The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Edinburgh. Members of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee will begin another inquiry into the salmon sector next month.

Salmon sector facing new Holyrood inquiry

MSPs will look at four main themes

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Scotland’s salmon farming sector is to face a new inquiry from the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs and Islands Committee (RAIC), to look into the implementation of recommendations resulting from a previous inquiry by its predecessor, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee (RECC), in 2018.

The RECC report considered the state of the salmon industry in Scotland, identified opportunities for its future development and explored how fish health and environmental challenges could be addressed.

The new inquiry will look at the report’s recommendations and assess where progress has been made across four themes:

  • environmental impacts and regulatory reform
  • animal welfare
  • interactions with wild salmon
  • economic and social benefit

Farm visit

The new inquiry comprises four evidence sessions next month, then a committee visit to a salmon farm on September 22-23 after Parliament’s summer recess, then two final evidence sessions on September 25 and October 5.

The full timetable is:

  • June 5: Evidence from non-governmental organisations and aquaculture scientists
  • June 12: Evidence on farmed fish health; evidence from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA)
  • June 19: Evidence on licensing and consenting issues
  • June 26: Evidence from the Salmon Interactions Working Group
  • September 22-23: Committee visit
  • September 25: Evidence from salmon farming industry representatives
  • October 2: Evidence from the Rural Affairs Secretary (currently Mairi Gougeon)

Gougeon last gave evidence to the RAIC about salmon farming on May 10 last year, when she said the Scottish Government was open to revenues collected by the state for fish farm rents being used to support rural housing.

Streamlined consenting

In the same evidence session committee members also heard from Malcolm Pentland, a deputy director within Scotland’s civil service, who highlighted progress being made towards introducing a streamlined consenting process for new Scottish salmon farms.

A Scottish Government-commissioned report by regulatory expert Professor Russel Griggs in 2022 had recommended changes to simplify and speed up the process.

In his report, Griggs said: “The degree of mistrust, dislike, and vitriol at both an institutional and personal level between the industry (mainly finfish), certain regulators, parts of the Scottish Government and other stakeholders is at a level that I have never seen before which makes the current working relationships within the sector challenging.”

Healing the rifts

Pentland told the RAIC that the formation of the Scottish Aquaculture Council and the Consenting Task Group (CTG) to follow up on Griggs’ recommendations had helped heal the rifts.

“There has been real progress in that in terms of the stakeholders. We’ve brought them all together – the same stakeholders whom I think Professor Griggs’ report highlighted [had] some real difficulties with relationships and trust,” said Pentland.

“We’ve got those stakeholders coming together, all talking about their perspective on the process, the challenges they face, and importantly we’re thinking about how to come up with solutions together. Over the course of nine months there really has been a change; we have participants there referring to the positive camaraderie within that group where we have SEPA, we have local authority planners, we have government, we have industry.”

'Anti' voice is loudest

Griggs has also previously given evidence to the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, another previous incarnation of what is now the RAIC.

In the evidence session, on June 22, 2022, Griggs said that the views of working people in coastal communities who support fish farming were sometimes going unheard because “economically inactive” residents who had moved to the area and opposed the industry were better organised and shouted louder.

“It’s quite clear from the work I did on this [review] that the ‘anti’ voice in some places is very well funded, it’s very well resourced, which perhaps the local voice isn’t. So, it’s about trying to bring in to that some balance so that we understand when we’re listening to voices that it’s not just the loudest that should get their way, but it should be one that’s based on evidence.”

Innovation and investment

Tavish Scott, chief executive of trade body Salmon Scotland, said: “As one of the biggest employers in rural Scotland, generating nearly £800 million for the economy and raising the UK’s largest food export, it’s absolutely right for the committee to continue its ongoing work programme to look at our nation’s vital salmon sector.

“We look forward to supporting the committee’s work and highlighting the innovation and investment in making our low carbon sector even more sustainable.

“We are particularly excited about taking committee members to a salmon farm – for many of them for the first time – so they can see for themselves the reality of salmon farming in 2024, and most importantly, listen to the hard-working farmers who take care of their fish and deliver the highest animal welfare standards anywhere in the world.”