Scotland’s Vision for Sustainable Aquaculture fails to see the full picture

10th Aug 23 by Megan Romania & Jessica Sinclair Taylor

The Sottish Government’s Vision falls short as it fails to consider the farmed salmon sector's heavy reliance on wild fish for salmon feed.

On 21 July 2023, the Scottish Government published its much-anticipated Vision for Sustainable Aquaculture, outlining proposed measures to both increase the productivity of Scotland’s aquaculture sector and help reduce its impact on the environment by 2045. 

However, the Scottish Government’s Vision falls short as it fails to consider Scotland’s global impacts on the ocean through the farmed salmon sector’s heavy reliance on wild fish in salmon feed. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of this reliance, and the need for strong political leadership to start to find solutions, the strategy falls back on industry lines. Just one line concerns feed, saying the sector will achieve its climate and circular economy goals by “using 100% responsibly sourced marine and vegetable ingredients in finfish feeds, identifying opportunities to use a greater quantity of novel ingredients, trimmings and other by-products”.

‘Responsible sourcing’ is highly contested for both plant ingredients like soy and, in particular, for fishmeal and fish oil (FMFO) made from wild fish. The Scottish salmon farming sector is highly reliant on FMFO, as part of its sales pitch is the high omega 3 content of its salmon, a feature that relies on the wild fish-based ingredients in the salmons’ diets. Feedback research from 2019 shows the Scottish salmon industry used an estimated 460,000 tonnes of wild-caught fish in feed – roughly the same as the amount of seafood purchased by the entire adult population of the UK in one year – to produce 179,000 tonnes of salmon.

Scottish farmed salmon – the single-largest UK food export by value – must play the central role in the transition to a sustainable aquaculture sector. In 2021, the salmon farming sector harvested 205,393 tonnes of salmon, up 7% from 2020 and the highest level of production recorded in Scotland. Successive parliamentary committees have recommended tighter regulation of the sector to address some of the environmental harms it causes, which are by no means limited to the impact of feed sourcing. 

Much of the fish used to produce FMFO can be eaten by humans; turning it into FMFO instead is hugely inefficient. Our study demonstrates that, by limiting salmon farming to using feed made from fish byproducts, rather than whole wild-caught fish, 3.7 million tonnes of fish could be left in the sea and global seafood production could increase by 6.1 million tonnes. Additionally, these alternative production scenarios produced more seafood that was more nutritious than through salmon farming and, crucially, left 66-82% of feed fish in the sea.

Global demand for marine ingredients is outtripping supply, and increasing volumes of the wild-caught fish used in FMFO is sourced from countries like The Gambia, Senegal, and Mauritania, where local communities are heavily reliant on fish for food and work. An Amnesty International expose revealed The Gambia’s fishmeal factories processed more than an estimated 16,600 tonnes of small pelagic fishes in 2018 – equivalent to a third of the country’s total fish catches that year. This is in addition to the 19,300 tonnes of fish exported annually, seriously threatening availability of this fish in local markets.

This competition between the fishmeal industry and local sellers is disproportionately impacting local women, who make up 80% of fish processors and 50% of small-scale fish traders in the country. In May, Feedback convened a multilingual panel of women from Senegal, The Gambia, Sweden and Scotland to share how they and their communities have been impacted by the global fish farming and aquaculture industries.

Increasingly, aquaculture companies are facing challenges sourcing FMFO from certified fisheries; this is particularly true in a year when Peru, one of the major fisheries supplying this market, is facing record-high prices amid ‘acute’ supply shortage due to cancellation of the first anchovy season. To maintain supply, they will turn to more and more unstable and unregulated fisheries zones and markets, increasing the risk that fish populations are over-exploited and local people lose access to vital livelihoods. 

Swallowing the industry’s misleading promise of ‘responsible sourcing’ is irresponsible and will lead to major harms both to ocean ecosystems and to communities around the world who depend on them. If the Scottish Government really wishes to live up to its promises on biodiversity and having a sustainable international footprint, it should introduce much stronger regulation on feed sourcing, including complete transparency on where companies are sourcing feed ingredients and a binding target to work towards no wild-caught fish being caught solely to feed farmed salmon. Scotland has the opportunity to build a name for itself as a beacon of environmental leadership on aquaculture, at a time when the industry is expanding around the world. 

Ultimately, reduction fisheries (i.e. used to produce FMFO rather than for direct human consumption) cannot play a role in a healthy and ecologically sustainable future food system. For the Scottish Government to meet the Vision’s goals to only use responsibly sourced marine ingredients in finfish feeds, and ultimately achieve an aquaculture sector that is sustainable and operates within environmental limits, it must commit to removing wild-caught fish from its FMFO production.


Further reading:

Making Scottish farmed salmon sustainable: recommendations for policy-makers

The Hidden Cost of Farmed Salmon: Exploring why Sainsbury’s farmed salmon supplier Mowi doesn’t live up to its sustainable image and what Sainsbury’s needs to do about it 

On the Hook: Certification’s failure to protect wild fish populations from the appetite of the Scottish salmon industry

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