With its low carbon footprint and globally renowned produce, Scotland's salmon industry is a 'blue economy' success story with major expansion prospects, explains new Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation chief executive Tavish Scott. By Colin Cardwell

As we anticipate the United Nation’s Conference of Parties (COP26) next year and engage with the Scottish Government’s ambitious target of net-zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045, Scots have become very familiar with the concept of the green economy

The blue economy however – the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth while preserving the health of our marine and coastal ecosystem – is without question one of Scotland’s most important assets, says Tavish Scott, the recently-appointed chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation.

The salmon farming sector is one with the ability to produce nutritious and healthy fish from the sea and is Scotland’s number one export food export, one with significant growth prospects, adds the former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and MSP who believes the sector  that has “an incredibly good environmental story to tell with a low carbon footprint, low freshwater use and great feed conversion rates”.

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This is demonstrably good news for the economy at a time when the country is still battling the coronavirus pandemic and dealing with the continuing uncertainty of Brexit. “I would strongly argue that the farmed fish sector is one of our brightest lights when it comes to getting through a very difficult economic time for the country and it is building for the future on its already considerable expertise.

“It has the potential to operate sustainably and responsibly producing a product that not only is  very much in demand from customers in Scotland and across the UK but internationally as well.”

From the Northern Isles through the north coast and western Highlands to the Outer Hebrides and Argyll and the Clyde, salmon farming has brought benefits to many far-flung areas where other jobs simply don’t exist. 

“The rural economy is highly dependent on the farmed fish sector,” says Scott, who emphasises the benefits the sector brings. “Those who work in it have an average annual salary of £37,000 and no other part of the economy puts that level of wages into these areas. And in addition to the 2,500 people directly employed in fish farms there are another 10,000 who work in the sector right across Scotland.”

Many of those, he says are again in rural and island areas, relying on a supply chain of 3,500 companies who receive some £6 million-£7 million pounds of investment from the sector every year. 

Earlier this month, to highlight these advantages and put the fish farming sector in lockstep with the communities it serves, the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation published ‘A Better Future For Us All’, a new charter that sets the sustainability standards the sector aims to meet over the coming decades including 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.

The sustainability charter’s core message is straightforward, says Scott: “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.” 

It has, he adds, wide ambitions with targets that encompass every facet of fish farm operations, from fish health to the people who work in the sector and from the product itself to the career development of its employees.

It’s a strategy which dovetails with the wider sustainable economy, including the evolution of the oil and gas industry in the North Sea. “Shetland has certainly benefited from 40 years of oil and gas production, which has been a main driver of economic output,” says Scott. “That is changing both in terms of the decline of fossil fuel recovery and by a positive transitioning in the industry with a strategic shift to renewables. 

“There are two implications for salmon farming in places like Shetland, one of which is that seafood will become more and more important both in terms of value to the economy and to the people who work in it. Also, as the salmon farming sector plans fish farms in deeper waters and more exposed sites I believe we can use the engineering expertise and great knowledge of the oil and gas sector to develop, for example, mooring systems and engineering solutions that enable farms to safely secure pens in those waters." 

Thus, the same principle applies for salmon pens.  “As we look to different kinds of sites the salmon farming sector is being incredibly innovative and while that is  happening around the world, Scotland is very well placed to lead in innovation and technological advances. 

“It will do that by working with clever people in other industries who have a great deal of knowledge to bring to bear on our sector, with important crossover to other parts of the economy,” says Scott. 

He also points to a valuable collaboration with academia. “We’re very grateful to have the input of the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre and our member companies do a huge amount of work with academic partners in Scotland, whether it be the University of Stirling or other institutions including the University of the Highlands and Islands.” 

There are, he says, two salient reasons for this cooperation: “Firstly we need a constant supply of bright graduates, whether marine biologists or from other disciplines to help develop our farms, fish husbandry and management across the sector. Secondly, we need to constantly innovate, generating new ideas which include tackling the environmental impacts the sector currently has.  That comes through joint research projects with our academic partners – universities and other parts of the tertiary education system.” 

It is, of course, vital for a business that exports on a global scale to be competitive.

“People must have confidence in our sector and in the fact that Scotland is the right place to do business, because there are others farming fish in Canada, Norway and further parts of parts of the world,” says Scott. 
“It’s crucial that we put the resources and innovation in place as we invest heavily in clever people to take salmon farming in Scotland to the next level.”

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New anchoring tech cuts impact on environment

COOPERATION between the private and public sectors and academia is vital to drive innovation in  salmon farming in Scotland. Earlier this year, a consortium of researchers and industry took a significant step forward in the development of anchoring technology that could support the aquaculture sector’s ambitions to deliver long-term sustainable growth and reduce its environmental impact.

Tidal energy technology specialist Sustainable Marine Energy Ltd (SME), the University of Dundee; marine equipment supplier Gael Force Group and the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) have  been exploring the feasibility of adapting a rock anchor approach from techniques used in marine energy sites to aquaculture.

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A new multi-partner project using a cost-effective 'rock anchor' approach has successfully completed its initial testing 

With the support of software provider Optum, the initial testing phase has been successfully completed and the results will allow the group to accurately predict the loads and capacity that rock anchors can bear in field trials. The findings will also enable SME to reduce the amount of material required to manufacture the anchors, leading to a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly product.

While traditional gravity and drag anchors made of concrete or steel are suitable for existing fish farming sites, the new technology could support the deployment of aquaculture sites in more remote, higher energy locations and the  group is now progressing towards a full-scale deployment.

Adam Caton, geotechnical engineer at Sustainable Marine Energy, said: “The project has allowed us to create a more cost-effective anchoring technology that will benefit the aquaculture sector. Each partner has played a pivotal role in getting us to this point, from Dundee’s analysis of anchor behaviour to Gael Force’s input on typical fish farm mooring loads.

“These anchors have the potential to allow expansion of aquaculture to previously inaccessible sites with scope for large farms in energetic areas. This will bring benefits in terms of fish fitness and waste dispersal. This is a new sector for us and the next stage is to trial the tech at a fish farm alongside lab testing, to take another step forward  bringing the product to market.” 

Dr Michael Brown at the University of Dundee’s Geotechnical Engineering research group said: “This project has pushed us to explore the use of novel numerical simulation techniques to capture the complex behaviour associated with different rock types and distil this into practical approaches for cost-effective anchor design”.

The new anchoring technology could allow fish and shellfish farms to look at areas which are currently unusable. Locating operations in deeper, higher energy waters could help to reduce a range of health and wellbeing risks for aquaculture species, while also increasing the industry’s capacity, by allowing the development of larger farms with a lower environmental footprint.