership but are happy to drive around in their foreign-produced cars; talk in their foreign-produced phones and watch their foreign-produced televisions.
What has changed since the early days of the industry is the criticism it receives. In part, this is down to the rise of social media and the keyboard warrior. But the Scottish industry was free of criticism until the late 1980s when anglers started to blame salmon farms for the decline in wild fish that were available on Scotland’s west coast for them to catch and kill for sport. The fact that east coast rivers where there were no salmon farms didn’t appear to be in decline ensured that salmon farming was made into a long running scapegoat. The angling lobby ignored the fact that only 10% of Scotland’s wild salmon were caught in the west so any decline was more noticeable than in the east. Anglers continue to ignore the fact that fewer than ever wild salmon now return to all Scotland’s rivers. More critically, they avoid any discussion to ensure their narrative remains unchallenged.
Whilst anglers were the first critics, a whole industry has now been built around the criticism of salmon farming. The reasons are manifold and mostly unjustified. In the past producers have been too busy with production to focus on such criticism and this might have been a feature of the last 50 years. But one of the things the industry should look forward to during the next 50 years is standing up and challenging the criticism.
The industrial pioneers were right in their belief that aquaculture and especially salmon farming is an inherently sustainable method of food production.