Plenty more fish in the sea loch

Salmon steaks in frying pan Image copyright Thinkstock

We all like a good target. It smacks of ambition and focus to galvanise a team effort. And lots of us like a pan-seared salmon steak.

So doubling the amount of output from fish farming in Scotland is one target on which the industry has agreed, and so can most consumers.

Yes, the fish that was, until recently, an expensive delicacy, is now almost a staple source of protein. So with a target for growth, everyone now has something to aim for. Don't they?

Salmon is the nation's biggest food export, so it's a reassuring place to turn at a time when there's uncertainty about making our way in world trade. Compared with its main competitors, from Norway and Chile, Scottish salmon carries a healthy premium price on its tailfin.

Mussel beds provide for a growing market. There's trout. And halibut farming... well, it's still got some way to go. With all those king prawns on the supermarket shelves, having being farmed on tropical coastlines from Vietnam to Nicaragua, aquaculture is a big deal around the world.

The tonnage of world production is now larger than conventional landings of wild fish, though that has to do partly with over-fishing of stocks as much as the expansion of the farming cages.

As others grow, Scotland's share of output has fallen from 10% of world output to 7%. Part of that is because the Chilean industry collapsed due to fish disease taking hold, and has since come back into production and exporting.

The Scottish share is forecast to keep falling unless something is done to give the fillets a fillip.

Lice

So this new industry target is just the thing - taking a £1.8bn business, and aiming to grow it to £3.6bn by 2030. That's ambitious. It would bring the benefit of increased exports, and a doubling of the 8,800 workforce.

The strategy requires several factors to fall into place. One of them requires the industry to work more closely together. That can't be all that difficult. It is already dominated by a small number of big investors, and it's notable how much of that corporate clout can be found in the small building in Oslo which houses the Norwegian stock market.

Tellingly for those Brexit negotiators, non-EU Norway has to pay a tariff to get processed fish into the European Union. So its companies can supply those European markets from the Scottish cages they own, as well as their Scots processing plants.

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What else is required? They need to find a solution to what are politely called "biological challenges". Less politely, these are nasty little parasites known as sea lice. They attach themselves to salmon and, while it's claimed they do nothing to affect the quality of food on your plate, they stunt the growth of the fish, and they raise questions about animal welfare.

The industry has had a rising problem with sea lice. Once in a cage, they seem very hard to eradicate. There are biological answers called wrasse, which eat sea lice. There's been a lot of promise from that quarter, but it hasn't delivered much sign of a breakthrough.

The strategy states that almost £30m has recently been spent in each of the past five years on tackling sea lice. Think about that for a moment - £150 million.

A lot of that has involved hydrogen peroxide being poured into the fish cages. That's often known as bleach. It knocks the lice off the fish, but doesn't stop them coming back again.

The problem goes deeper than the stunted growth of fish. It is "impacting regulatory confidence and, therefore, investment in the sector".

Shopping list

Yet biological challenges are only the start. The non-bio list is: "the lack of an industry-led, all-stakeholder growth strategy; issues around consenting for aquaculture sites and the application of planning policy; workforce issues; access to finance; and the limitations of Scotland's rural infrastructure".

And what do these elements have in common? Well, once you've got the industry working together (see above), it looks like this attractive-sounding target is transformed into a pricey shopping list of what is wanted from the public sector.

The action plan is big on actions to be carried out by Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Scottish government, its chief planner, Marine Scotland, the Highlands and Islands transport partnership, the Scottish Investment Bank, and the Crown Estate.

The industry has the task of drawing up a report into its social and environmental performance, and it gets an Industry Leadership Forum in which these public agencies will sit down and talk through how to hit that target. The industry is also, surely, going to have to pony up a lot of capital investment. That's not such a big feature of this strategy, beyond a call for help from public financing options.

But the big prize of getting government and its agencies to sign up to this target is if the aquaculture industry can use that as leverage to get on the right side of the planning system. Those consents for placing cages in sea lochs are contentious, as are the planning permission for developments around them.

They face opposition from environmental groups that dislike salmon cages for the pollution they pump into sensitive eco-systems, where wild fish are affected and infected.

Ambition

It seems that the fish farmers have learned an interesting lesson from the renewable energy sector. If you can get politicians to take on the industry's ambitious targets, and to make them their own, then the industry can turn back to government to look for support in hitting those targets.

"But didn't you say you want to de-carbonise minister, and make this not just self-sufficient, but the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy? What signal will it send out if you listen to those people wanting to stop wind turbines going up? That's no way to hit your target."

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Likewise, aquaculture can say to Scottish government: "We share your ambitions for growth. We're creating a lot of jobs in small communities along Scotland's west coast. You wouldn't want to stand in the way of us growing Scotland's leading food export, now would you?"

That's why there are quite specific requests for clarity in the way planning law is applied. And the strategy calls for Marine Scotland to be split. The regulatory bit could stand alone. The other part - to promote growth in the industry - appears to conflict with the regulatory role, so it could be handled by the Scottish government.

Rural affairs minister Fergus Ewing has welcomed the industry's ambition, and is setting up the leadership forum, but he seems to have carefully avoided signing up to that target for doubling production.

Setting a target is easy. Brushing aside those obstacles? Not so much.

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