by Tavish Scott

In a sheltered glen on the Isle of Rum, two modern, wood-clad sustainable homes are nearing completion.

The houses are the result of a gift by Mowi, the salmon farming company. They cleared the land, put in the services and then handed the plots over to the island’s community trust which can now generate money by renting them out.

Over on the Isle of Lewis, an award-winning project is under way with the Scottish Salmon Company to turn fish-farm waste into hydrogen. This will then power local bin lorries – using waste to collect waste.

These are just two initiatives being pioneered by Scotland’s salmon farmers operating at the heart of their local communities, working with them on local people’s priorities.

For years, salmon farmers have pursued these sorts of projects – sports team shirt sponsorships and help with a playground area.

Now a new Charter has been published, putting the fish farming sector in lockstep with the communities they serve.

A Better Future For Us All sets the sustainability standards the sector will meet over the coming decades.

There are commitments to be net zero in greenhouse gas emissions before 2045, to source all feed from sustainable sources and to become 100 per cent renewable energy users.

However, if our Charter is to be boiled down into a single idea, it would be this: Scotland produces the best salmon in the world to the highest standards, but we want to remain the best in the world so we will go further and aim higher in order to stay at the top.

There are two colourful themes at the core of Scottish Government thinking as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic: Green Recovery and Blue Economy.

The aims are pretty clear, to make sure that recovery is environmentally sustainable and that we harness the potential of the seas properly and responsibly.

These two ideas run through every page of A Better Future For Us All – indeed, the designers even turned the pages aquamarine, just in case the point was missed.

But while the environment is central to this vision of the future, it is only one strand.

Our sustainability charter is wide in ambition. Its targets stretch across every facet of fish farm operations, from fish health to the people who work in the sector, from the product itself to the career development of our employees.

But sustainable development is not a straightforward process. Consider where Scotland’s salmon farming sector sits internationally.

Scottish salmon farming has been growing at about the rate of 2.9 per cent per year over the last decade. That could probably be described as solid but, when compared to our competitors, it is decidedly modest. In the 10 years to 2018, the Faroese salmon sector grew by 125%, the Australian by 104% and the Norwegians by 68%.

That is why Scotland’s share of the global market is shrinking. Ten years ago, we had a 10% share of the global market: now, our share is 7% and it will drop further unless we address that.

There is a massive opportunity here. The global market for salmon is growing: Scottish salmon is the premium product and recognised as such. Increasing exports of such a niche product could help drive the economic recovery everyone wants to see.

But that is unlikely to happen when other countries make it easier for companies to invest and farm.

Put bluntly: it costs more to produce salmon in Scotland than it does elsewhere. Our production costs are 28% higher than Norway and 36% higher than Chile. Global companies will pick and choose where to invest and this matters.

The principle way to address this is by making the regulatory system more efficient. At the moment, it is cumbersome, bureaucratic and complicated. The controls and conditions we operate within were created when salmon farming was in its infancy. Fifty years on, our highly innovative “5G” sector is hindered by its “2G” regulatory network. We are not asking for less regulation or looser regulation: what we want is better regulation.

Why on earth do we have a system where a prospective salmon farmer has to apply for four different permissions, through four different government bodies? 

And then, each one of those bodies acts as a statutory consultee on each of the other licences.

Not only that, but half the permissions are controlled by land-based regulations for a sea-based farm and none of them consider the climate change issues we face today. That is an extraordinary system and certainly not fit for purpose.

This can be streamlined so that the public and government bodies who currently have a say on whether we farm, where we farm and how we farm, continue to do so but they must come together to determine the application holistically, with all considerations taken together and sustainably balanced with each other.

The terms Green Recovery and the Blue Economy sound great, but they need to be made real. Scottish salmon can lead on both of them – we just need a little help to really drive them forward.

Tavish Scott is Chief Executive of Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation.