New wave of farmers shore up salmon habitats

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AT a time when the immediate pandemic crisis seems overwhelming it’s possible to forget the longer term challenge of a planet where natural resources are finite.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) we’re currently consuming natural resources at a rate faster than Earth is replenishing them – the equivalent of one and a half planets – and the sustainable management of those resources is crucial.

A WWF report says that in the next 40 years we will need to produce as much food as over the last 8000 years. Salmon – and all fish farming – will be a major contributor and with aquaculture already the fastest growing food production system in the world, the sector is convinced it can play an instrumental role in helping provide the additional protein required by a growing population, in a responsible, sustainable way.

This is underpinned by science – and the considerable expertise of farmers. Whether scientist or farmer, a key priority is caring about the fish and also the environment on which the sector depends, the waters around Scotland. Increasingly, those applying that science are women and appropriately, the United Nations International Women and Girls in Science Day on February 11 will celebrate the role women play.

One is Naomi Dempsey, who left Surrey for the Orkney island of Hoy when studying for her Master’s degree and never went back. Now she’s an environmental analyst for Cooke Aquaculture, which operates some 40 of Scotland’s 200 fish farms. Before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, she was involved in sampling to assess the nature of the seabed and the marine environment.

“We need to have a good quality environment to raise the best quality salmon we can,” says Naomi, who completed her PhD at the University of Aberdeen. “We need to ensure we are not having a detrimental effect and to maintain the environment for the salmon to be healthy, so we have a strong and high-quality product.”

The role of her team at Cooke Aquaculture is important to the quality of fish produced at the firm’s salmon farm in the waters in the waters of Hoy, an island with a population of around 400 and probably most famous for the 449ft Old Man of Hoy. Much aquaculture is coastal-based in shallower water, she explains, with less risk.

“When you move the equipment out to sea with higher wave heights and stronger currents, you have to approach it in a different way but it’s all essentially about minimising the risk to the environment during salmon production.”

Beyond the science, and married to an Orcadian salmon farmer, she’s aware of the sector’s integral role in the community.

“In other areas of Scotland and the UK, there is so much about food production that people separate themselves from so it is harder to appreciate where food is coming from and how it is produced,” she says, adding that her love of fresh seafood sparked a new hobby during lockdown.

“We were limited as to what we could get on the island and I had a craving for scallops. Then I discovered I could snorkel for them, so I free-dived a couple of metres down to pick them up from the seabed and now my freezer is full of them, just enough to eat.”

Off the west coast, at fellow salmon grower Scottish Sea Farms’ Summer Isles farms, Sarah Last – who started in a trainee role – is the company’s first female farm manager within its mainland farming region and has achieved several farm records for high fish welfare and survival and strong environmental performance.

She joined the company, which has 42 marine farms and supplies M&S Select Farm salmon, from the construction sector, with no previous experience of salmon farming.

“Working my way up through the specialisms, I was biological control fish health specialist before I became manager and it was fascinating to learn about plankton and the other factors that affect salmon welfare – and to discover that fish farming is one of the most highly-regulated farming sectors.

Sarah is keenly aware of the challenge of feeding the world in the coming century: “Forecasts that the Earth’s population will have increased by a third by 2050 really blows my mind as that’s roughly two billion more mouths to feed at a time when arable land is already under pressure. And while all food production inevitably has some environmental impact, salmon farming has a much lower footprint than most other sectors so it makes complete sense that we look to it as a sustainable means of helping meet the growing need for protein,” she says.

She points to the latest figures by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) for its Compliance Assessment Scheme in which her own Summer Isles farms are rated ‘Excellent’ and 92.6 per cent of all the company’s farms and facilities are rated ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’.

Countering sometimes negative publicity about the environmental impact of salmon farming she says: “In reality fish just wouldn’t survive if they weren’t living in a healthy environment. Our more recent crop showed a 93 per cent survival rate over a 20-month period with an average weight of 6.4 kilogrammes – and you just don’t get that kind of survival rate and size unless the fish are living in an excellent environment.”

During this same crop, she says the farm introduced lumpfish and wrasse – species of ‘cleaner fish’ so-called because they swim alongside salmon and naturally eat any sea lice – eliminating the need for veterinary medicines. “The salmon were healthy and the survival rate good and the fact that they required no preventative treatments during their entire 20 months at sea was terrific.”

Significant ongoing investments have ensured that Scottish Sea Farms operates as sustainably as possible, including a multi-million spend on tougher, more rigid nets to help to deter seals and protect salmon both from the stress of predation and the subsequent health challenges that can cause.

The farm brings valuable jobs and income into the local community and Sarah’s aspirations are high. “I’d like everyone to be able to look at a farm they can be proud of, to be able to say ‘there’s a salmon farm on our doorstep where the guys are trying really hard and doing really well’. That’s what it’s all about – the positive impact that we can have on our community.”

WHEN in November last year the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation published A Better Future For Us All, a new charter that sets the sustainability standards the sector aims to meet over the coming decades, they asked the opinion of some of those whose support it relies on …

Heather Jones, Chief Executive, Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre: “With COP26 coming to Glasgow next year, the sustainability of food sources and supply chains has seldom been more relevant – and the salmon sector has an incredibly important role to play as a low-carbon source of high quality protein.

“We have been working with salmon-producing companies across the country to drive enhanced efficiency, fish health and wellbeing, and technological innovation as they make great strides towards playing their part in supporting Scotland’s ambitious climate change mitigation goals.

“It is great to see the salmon sector capture that spirit in this charter and highlight the world-leading, technology-focussed contribution the salmon sector is making to the Scottish economy, as well as the impactful role Scotland is playing in shaping global salmon production and, in turn, sustainable food systems that help feed the world.”

Steve McLean, Head of Agriculture & Fisheries Sourcing, M&S Food Group: “Marks and Spencer very much welcomes this Sustainability Charter. Our farmed Scottish salmon is industry leading in many areas and we support and applaud Scottish farmers in challenging themselves to continue to drive improvements in the areas that our customers care about – welfare, environment, nutritious locally produced food and healthy communities.” 

James Withers, Chief Executive, Scotland Food & Drink: “Farmed salmon is a star player in our nation’s food and drink sector. These commitments to world leading standards of operation can cement Scotland’s position as a global leader in sustainable food production. It’s clear that everyone must now work together to realise this enormous potential.”

THE Grieg Seafood Shetland processing department has been trying to reduce the use of polystyrene boxes as the company commits itself to improved sustainability and reduced waste.

Believing the best innovations are often the simplest ones, the processing team has experimented with using bulk bins to transport harvested fish to customers which has significantly improved efficiency, as the bins can hold 500kg of fish compared to 20kg in a single polystyrene box.

It will also simplify the packaging process. The main advantage, however, is that the bins are entirely reusable and can be easily cleaned, disinfected, and returned ready for the next order.

The company says that customers and consumers care about where their food comes from and actively seek to reduce their impact on the environment, and one of its regular customers is now using the bulk bins on a weekly basis, which is a breakthrough for the initiative.

There will soon be 100 bins on-site and Grieg Seafood Shetland intends to expand their usage as time goes on, recognising that single-use plastics should be replaced by reusable alternatives.

Factory manager Niall O’Rourke explains: “We had to ask: ‘What’s the future going to look like?’ And this seemed the best option as it’s hygienic and efficient plus the fish are suspended in ice, not lying on top, so the quality is better as well. We realise we need to continue to change to make our product as sustainable as possible”.

“This is what our customers and stakeholders expect and that is what we will do.”

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