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