Claudia Beamish: So long, and thanks for all the fish

Claudia Beamish MSP, Shadow spokesperson for the Environment Climate Change and Land Reform Spokesperson, takes a look at the reforms that are desperately needed to stop the growth of salmon farming causing irrevocable damage to Scotland’s environment.

Fish farming in Scotland is a valuable industry that brings jobs and revenue to our shores. We are currently the largest producer of farmed salmon in the EU, and the third largest globally, producing 162,817 tonnes in 2016 alone. Our fresh salmon is exported to over 50 countries, making it our top food export.

Excuse the pun, but nothing comes without a catch.

There have always been concerns about the intensive nature of salmon farming. Organisations like Scottish Salmon Watch have repeatedly voiced concerns about the welfare of the fish being farmed, and the effect on the surrounding environment.

Issues like lice infested farmed salmon infecting healthy wild fish in the area, effluent from salmon farms polluting water, and farmers killing over 800 seals since 2011 in order to protect their stock continue to worry environmental groups.

Recently, evidence has come to light of some farms in Scotland masking high levels of fish mortality in their cages by shortening production cycles through early harvesting.

I’m fully in support of an industry that brings jobs and revenue to Scotland, particularly in its most fragile coastal communities. But I have always believed that industry be properly regulated to ensure that it is sustainable on welfare and environmental grounds.

That’s why one of my first jobs as an MSP was working to amend the Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill in 2006 to ensure farm-level assessment and reporting of issues, which would give companies an opportunity to sort out issues, protecting both our environment, the welfare of fish, and their reputations.

However, the SNP government voted down my amendments, and the farming industry was allowed to proceed with reporting on a voluntary basis.

Now, my committee has commissioned an inquiry into salmon farming in Scotland. It has considered the current state of salmon industry in Scotland, identified opportunities for its future development and explored how the various fish health and environmental challenges it currently faces can be addressed.

From the findings of the inquiry my committee concluded that the same set of concerns regarding the environmental impact of salmon farming exist now as in 2002 but the scale and impact of these has expanded. There has been a lack of progress in tackling many of the key issues previously identified and unacceptable levels of mortality persist.

The planned expansion of the industry over the next 10-15 years will place huge pressures on the environment. Industry growth targets of 300,000 - 400,000 tonnes by 2030 do not take into account the capacity of the environment to farm that quantity of salmon. If the current issues are not addressed this expansion will be unsustainable and may cause irrecoverable damage to the environment. We need adaptive management for fish farms using real-time, farm by farm data which would have the potential to reduce environmental impacts of intensive farming as it expands.

We sometimes forget that industry and environmental groups are essentially on the same side. We all want a sustainable environment with healthy and well looked after fish stocks.

There was an opportunity in 2006 to regulate the industry properly to ensure that it can expand in a sustainable way. The opportunity was missed, and unregulated salmon farming is putting pressure on our delicate environmental balance. If we continue to get it wrong, and destroy the conditions for healthy and well cared for stock, it may mean there will come a time where we really do have to say to our environment:

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

The photo used for this article is by John Allan, and entitled 'Salmon farm in Portree Bay'.

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