Despite the critics, the salmon industry is supported by people in local communities, says Hamish Macdonell.
Ask anyone who has ever put an opinion poll in the field, and they will tell you that there is always a moment’s hesitation before they give it the go-ahead.
That’s because, even if you believe you have a good idea of what the poll will tell you, there is always more than a little frisson of fear: “What if it tells me something I really don’t want to know?”
This was certainly the case when we asked Ipsos/Mori to conduct the first comprehensive and detailed survey of opinions on salmon farming in the areas where we farm.
The concern was based on the almost incessant chatter from a few voluble critics of the sector, who like to claim that there is widespread opposition to salmon farming in our own back yards.
These are the same people who like to compile petitions packed full of thousands of signatures calling for moratoriums and restrictions on salmon farming.
Our belief was that these petitions are virtually worthless, packed as most are with the names of people from all over the world.
What we wanted to know was simple: what do the people who actually live in the communities where we farm think about salmon farming?
They are the people whose opinions matter, much, much more so than angry vegans from New York or anti-farming activists from London.
So we asked Ipsos/Mori to draw up the questions, determined that the poll should be as independent and impartial as possible, and that’s what the pollsters did.
But, more importantly, the pollsters made sure they actually only asked people from the local areas. This took time but only those on the mainland living within 10 miles of a salmon farm, or living on islands where there are salmon farms, were asked to take part.
This meant we did not get results from people living on the other side of the country, which could happen if you sample an area as big as the Highlands.
As a result of this tight framework, the statistics we received from a sample size of more than 1,000 (200 in each area) were undoubtedly the most accurate, localised and comprehensive of any poll ever conducted on this issue.
Support for the industry was evident
The questions were straightforward and clear: “How much do you know about salmon farming, do you feel favourable or unfavourable towards it and, crucially, do you want salmon farms to be located in your own community?”
We always suspected that backing for salmon farming would be stronger in some areas than in others, and so it proved.
Support was strongest in Shetland, reasonably strong in the Western Isles and Orkney and more divided in the mainland areas.
But what we did not expect was to secure such clear support in every area.
Overall, 54% of those questioned said they supported salmon farming and 24% said they were unfavourable.
A total of 76% said they backed salmon farming in Shetland while only 6% did not. For the Western Isles, the figures were 50% in favour, 27% against, while for Orkney it was 55% to 19%. In Argyll and Bute, it was 44% in favour and 28% against and in the North West Highlands it was 44% in favour, 34% against.
These results were hugely positive. Yes, they showed we have work to do in the mainland areas, particularly in the North West Highlands and we will do that, using these results to focus our energies on the areas where we need to make most progress.
But what was really encouraging was that there was stronger support than opposition in every part of the country where we farm. Not only that, but the levels of support rose even higher when residents were asked if they supported salmon farms being based in their own areas.
The overall result was 53% on favour and just 17% against. By area, the results were: Shetland: 70% in favour, 5% against, Orkney: 51% in favour, 14% against, Western Isles: 56% in favour, 16% against, Argyll and Bute: 50% in favour, 23% against and North West Highlands: 39% in favour and 24% against.
What this means is that support rose when people were asked if they wanted salmon farms located in their own communities, precisely the opposite of what our critics claim when they get faceless activists from all over the world to sign their online petitions.
The economic support that salmon farming provides was at the top of the list when residents were asked for their reasons to support for salmon farming, with local jobs really valued as a way of keeping communities together.
Environmental concerns rate highest among those who don’t like salmon farming, which shows we have more to do in getting our message across.
Overall, though, we hope that this will help tell the real story, that the voice of our communities will get heard by those in power and by those who decide planning applications and that the demands from the global network of keyboard warriors will be seen to be what they are – largely irrelevant.
These are the views of our neighbours, who live in the same villages and communities that we do. Their opinions matter and we will be doing all we can to make sure everyone in power knows what these views are. It was a relief to realise that those – albeit minor – concerns we had when we put the poll into the field proved to be unfounded.
We asked, now we know and we will be making sure we carry the message from this poll to every town hall and parliamentary chamber in the land. This gives us a real and concrete foundation on which to work. We will make sure it can – and will – make a real difference.