THE Sco sh salmon farming industry has an exceptional story to tell of health advancement, economic growth, job creation, repopulation and national pride. Farmers have been farming fish for a few decades now, successfully and with the support of local communities.
But as Scotland’s rural affairs committee finalises its report on salmon farming, the sector’s critics have been vocal, directing media reports about farm raised salmon in an attempt to persuade public perception.
The tone has been harsh. We should expect the inquiry outcome to make di cult reading for the men and women who work hard to make this industry a success. The industry is at a crossroads, with choices to make on its future direction.
It will feel as if it is doing the right things. Farmers are working hard to increase survival rates, and lice levels are the lowest for five years, thanks to the continuous quest for improvement. The industry has invested enormously in innovative techniques, from advances in ne ng and automated cleaning, to in-pen cameras.
The basics of fish husbandry endure - look a er your fish, keep them healthy and safe, and you’ll have a great product that consumers pri e. And that principle guides all the farms I have visited since I joined the sector six months or so ago.
So what has changed to have led to the current indictments from the growing chorus of critics The salmon farming industry’s social licence is under serious question. It is no longer enough for farmers to fulfil the requirements of their operational licences to grow fish and expect to gain public acceptance for their practices, no matter how compliant they may be with regulation or customer specifications.
It is no longer enough to do the work, make investments, adopt the best science and possess the evidence that industry practice is sustainable.
Successful modern companies have to work harder than ever to ensure that not only do they maintain their licence to operate, they also secure their social licence the informal and unwritten permission’ that society gives companies or organisations to operate.
Social licence cannot be self-awarded it must be earned and maintained. And the consequences of breaching or losing social licence can be far harsher than breaching planning approval or environmental licences.
Building trust takes time. It can’t be found or contracted in. It must be earned. Whatever the outcome of the Sco sh parliament inquiry, the industry must take the path of building trust among important stakeholder groups.
The outcome of the inquiry has been years in the making and we cannot expect to change hearts and minds overnight.
This is not to advocate directly taking on those whose minds are made up. We can’t control what the activists do or say, though there is a lot in our control that we can manage industry transparency, accountability, clarity about the benefits of the whole sector in Scotland and across the UK, and clarity about the benefits of eating healthy salmon.
Importantly, too, companies must be prepared to speak honestly, openly and promptly when things do go wrong and be clear what is being done to remedy issues and put in place further due diligence. The Sco sh salmon farming industry must get better at this or expect more backlash.
When I joined the SSPO in the spring, I talked to this maga ine about the hidden gem’ of a sector I had joined. Tucked away in remote parts of Scotland is an absolute beauty of an industry that really powers lots of coastal communities.
People have no idea it’s so important and that the vast majority of farms run without issues. We cannot, though, expect people to fully understand and connect with our industry if they cannot imagine, or have seen for themselves, a fish farm or its operations.
It is so important that people understand where their food is grown and we must be more
and more open to making our farm sites and other industry facilities accessible, so they can see the fantastic industry that I see and make their own minds up. Otherwise, the narrative of the unbalanced activist reporting fills the knowledge void.
There is good progress being made, with visits to farms becoming more common. And the planned visitors’ centre on Skye will shine a light on how sustainable salmon is farmed.
School visits to hatcheries, freshwater sites and processing facilities will all help a generation grow up with an understanding of what it takes to farm our food locally.
And, of course, ever more stories and images online of the overwhelmingly compliant industry will help paint a truer and more balanced picture.
The industry must pay closer attention and listen to evolving social expectations of it. It must be open to transparent reporting of practices to show the world leading standards the majority of farms achieve. And open to quickly holding its hands up when things go wrong, and demonstrate the remedies being deployed.
The industry is absolutely clear that any future growth must be steady and sustainable. Alongside the current, complex consenting regime for Sco sh aquaculture, the industry’s ability to secure its social licence will be the over-riding factor that determines sustainable growth into the future.
The expected report from the parliamentary inquiry offers a great opportunity to re-engage with communities, engage with new audiences and demonstrate the real story behind Sco sh salmon.
“Companies must be prepared to speak honestly, wrong” openly and promptly when things do go
Above: SSPO boss Julie Hesketh-Laird wants farms to become more accessible to the public