SCOTTISH salmon farming is going through a time of much needed change. Its current regulatory framework is a Frankenstein's monster of ad hoc laws and guidelines while serious concerns are being raised over its potential impact on the environment.  

Currently, sales of Scottish salmon are at a near all-time high, reaching £614 million in 2021. The industry also directly employs 2500 people in Scotland while the Scottish Government continually voices its support for the industry. Not to mention, it is the UK’s largest food export. What then would Scottish salmon producers have to complain about?  

Primarily, that competitors in Scandinavia are producing more salmon and their industries are growing much faster than ours.  

Back in February, Tavish Scott, CEO of Salmon Scotland, said that while he was encouraged by the sales figures there were some causes for concern. He warned that amid Scandinavian competition “it is imperative that Government enables a regulatory framework that is both transparent and efficient.”  

It is here, on regulation, that the real debate opens up.   

READ MORE: Salmon exports boom but farmers warn of Scandinavian threat

Much of the discussion centres on a review commissioned by the Scottish Government and carried out by Professor Russell Griggs that was published in February. The Scottish Government has accepted all its recommendations in principle. 

Amongst other things, the review recommended a streamlining of the regulatory processes so that a single body would deal with finfish farming in Scotland rather than going to several different bodies who permit and regulate the industry’s various aspects. This would make things easier for Salmon farmers.   

What the review doesn’t pay as much attention to is the environmental concerns, which are many and grave.   

In October, The Ferret revealed a Sepa report, which was delayed due to the pandemic and a cyber attack, that said over 10% of Scottish salmon farms around the coast were assessed as either “very poor”, “poor” or “at risk” because they broke, or threatened to break, environmental rules in 2019. These issues were related to the use of pesticide, pollution and reporting breaches.  

The Ferret also reported that the use of Antibiotics in Scottish fish farms had risen more than 50 times in the period between 2016 and 2021, which raises concerns over antibiotic resilient diseases and the potential impact on human health.   

READ MORE: Millions of dead salmon dumped, burnt or destroyed by Scottish salmon farms

Meanwhile, Salmon Scotland insists that Scottish salmon farming is “sustainable”. However, that’s up for debate.  

Feedback Global, a campaign group for sustainable food supplies, conducted a study where they found that in a single year, it took 460,000 tonnes of wild caught fish to feed and produce only 179,000 tonnes of Salmon in Scottish farms. It also reported that 76% of the salmon feed was from species edible for humans. This raises serious questions about the impact of Scottish salmon farming on wild fish stocks, while also inviting consideration of which seafoods we should be choosing to consume.  

Whether you look at Scottish salmon farming from the point of view of the environmentalist or the economist, there are problems with the bigger picture. Especially when you consider how important the sector could be for an independent Scotland.   

Commenting on this balance of interests, John Aitchison of the Coastal Communities Network, said: “A lot of younger voters care passionately about the environment, the sea especially. You don’t have to compromise one for the other. We mustn't. It’s a small nation. We can’t cripple our natural environment and expect the economy to be fine. It doesn’t work like that.”  

One of the possible solutions to mitigate the environmental impact would be to develop an on-land closed containment system. However, Professor Griggs concluded that this could significantly raise energy costs and, critically, negate the premium that is paid on Scottish Salmon due to the quality of the marine environment that the salmon are grown in.   

Investigating this option was a commitment in the SNP’s pre-election manifesto but with concerns over Scotland’s place in the global salmon market, it will be interesting to see how this develops. 

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On hope for future compromise, it is worth reflecting on a comment from Professor Griggs: “The degree of mistrust, dislike, and vitriol at both an institutional and personal level between the industry (mainly finfish), certain regulators, parts of the Scottish Government and other stakeholders is at a level that I have never seen before which makes the current working relationships within the sector challenging.”  

Hamish Macdonell, director of strategic engagement at Salmon Scotland, said: "Scottish salmon has a great environmental story to tell with its very low carbon footprint, low water use and excellent feed conversion rate. The sustainable growth of this key sector in the Scottish economy can help the country become an integral part of the burgeoning blue economy which is going to be so important for the world in the years to come."