Farmed Salmon: A Growth Industry Outpacing Planning

Farmed salmon is Scotland’s number 1 food export and according to the industry, directly employs 12,000 workers. It is a sector with ambitious plans to continue growing but it also faces opposition from the very communities it wishes to develop in.

credit Bell

The growth of the sector has outpaced the confusing regulatory framework it sits within.

To set up a fish farm in Scotland planning consent sits with the local authority but it also requires the consent of SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency), the Crown Estate, Marine Scotland Licensing and the Fish Health Inspectorate.

Two years ago the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee reported on its findings into the sector. This week it questioned representatives from the sector and from the relevant public bodies on progress made so far on the committee’s recommendations.

It appears that only limited progress has taken place. Considering that this is the number 1 food export from Scotland and that it seeks to grow considerably, limited progress is not a good result.

Responding to questions from the committee Peter Pollard, Head of Ecology at SEPA, explained that there is greater environmental monitoring and new permit conditions (since June 2020). The process of transferring existing farms over to the new conditions was paused due to Covid and is ‘restarting soon’. Using remote technologies to better monitor compliance is also being developed.

The health of farmed salmon became a big issue for the general public 2 years ago with horrendous images of fish with gill problems and reports of high mortality rates. Charles Allan from the Fish Health Inspectorate described a complex range of issues now affecting farmed salmon: phytoplankton and algae bloom, gill issues and losses during the treatment for sea lice.

Choosing more open locations for fish farms is better for the health of farmed salmon according to the industry but due to the nature of their location – out in less sheltered areas and the increasing occurrence of storm events – that escapes are more likely.

Holes in nets, not surprisingly, are still the top reason for escapes. The other causes are human error and predation. All of these escapes have to be reported and followed up. New regulations on the use of acoustic devices ( now known to affect many marine animals) will result in more focus needed on the equipment that is installed and its maintenance according to Charles Allan.

In 2019, production of Atlantic salmon increased by 47,856 tonnes (30.7%) to 203,881 tonnes. This is the highest ever level of production recorded in Scotland. In addition to that the total number of staff employed in marine salmon production during 2019 increased by 185 to 1,651 staff. (Scottish Fish Farm Production Survey 2019)

This is a rapidly growing sector which is pushing the value of its product to both the local and the Scottish economy at every opportunity.

The planning process is bamboozling. The RECC recommendation 51 stated:

It is therefore of the view that the Scottish Government should, as a matter of priority, initiate a spatial planning exercise with a view to developing strategic guidance specifying those areas across Scotland that are suitable or unsuitable for siting of salmon farms. This work should take full account of existing strategic documents such as the Marine Plan, and incorporate an assessment of the potential impact of salmon farms on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Priority Marine Feature (PMFs) and the species which inhabit them.

So far that has not happened. The restrictions put in place to limit the spread of Covid19 may have paused and delayed many initiatives but this is more than 2 years on now from that Scottish Parliament committee’s report.

if the industry is to grow, the Committee considers it to be essential that it addresses and identifies solutions to the environmental and fish health challenges it faces as a priority.

If it was seen as a ‘priority’ in 2018 it is even more so as 2020 draws to a close in a sector which is growing – and doing so rapidly.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame


2 replies »

  1. In 2014 Alec Salmond predicated Scotland’s economic future on oil. With the fall in the oil price and more importantly the realisation that its use contributes to global warming, it is imperative we phase out its use as soon as possible.
    The Scottish Government is now looking to fish farming to provide our future financial needs.
    This is foolish in the extreme. Ask anyone who has experience of these intensive farms and they will tell you they are one of the most polluting and environmentally damaging forms of farming in existence. They are located in some of he most scenic areas of our coast yet the sea bed beneath them is rendered sterile and lifeless. The fish themselves are routinely treated with chemicals to control parasites and diseases. When they escape, as they do, they compete and breed with the indigenous species.
    If Scotland is have any environmental credibility on the world stage, it must reign in these farms and come up with a greener alternative.

    • Tom, and it does not end here… so far the sentience of fish and other aquatic species keeps being debated at various levels (including EU) and progress in the (including still permitted gruesome) slaughter techniques is painstakingly slow. Good scientific evidence is still being dismissed… well, science rarely can provide a 100% proof and this is self-explanatory for all of us who work in academia.
      OIC has now advertised the position of a Climate Change Project Officer (which appears still a controversial issue too within OIC)… quite ridiculous is this move, given that the tasks will be limited to very low level (see job description)… and not address the bigger problems. OIC does not appear to wake up and smell the coffee… the environmental footprint of several industries, especially fishfarming, is significant… and it already starts with the resources needed to feed the fish (how much of the feed comes with its own considerable footprint)… and I am rather tired to hear of the ‘valuable jobs’ this business sector provides and the ‘need to feed a growing global population’… both questionable. I have heard of farmers who cannot find farm hands, of builders who can’t hire workers etc. because some people prefer the jobs on fishfarms (the impacts on other sectors and the associated trade-offs are being overlooked). And feeding the hungry world? Surely, salmon will be on the staple diet list of many… in fact, no… it is a commodity, nothing else. To produce this commodity the marine ‘commons’ are being damaged, the usual scenario of privatising profits and putting the negative burden on the environment and the people who live in it…
      There would certainly be ways to wisely use Orkney’s resources and create new industries with a low environmental footprint, possibly even a beneficial one overall, but this would require out-of-the-box thinking, a virtue OIC and governments do not appear to be familiar with.
      Well, if someone likes maths: Working out the benefits and trade-offs of just 12,000 operational jobs, the volume of trade and the environmental costs (full life cycle assessment at product level), the revenue (at business level as well as HMRC) etc. would be a good exercise… especially for the ones who believe that this industry is a beneficial one.

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