The commercial farming of fish or shellfish – is not a term that’s in everyday use in Scotland, but it is a sector with an economic value approaching £2 billion.
The Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) in Stirling has ambitions to grow that further in terms of production, exports, revenue and job creation.
SAIC’s work connecting the industry and academia has already proved successful. In the three years since its inception it has worked with 32 industry and 11 academic partners, helping them towards 16 collaborative projects with a total investment of £17.9 million.
Heather Jones, SAIC chief executive, is pleased with its progress so far: “In the first three-and-a-half years of our existence we’ve taken £5.1 million from the Scottish Funding Council and Scottish Government and we’ve turned that into £17.9m worth of research projects, so we’ve secured a really high level of leverage by pulling in £10.1m from industry.
“I think we have a strong track record of showing that it’s not public money funding public pet projects, it’s public money supporting the industry and de-risking some of the research, where you don’t know the outcome before you start.
“We’ve been able to get industry to invest significantly in their own R & D in collaboration with Scottish researchers.
“Our strapline is ‘industry success through research partnerships’ so the whole point of investing in research activities is that it drives the Scottish economy, which has social and economic benefits for communities as well as to the companies, which reinvest their profits and want to expand further in Scotland.”
Jones puts a lot of that down to SAIC’s industry-led board with a consortium of 75 companies and around 20 universities and research bodies.
“What we do is bring the industry’s challenges and issues to academia, so we can get the brightest and best brains from our researches to help solve those commercially challenging problems.
“We have four priority areas we invest in and for each area we’ll convene a workshop with academic experts in the field from around the world. We have people from Norway and elsewhere so we’re at the cutting edge of science.
“Industry are very happy to engage in dialogue with the academics, and we broker putting together research projects.
Jones continues: “One thing that’s typical of a SAIC research project is we normally have multiple partners. The largest has ten companies working on a project with an academic.
“In others we have three companies with two universities. By doing that we are able to secure much bigger levels of investment because all the companies will be contributing and we’re able to deliver much bigger impact across the sector because everybody gets a share in the knowledge that comes out of the research.”
Jones points to salmon as a particular Scottish success story. It is Scotland and the UK’s biggest food export with an extremely high global demand and is worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year to our economy.
“It gets a premium price in the global marketplace because of its provenance and recognition of it being grown in pristine, clean seas,” says Jones.
“Scotland has some of the highest fish health and welfare standards in the world, so consumers can buy it with confidence, that it has been a well looked after fish.
“It’s a big and important industry for the rural economy of the Highlands and Islands, it sustains companies and jobs across Scotland.
“Many highly-paid and highly-skilled jobs in rural economies Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and some of the Inner Isles – sustain local communities, help keep schools and post offices open, and create good quality jobs that are quite diverse.
“We almost can’t grow enough salmon to satisfy the need so there’s a great opportunity for this sector to become a booming part of the economy in Scotland.”
When looking to the future of salmon production, one can sense a touch of envy as Jones considers Norway’s example.
“If we look at how salmon production has grown in Scotland compared to Norway it has barely grown at all in the past ten or 15 years while Norway has doubled its production and now wants to increase it by a factor of five by 2050.
“Their government has a clear strategy of expanding their salmon sector – they call it a renewable industry for when the oil runs out.
“If Scotland wanted to adopt the same idea that’s a really attractive proposition from our perspective.”
SALMON may be the largest component in the Scottish aquaculture sector, but others – such as haddock, mackerel, crab, mussels, scallops and cram – have no less important a place in its structure.
The family-owned Shetland Mussels is a major producer of rope-grown mussels and has been around for 20 years growing, harvesting and packing more than 1000 tons of the mollusc for markets across the UK through the Scottish Shellfish Marketing Cooperative (SSMC).
It employs 17 people and is owned equally by Lollie Tait and his sons Michael and Richard.
The company has recently been working with the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) in Stirling on a new hatchery, aiming to increase the production of mussels produced in the clear, clean and wild waters around the UK’s most northerly islands.
Michael Tait, director and co-owner, told The National: “Most of our 19 members in the co-op farm mussels and the biggest technical challenge we face is having a reliable source of spat (baby mussels).
“We dangle ropes in the water at the right time of the year and hope for the best, and that’s got us as far as we have so far, so we’re producing 7500-8000 tonnes of mussels per year.”