BBC News

Salmon leaps in fish farm boom

Douglas Fraser
Business and economy editor, Scotland


A million portions of salmon each day, and that's in the UK alone.

Even while the retail consortium reports continuing strong food price inflation this morning, it's worth remembering how salmon prices have fallen over recent years.

What was a luxury has become commonplace in the 40 years since the first commercial haul of 14 tonnes of salmon from cages in Loch Ailort near Fort William.

Celebrating that anniversary with its annual report today, the Scottish Salmon Producers Association has set out a goal of 4% growth per year over this decade, increasing production from 144,000 tonnes last year to 210,000 tonnes by 2020.

It's stressing it wants to do so in a sustainable way. The industry is acutely conscious of the need to protect and enhance the image of farmed fish. That's in the face of concern about antibiotics in feed, and the impact on wild stocks.

Scotland and the world leader, Norway, have seen their production and exports boom in recent years. That's owed much to the collapse of the Chilean industry because of disease, the gradual re-building of that South American competitor will eventually bring it back to being a global player.

But it's being hampered by continued use of antibiotics, according to Marine Harvest, Oslo-listed industry leader, which last month set out bullish forecasts for price and its own output, and an appetite for acquisition downstream in the processing sector.

The SSPO shares that expectation that demand will remain buoyant. It cites expert reckoning that there's an unmet demand for about190,000 tonnes in the global market, keeping prices strong.

Its industry survey found 90% of producers are very confident or confident about future demand, with 78% saying they expect to take on staff in the next five years.

Breeding fish in captivity went back a bit before 1971 in Lochaber.

James Maitland was pioneering freshwater breeding commercially near Stirling from 1881, and the Howietoun Fishery he started is still one of the few names in the highly consolidated and Norwegian-dominated SSPO membership, owned and run by Stirling University.

Scotland was no pioneer of the modern era. Fish farming on a commercial scale has been growing for about 60 years, with China taking a colossal lead. Aquaculture accounts for 80% of the fish its people consume.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation says that, in 2008, China produced 62% of global aquaculture produce by quantity and more than 50% by value.

Worldwide, farmed fish is about half of the total for human consumption, and its share is growing rapidly, as one of the more dynamic answers to rapidly growing demand for protein, particularly amid the growing prosperity of emerging economies.

Salmon is a small part of that story, accounting for less than 6% by volume. The dominant species are freshwater, and carp in particular.

With landings from wild catches levelling out over recent decades, largely due to stocks under threat from over-fishing, fish farming for food has been growing at more than 8% per year over the past 40 years.

And while salmon continues to be a success story for Scotland, the next 40 years could see more species feature. Farmed shellfish has plenty room to grow, and other species are being researched.

Apart from fish, the Chinese and other Asians have some lessons to teach the rest of us in harvesting farmed seaweed as well, nearly 16m tonnes of it in 2008.

Anyone for sushi?