Farmed salmon remains Scotland’s biggest food export and the sector is working hard to address its biological issues, writes Anthony Harrington
Scotland’s salmon farmers have good reason for optimism. The product – chilled, traditionally smoked, hot smoked, or cured as gravadlax – is one of the country’s most sought after exports. In fact, it’s established itself as our number one food export with customers in France and China taking the biggest share, while countries such as Poland and Ireland are also major consumers.
Figures released earlier this month showed that salmon exports continue to grow at record levels: over the first nine months of 2017 sales were valued at £483 million for fresh whole fish, a 56 per cent increase on export value on the same period last year while in the past three months alone 21,000 tonnes were exported, worth £136m and up 39 per cent in value over the same period
With France having overtaken the US as the top destination for the product, Scott Landsburgh, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) says: “It is evident that the production standards and commitment to quality are fully recognised around the world, and no more so than in France. It is fitting that as we celebrate 25 years of holding the Label Rouge award, sales have reached an all-time high.
“The continuing export success of Scottish salmon is a trail-blazer for other Scottish food overseas and a major contributor to rural Scotland. Our achievement means that young people, communities and local suppliers all benefit from the economic success.”
Overall, says the SSPO, employment is up by 13 per cent, capital investment remains steady at £63m for the second year running and more than £390m was spent in the Scottish supply chain.
Like any industry, salmon farming has faced critics and it has had its critics among environmental NGOs and the wild salmon sector. Spokespeople from the salmon farming sector would be the first to admit that the sector has had its biological challenges, but then so does every farming sector.
There is probably no such thing as zero impact farming, and many in the farmed salmon sector would argue that it is up to society to decide what level of environmental impact is acceptable, given that people need food.
The industry’s current problems with sea lice have been documented but as Grant Cumming, Managing Director of Grieg Seafood observes, salmon farmers have developed solutions to deal with the problem and it is being managed down to levels where the impact of sea lice on product will be reduced in the near future.
“We are being completely open and transparent about the state of the sea lice problem. We have said that it is a good thing to have public scrutiny on the issue because it galvanises the industry to come up with solutions,”
The actions Grieg has taken on sea lice include cutting production and allowing farms to lie fallow for much longer. “Less fish in the farmed pens is of course helpful and allowing farms to lie fallow for three months of the year – which is what we are now doing – breaks the life cycle of the sea lice and clears the sea bed,” he explains.
In addition, Grieg is now deploying sea lice skirts around the netting on its farms. Since sea lice have a free-swimming plankton stage in their life cycle, this stops them getting through the nets and infesting the fish.
“We will also be stocking all our pens with lump sucker fish. These are “cleaner-fish” that eat the sea lice off the salmon,” he comments.
Grieg is also trialling warm water baths for the fish. By heating the water in the pens to 30 degrees for a brief period the sea lice die off. Another cure is to pump fresh water into the pen.
As Cumming points out, in the wild, sea trout can rid themselves of sea lice by swimming up a stream since sea lice cannot tolerate fresh water.
“We take the quality of our product very seriously. In 2016 we spent some £5.4m on sea lice control and we will be spending more this year, so we are doing our bit to keep the problem down. Both wild salmon and farmed salmon are hugely important for the Scottish economy. We would call on the wild salmon sector to work together with the farmed salmon sector to find solutions,” he says.
The SSPO’s Scott Landsburgh agrees that conditions for salmon farmers have verged on the difficult this year, despite the tonnage being shipped still being excellent.
However, algal blooms, sea lice and salmon gill infestations are causes for concern and are generating more fatalities than the industry is comfortable with.
However, as he points out, the salmon farming sector has a very small environmental footprint and is proud of this fact. If it had to move to on shore constructed pens, the energy required to sustain the pens, quite apart from the energy costs associated with the build, would give the sector a huge problem.
The NGOs have a mantra about salmon farming that they keep repeating and the media keeps on reporting it, he says, but their story neglects the fact that this is a highly viable, economically beneficial industry for Scotland, as well as being an industry that the regulator is very comfortable with.
“We are a highly regulated industry and while no one would deny the biological challenges we have spent some £60m as an industry this year on animal welfare measures and we expect to spend the same again in 2018. We are making progress and all the metrics about the biological health of our product are moving in the right direction,” he comments.
He points out that the Scottish Atlantic salmon farming sector is no different from other primary food production industries in having its challenges from time to time.
“We all see cycles of higher than acceptable mortality in our farmed stock from time to time but we are seeing real improvements in sea lice and gill challenges,” he notes.
One of the characteristics of the salmon farming sector is the rarity of new entrants. Scott points out that this is directly attributable to the high start-up costs.
“You need a certain volume of biomass to make salmon farming economically viable, so it is very much a deep pockets exercise. You also need a stout heart since there is a strong element of risk, as there is in all primary food production,” he comments.
However, farmed salmon remains part of a sector that has an extremely positive story to tell – and appears to be telling it very wel