Con­fer­ence re­port

Fish Farmer - - Contents - BY JANET H BROWN

AFEW peo­ple said to me, ‘the ASSG is my favourite shell­fish con­fer­ence’, and when the sun shines down, as it did for the first day of the an­nual get to­gether on Oc­to­ber 31, Oban can be a great place to be. But a few of these pos­i­tive com­ments came on day two, when the rain was tip­ping down.

But it is not hard to see why it should be a favourite, with such a mix of talks and a mix of au­di­ence, which in­cluded farm­ers, sci­en­tists, aca­demics, reg­u­la­tors and pol­icy peo­ple.

Some­one sug­gested we needed to at­tract the bankers and the plan­ners to make it per­fect, but to be fair to these, the pro­por­tion of their work com­ing from shell­fish aqua­cul­ture must be van­ish­ingly small.

How­ever, with the very cru­cial and costly role they play in the shell­fish farm­ers’ lives, and with the im­por­tant ben­e­fits that can ac­crue from shell­fish farm­ing nu­tri­tion­ally and en­vi­ron­men­tally, there may be a strong ar­gu­ment for their pres­ence.

Dr Nick Lake, CEO of the ASSG, got the theme of the meet­ing, ‘re­silience’, off to a good start with his im­per­son­ations of Pri­vate James Frazer and Lance Cor­po­ral Jones from Dad’s Army.

Get­ting the right bal­ance be­tween two ex­tremes – re­flected in their stock phrases, rang­ing from ‘we’re doomed’ to ‘don’t panic’- calls for re­silience, and for that we need good plan­ning.

He did bring to our at­ten­tion the sort of anom­aly that the banker or plan­ner could ad­dress.

To es­tab­lish a two-hectare mus­sel farm needs plan­ning per­mis­sion. But so does a 20-hectare glasshouse, to grow out of sea­son flow­ers. One of these at­tracts a plan­ning fee of £20,000, the other £2,000.

Which is which? Surely the mus­sel farm with its highly nu­tri­tious food pro­duc­tion, ecosys­tem ser­vices and low car­bon foot­print would be the less ex­pen­sive?

No, the mus­sel farm will be the ex­pen­sive one. Plan­ning per­mis­sion for oil and gas ven­tures can even cost less.

The con­fer­ence, held at the Cor­ran Halls, was opened by Mairi Gougeon, min­is­ter for Ru­ral Af­fairs and the Nat­u­ral En­vi­ron­ment. She should by now be feel­ing right at home with the shell­fish world, hav­ing re­ceived a very good ground­ing both at the Na­tive Oys­ter con­fer­ence in Ed­in­burgh in June and the even more hands on gath­er­ing at the Stran­raer Oys­ter Fes­ti­val in Septem­ber.

Her up­beat speech com­mit­ted fur­ther Scot­tish govern­ment sup­port for the shell­fish farm­ing in­dus­try.

She also an­nounced a com­mit­ment of fund­ing

worth £20,000 to kick­start the work of WiSA (Women in Scot­tish Aqua­cul­ture), which was launched in March this year to en­cour­age more women to work in the aqua­cul­ture sec­tor. In 2018, only 11 per cent of salmon farm work­ers and 15 per cent of shell­fish farm­ing work­ers were women.

The first speaker in Oban was San­dra Shumway, from the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut. She last spoke at the con­fer­ence in 2004, ‘preach­ing to the choir’, as she put it then.

This year she was equally in her el­e­ment talk­ing of re­silience. She de­fined this as a ca­pac­ity to re­cover quickly from difficulty. Mol­luscs, she said, are re­silience in ac­tion.

She started by high­light­ing the problem of mi­croplas­tics, which she clearly felt var­i­ous NGOs had leapt on, on the ba­sis of ‘any new topic to stop aqua­cul­ture’.

Shumway has a lovely la­conic style. ‘Tell them the facts and they will go away. Sure!’ She is not sure the crit­ics will go away by know­ing the facts, but still she pro­vided the a few. Mi­croplas­tics, for in­stance, are some­thing that mol­luscs can deal with very nicely, with­out build-up in these valu­able food an­i­mals.

Cli­mate change, how­ever, is more of a con­cern but, in fact, mol­luscs have been re­mark­ably adapt­able and there are sci­en­tific pub­li­ca­tions to demon­strate this.

Hen­rice Jansen of Wa­genin­gen Marine Re­search, in the Nether­lands, talked about the ben­e­fits of shell­fish pro­duc­tion in terms of ecosys­tem ser­vices. This was a handy dis­til­la­tion of the myr­iad ben­e­fits of shell­fish, from use as food, to reef build­ing pro­vid­ing habi­tat and coastal de­fence, and biore­me­di­a­tion.

These two talks had set the scene that the shell­fish were both re­silient and valu­able in many ways, in ad­di­tion to sim­ply pro­vid­ing both a nu­tri­tional diet and a de­li­cious lux­ury.

So it was time to get to the nitty gritty of the mar­ket­ing of the prod­uct. Pa­trick Blow, aqua­cul­ture spe­cial­ist at M&S, posed a ques­tion: is shelf space guar­an­teed?

Well no, space is not guar­an­teed on the su­per­mar­ket shelves and shell­fish has to fight for its space along with many other types of food.

Blow told us that of the £10 bil­lion of an­nual sales from M&S, more than half is now food. Of the 60,000 tonnes of seafood sold, two thirds come from wild catch and only nine are farmed species.

All have to com­ply with the re­tailer’s sourc­ing pol­icy. Salmon is far and away the ma­jor farmed species at around 13,000 tonnes, while mus­sels are just 270 tonnes and oys­ters were only in­tro­duced in 2017.

Blow’s ad­vice was that not enough was made of bi­valve sus­tain­abil­ity cre­den­tials- no aquafeed, no marine in­gre­di­ents, and no soya.

He also felt that not enough was made of the Scot­tish prove­nance ei­ther, or of the nu­tri­tional ben­e­fits and value for money of farmed bi­valves.

So that was the view from the su­per­mar­kets – al­beit from some­one who is also an oys­ter farmer.

Ben Wright pro­vided an in­sight into a fully in­te­grated farm­ing/re­tail sys­tem that was sup­ply­ing both his own restau­rants, Wright Bros, and top end chefs.

His ad­vice was to know what the cus­tomer wants – and to keep it sim­ple.

But from his pre­sen­ta­tion it was clearly far from sim­ple since one is­sue with sup­ply­ing chefs is re­li­a­bil­ity and guar­an­teed qual­ity. He had ex­tremely valu­able but tough ad­vice for the Scot­tish farm­ers.

Stephen Cameron of the Scot­tish Shell­fish Mar­ket­ing Group (SSMG) took the floor with a more com­bat­ive style and the wish that data show­ing de­creas­ing sales of shell­fish would not spook us out.

His def­i­ni­tion of re­silience was ‘to with­stand dif­fi­cult con­di­tions, and to re­cover quickly’, and he ar­gued that the Scot­tish in­dus­try was not fully re­silient, but could be.

There have been a lot of changes in the mar­ket and there is a need to re­alise that Aldi and Lidl are the new nor­mal, he said.

And all the pres­sures on su­per­mar­kets to stream­line their prod­ucts and to re­duce ranges will be passed down to the pro­duc­ers.

As an il­lus­tra­tion, he pointed out that 50 per cent of meat or fish coun­ters have been closed by Tesco’s. Wait­rose used to be gov­erned by qual­ity but now price is im­por­tant to them too.

And with three per cent of the pop­u­la­tion now ve­gan, there is real com­pe­ti­tion sim­ply for sales space, with new prod­ucts serv­ing this de­vel­op­ing mar­ket.

He out­lined the chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties and the pos­i­tives for shell­fish, be­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally be­nign and sus­tain­able, with no in­puts, with space to ex­pand, a big mar­ket to feed and with other op­por­tu­ni­ties out­side food. He pro­vided a rous­ing end to the first day.

Tim Bean of the Roslin In­sti­tute started his talk on the second day with a stark re­minder of what ge­netic se­lec­tion has wrought in fa­mil­iar food items, such as

“Var­i­ous NGOs had leapt on mi­croplas­tics on the ba­sis of ‘any new topic to stop aqua­cul­ture’"

corn and chick­ens. What is the fu­ture for oys­ters in this re­spect?

He fit­ted this to the theme of the con­fer­ence by say­ing: ‘Well man­aged breed­ing pro­grammes de­liver re­silience through adapt­abil­ity.’

There is very strong po­ten­tial for se­lec­tion with high lev­els of both ge­netic diversity and fe­cun­dity, but hatch­ery pro­duc­tion can cut vari­abil­ity very quickly. Care­fully man­aged lines are needed (as de­vel­oped at the Cawthron In­sti­tute in New Zealand).

Bean gave some in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ples of how ge­netic se­lec­tion has been able to con­trol dis­ease in other aqua­cul­ture species.

Carter Newell of Pe­maquid Mus­sel Farm, Maine, elu­ci­dated on res­i­dence time and light pen­e­tra­tion as fac­tors af­fect­ing chloro­phyll lev­els in wa­ter bod­ies, which will af­fect growth of bi­valves.

But an­other fac­tor is also dead or­ganic mat­ter (DOM), which also makes up a sig­nif­i­cant part of their food.

Shell-vo­lu­tion will be work­ing with Carter to map fac­tors such as these for Scot­land- to find best aqua­cul­ture lo­ca­tions- and hence to build re­silience.

Michael Tait and Gregg Arthur also spoke about Shell-vo­lu­tion, which is ef­fec­tively an um­brella project in its for­ma­tive stages, aim­ing to look into in­dus­try re­search needs and work­ing very closely with academia in or­der to solve some of the prob­lems hold­ing back the in­dus­try.

The con­fer­ence con­cluded with a pre­sen­ta­tion from Danielle Bridger and John

Holm­yard on the ‘Mus­sel long­lines and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits’ of the first open wa­ter mus­sel farm in the UK, which is si­t­u­ated 3-10km off­shore in Lyme Bay.

This op­er­a­tion pro­vided liv­ing proof of ecosys­tem ser­vices com­ing from suspended cul­ture, with shoals of fish at­tracted to what are es­sen­tially FADs (fish at­trac­tion de­vices), and even get­ting na­tive oys­ters set­ting on lines of mus­sels.

Bridger started the pre­sen­ta­tion with some in­for­ma­tion from her PhD pro­gramme, in which she has tracked the de­vel­op­ments around the lines and on the seabed as the project has evolved.

This had gone from a vir­tual desert of a seabed at the start of the project to an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent sce­nario, with far greater abun­dance of ses­sile and seden­tary species.

One slide nicely sum­marised the ecosys­tem ser­vices pro­vided; from em­ploy­ment for lo­cal peo­ple, to food pro­duc­tion, nu­tri­ent re­moval from the wa­ter and greater wa­ter clar­ity, en­hance­ment of wild fish­eries, coastal pro­tec­tion, car­bon se­ques­tra­tion and pro­vi­sion of ar­ti­fi­cial habi­tat – or should this be sim­ply pro­tected habi­tat?

Holm­yard’s talk dealt with more of the hard work in­volved in terms of reg­u­la­tors and his prob­lems in get­ting per­mis­sion for the project to start with.

He raised the ques­tion as to why they have been forced to pro­duce ev­i­dence of the im­pacts of their farm de­vel­op­ment while other ac­tiv­i­ties, such as trawl­ing, ag­gre­gate dredg­ing, yacht­ing, and sewage out­fall, do not.

But we can all be grate­ful for this ev­i­dence seek­ing in that it pro­vides fur­ther proof that suspended shell­fish aqua­cul­ture has so many ben­e­fits.

“There have been a lot of changes in the mar­ket and there is a need to re­alise that Aldi and Lidl are the new nor­mal”

Be­low: Judg­ing the Best Scot­tish Shell­fish Com­pe­ti­tion were (from left to right) Ben Wright, Nicki Holm­yard, Elaine Jamieson and Rob Fletcher, while Tris­tan Hugh-Jones handed over the oys­ters. Right: Dr Nick Lake en­ter­tains Mairi Gougeon, Scot­tish min­is­ter for Ru­ral Af­fairs and the Nat­u­ral En­vi­ron­ment

Top: Proud win­ners of the best oys­ters, from left John Hamil­ton of Loch Nell Oys­ters (na­tive oys­ters) and Ger­ard Mac­Don­ald of Isle of Barra Oys­ters. Above: Carter Newell pro­vides the mu­sic. Be­low: The con­fer­ence was en­joyed by a very lively group of stu­dents from SAMS seen here with Prof San­dra Shumway and Dr Nick Lake

Clock­wise from top left: Pre­sen­ta­tion of the cheque for the RNLI, with (from left to right) Ally Cerexhe, Mike Robert­son, Nick Lake and Tom Kennedy; Pa­trick Blow, lucky win­ner of one of the prizes of the raf­fle held in aid of RNLI; Dr Hen­rice Jansen and Stephen Cameron; Ben Wright gives valu­able feed­back to the com­peti­tors; more con­fer­ring among (from left) Gregg Arthur, Åsa Strand and Tim Bean

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