Scottish salmon’s unsustainable appetite – Who benefits?

24th Aug 22 by James Martin, Fishy Business Intern

The Scottish salmon industry has been given the green light to double the production of salmon by 2030. But at what cost?

‘The Scottish Government supports the industry’s growth strategy to double the production of salmon by 2030’ – a statement now broadcast by every Scottish salmon producer in some variation or other.

But what might the consequences of this huge growth be?

Evidence of the negative impacts of salmon farming is piling up. It seems reasonable, given the magnitude of the salmon farming sector’s ambitions, to question whether there are unaccounted for social, environmental and economic costs to this increase in production and if the industry really is providing the benefits it claims it is.

A billion-pound industry

Growing at a rapid pace since the ‘70s, the Scottish salmon farming industry has gone from producing just 14 tonnes of fish for commercial sale in 1971 to more than 203,000 tonnes in 2019. That same year, the industry turned over more than £1 billion and claimed its position as the UK’s largest food export by value. No two ways about it, over the past five decades, the Scottish salmon farming industry has become a highly profitable and lucrative business. Today, you can find hundreds of salmon farms all along the west and north coasts of Scotland and the fish they produce in every UK supermarket. But as Feedback’s research and investigations have shown, the industry is built on a highly extractive business model which incurs significant external costs for Scottish society and the environment. These findings are backed up by economic analysis which shows that the total environmental and social cost over a seven-year period is in the region of £2 billion. And yet a big chunk of the financial returns generated by the industry are flowing out of the country: in an article published last year, we revealed that the industry is Scottish in name only, with all five of the major salmon farming businesses owned by foreign companies, including several Norwegian companies and a US investment firm.

Key to this industry’s expansion is the Scottish Government. Despite a 2018 parliamentary inquiry showing just how environmentally damaging the salmon industry is, the Government supports the expansion of the industry on account of the contribution it makes to the economy. However, a recent review of the economic contribution of Scottish salmon farms by the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust (SIFT) shows that the Gross Value Added (GVA) used by Marine Scotland to measure the industry’s contribution to the economy has potentially been exaggerated by 124% and the number of people it employs by a massive 251%. SIFT states that the evidence and reasoning for expansion are “partial, incomplete, unreliable and even irrelevant” and should not be used to increase production without further evidence. This didn’t stop cabinet secretary Mairi Gougeon MSP from using these potentially inflated figures to promote the Scottish salmon farming industry at COP26, when she stated, “the Scottish aquaculture sector supports almost 12,000 often highly skilled and well paid jobs”. Even if we consider this figure to be true, it represents a mere 5% of the number of people employed by the tourism industry across Scotland.

The incomplete picture relied upon by the Government fails to include the loss of jobs and income in other marine-based businesses. This is a particularly shocking omission if we consider the significant levels of pollution the industry generates and the rapid decline of Scotland’s wild salmon stocks, threatening the jobs and income of commercial shellfisheries, recreational fishing, recreational diving, and tourism all over Scotland. If the idea behind the Government’s endorsement is to create jobs, then perhaps it would be better off rebuilding wild stocks or supporting the farming of less harmful species. For instance, the shellfish farming industry is dwarfed by salmon and yet it generates proportionally far more jobs. For every £1 million of industry value, 23 shellfish jobs are generated for every 2 salmon jobs. With native mussel farming requiring no feed, helping to clean up waters and providing habitat for other species, it could be a far more beneficial and sustainable industry to support.

The true cost of salmon feed

Another challenge facing the salmon farming industry, in Scotland and elsewhere, is the true cost of salmon feed. The problem with farming a carnivorous species like salmon is the inclusion of fish in their diet. Current practices rely upon wild fish being caught, sometimes thousands of miles away, ground up into fish meal and fish oil (FMFO) and then included in compound feed which is fed to caged salmon along the Scottish coast. Salmon makes up just 4.5% of global aquaculture yet consumes 60% of global supplies of fish oil and 23% of fish meal destined for aquaculture. In 2014, the Scottish industry used at least 460,000 tonnes of wild fish to produce the fish oil necessary to feed just 179,000 tonnes of salmon – roughly equivalent to how much fish is purchased every year by the UK adult population. To meet its growth projections by 2030, the industry would have to increase its use of wild fish by 310,000 tonnes, to a total of 770,000 tonnes!

Up to 90% of the fish in FMFO are nutritious food-grade species, many of which contain a higher nutrient density than the farmed salmon they produce. After they’re fed to salmon, 50-99% of the essential nutrients they contain are lost. Despite the industry’s current reliance on wild fish, there are alternatives. It is possible for the industry to switch to 100% by-product derived FMFO and eliminate wild fish entirely from its supply chain. Furthermore, it has been shown, that by redirecting wild fish and diversifying our plates, we could reduce pressure on wild stocks and increase our nutrition from the ocean. While the Scottish Government endorses the expansion of the salmon industry, some of the fisheries that prop up its operations are showing signs of decline. An especially troubling thought when you consider many of the feed fish are taken from places where coastal communities wholly rely on fish as a vital source of key nutrients. The Government could do more to reduce this reliance and improve transparency by requiring the industry to produce impact reports on feed and regulate the use of wild-caught fish in FMFO.

Given its track record to date, it seems fair to say that the Scottish salmon industry’s focus on extraction, growth, and profit-at-all-costs will always come at the expense of rural communities, coastal ecosystems and a supply chain of exploited farmers and fishers. Ultimately, Scottish salmon is a high-value product sold in affluent markets. And the current usage of wild fish in salmon feed means that critical nutrients are not being distributed to people who need them the most. If we want fair nutrition around the globe, the industry should not be allowed to grow. If we want to reduce pollution and create long-term solutions for thriving fishing communities, the industry should not be allowed to grow. And, if we want to reduce pressure on wild fish stocks, the industry should not be allowed to grow. In short, rather than uncritically endorsing the salmon farming industry’s growth strategy, the Scottish Government needs to adopt firmer regulations to prevent further economic and environmental damage in Scotland and beyond.

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