The message

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It has been three years now since the Scottish salmon sector last held a Christmas reception at Holyrood.

In December 2018, dozens of MSPs were there. There were at least four cabinet secretaries, a good smattering of junior ministers as well as special advisers, political editors and columnists, all eating, drinking, laughing and appreciating the positivity exuding from a sector with a good tale to tell.

Since then, a combination of difficult election timing and Covid has put paid to all subsequent plans.

Indeed, on the evening earmarked for our Scottish Parliament reception last month, the lights were off in the members’ restaurant at the parliament, the staff were all at home and you could almost see the political equivalent of tumbleweed blowing through the corridors and hallways of parliament.

Our inability to get that social, face-to-face contact with MSPs for the last three years has been deeply frustrating. It has been just one of the barriers we have faced in getting our message across to the country’s decision-makers.

We have not been able to hold parliamentary exhibitions – usually a sure-fire way of engaging directly with numerous MSPs of all parties; we have not been able to take many of them out to farms and those invaluable in-person meetings have also disappeared in a puff of pandemic-induced worry.

But all that just makes Salmon Scotland’s achievements over the past three years all the more remarkable.

Despite the restrictions, the lack of meetings, the cancelled receptions and limited contact, our reputation among Scotland’s parliamentarians is up – significantly.

In 2018, before our last Christmas reception, we commissioned a survey of MSPs to find out how we were viewed by our parliamentarians. It revealed that a total of 34% of MSPs were favourable towards the salmon sector and 25% had an unfavourable view – a net favourability rating of plus nine points.

In the three years since, our favourability has grown year on year. The latest survey, in 2021, found that a total of 46% of MSPs now have a favourable impression of salmon farming in Scotland and just 19% are unfavourable – a net rating of plus 27 points. Our favourability is up 12 points in three years and our unfavourability score has dropped by six points over the same time.

This would be good in any period. Turning a plus nine rating into a plus 27-point rating would be an achievement to be applauded, but to do so during a pandemic that has cut face-to-face access to almost nothing is a really solid and quantifiable success.

I pointed out in a previous column how we at Salmon Scotland had changed tactics and started to emphasise the wider salmon supply chain to MSPs outside our traditional farming areas and how successful that had been.

That has certainly been a factor, but we were also very conscious of the changing nature of the parliament in the last year. After the election in 2021, about a third of the MSPs were new to the parliament and most were new to politics. We started working on them before and after the election, knowing that they would come to parliament ready to hear rational and compelling arguments, unburdened by the misinformation and myths peddled by our opponents.

And so it has proved. The surveyors we commissioned interviewed 25 new MSPs this year and found that 22 of them had not just had communications from Salmon Scotland, but every single one was satisfied with the contacts they had had from our organisation.

Fighting misinformation

However, the most important aspect of this survey work is that it identifies where we still need to make significant progress. Salmon farming enjoys considerable support among Highlands and Islands MSPs (not surprisingly), but we have some way to go to persuade central belt MSPs to share the same view.

The economic arguments are well known and clearly understood, but the good environmental story we have to tell – and the drive for long-term, world-leading sustainability – still has not cut through. The Scottish Parliament is obviously not the whole story because it is not just MSPs who are key decision-makers for our sector. Councillors, particularly in our farming regions and especially those with a key role in planning decisions, are also vitally important to the long-term, sustainable growth of our sector.

They will be facing elections this year, so the engagement exercise, which we have pioneered so successfully at Holyrood, needs to be rolled out in Inverness, Lerwick, Lochgilphead, Stornoway and a hundred places in between.

The message we take to them will be similar to that which has worked so well for our national politicians: our farmers produce a healthy, nutritious, locally sourced food to world-leading standards. They provide solid foundations for dozens of communities in remote rural Scotland, support thousands of jobs across the country and have millions of satisfied customers around the world.

However, by far the most satisfying part of this whole process has been the realisation that, when presented with the facts, the evidence and the context, our decision-makers have been able to look at the wild criticisms that drop into their inboxes (like the green-inked letters of old) with fresh eyes, seeing the misinformation for what it is.

We still have a long way to go, there is no doubt about that. But this is a contest we are winning. This year’s MSPs’ survey shows that the trend is heading in the right direction and we are determined, absolutely determined, to keep it going that way.