Heralding a New Era of Transparency and Engagement
Julie Hesketh-Laird, the recently appointed Chief Executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, speaks at length to Owen Stevens for World Fishing & Aquaculture
Recent news items highlighting seal shootings, disease transfer between farmed and wild salmon, coupled with stories of increasing chemical reliance in the battle against rampant sea lice outbreaks have left many in a state of confusion and raised a question mark over the ongoing sustainability of farming Atlantic salmon. Viewers of the BBC One Show and readers of national newspapers, including the Times, Guardian and Herald, could be forgiven for thinking that the Scottish salmon aquaculture industry has a lot to answer for.
The need to resolve criticisms such as these, and to effectively represent the collective voice of a geographically scattered industry group, were some of the factors that led to the formation of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO). Replacing the former Scottish Salmon Growers Association (SSGA) and bringing multiple industry matters under one umbrella, the SSPO, in its current guise, was formed in 2006. Nowadays, the SSPO tends to a broad range of trade and industry affairs, including management of quality marks, such as Label Rouge.
Following the retirement of Scott Landsburgh in early 2018, a new hand has come to the helm of the SSPO; Julie Hesketh-Laird is the organisation’s new chief executive, having moved over from the Scotch Whisky Association. Against a backdrop of renewed industry criticism and an ongoing Scottish parliamentary investigation into the salmon farming industry, she has had a sharp learning curve.
“I’ve been phenomenally busy learning about the industry and meeting industry partners over the last six months,” she said, adding that the status quo, if there ever was one, is not an option for the sector. “I can see an opportunity for the salmon industry to better engage and to have more meaningful relationships with people that have different ideas. I see everything to gain by being more open.”
“The changes I’ll be putting in place require capacity. It takes time to sit with people and to engage. It will involve getting with scientists and fish health people, sharing information, a load of analysis on our data, some internal conversations about what we mean by our transparency agenda, what are the expectations of stakeholders, what will satisfy them, and actually what will help satisfy the industry itself towards this common goal.”
To facilitate this, two new key appointments have been made; a new director of sustainability, Anne Anderson (formerly compliance chief at SEPA) plus a new director of strategic engagement, Hamish Macdonell (formerly Scottish political editor of the Times and the Scotsman) are recent additions to the SSPO team. While the organisation repositions itself, it is clear that we can expect to be hearing more from it – along with an increased accessibility to industry data. While all members follow a code of good practice (CoGP), they now also voluntarily submit monthly sea lice and mortality data. The intention is to become increasingly transparent moving ahead. This agenda starts at the top.
“My door is open and I’m learning who the people are that we need to be sitting down with and talking to right now,” Julie Hesketh-Laird said.
With a turnover of £797 million in 2016, farmed Atlantic salmon is now the biggest value seafood item in the UK domestic market, as well as the UK’s largest food export. In some respects, it appears ironic that an industry which invests over £50 million in innovation and £10 million a year in research finds itself on the back foot. Statements mentioning the industry’s intent to double production by 2030 have proved incendiary to critics. On this topic, Hesketh-Laird notes that, “The industry has stated its intent to double its value by 2030. Value and volume are linked but are obviously not the same. Five percent annual growth would get us there. Framed in that way, I believe this goal can be achieved sustainability”.
Industry making huge efforts
Clearly, the goal is a value proposition and indeed the industry could do with producing a few more fish, if it is not going to become a bit player in the global game. Always playing second fiddle to Norway and Chile, Scotland’s market share of global production volume declined from 18% to 8% between 2000 and 2016. Growth in Scotland’s salmon farming industry has barely budged in the last two decades. Compare this to Norway’s volume growth of 280% over this period, or 320% for the Chilean sector, and one is left asking why the industry in Scotland has not expanded in line with the markets it supplies.
Evidently, biology and predominantly gill health issues are a major factor. Scotland’s waters are warmer than Norway’s - and they have become significantly warmer in recent years, possibly accounting for an increased prevalence of amoebic gill disease and indeed sea lice, amongst other challenges. Hesketh-Laird has her own perspective on this.
“The industry is making huge efforts on disease management, gill health issues, sea lice, cleaner fish and many others. We need to communicate what is being done,” she said. “It’s the industry’s social license that needs work. We need to work harder at gaining trust and shine a light on the good work that’s going on. Social license has to be earned and you will only improve social license if you improve understanding. It’s not the biology or carrying capacity [that has halted the growth of the sector]. It is less biological and more relationship issues that are at fault, it’s the regulatory regime and the conversations people in Scotland have with each other. We need to reset the questions and take the heat and the tension out of the conversation. We need to build trust as well.”
Although the SSPO represents over 90% of marine production in Scotland, it has just eight producer members, whereas membership of its predecessor, the SSGA, stood at 94 in 1988. This bears testimony to the sector’s rapid evolution. Against a backdrop of challenges, both biological and economic, the industry has seen dynamic consolidation occur after years of mergers, acquisitions - and closures. Despite having consolidated to approximately one tenth the number of owner-operators that existed in the 80s, the industry still operates many small, relatively low-tonnage sites. According to Ben Hadfield, managing director of Marine Harvest Scotland, the sector produces around 170,000 tonnes of salmon on 207 farms, whereas Norway’s output is over 1,200,000 tonnes from 250 sites. An industry move to bigger, more exposed sites seems inevitable, albeit with due caution and consideration – especially with regards to the welfare of farm workers as operating offshore is not something to be undertaken lightly.
Looking ahead, both the SSPO and industry have their work cut out for them. Although huge strides have been made in mitigating fish health and welfare concerns, reliance on wild fish inputs have declined, and much has been done to curtail environmental impacts, it is clear that producers must engage more openly with all stakeholders. Avenues of cooperation with wild fisheries, recreational anglers, political interests and an array of special interest groups must be actively sought and nurtured.
It will never be enough to reduce seal mortality to zero (although this is on the horizon) or to conquer the threat of sea lice, or highlight the carbon-friendly nature of salmon aquaculture (under a tenth the footprint of beef).
“It’s a relatively new industry,” she points out. “There will be bumps and grinding of gears in the process. We ought not to be surprised at the level of scrutiny. We need to get better at dealing with it and telling the world how we are getting on top of it. We don’t forage for vegetables or hunt for meat anymore. Fish farming is just taking its place alongside poultry farming and everything else.”
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