In 40 years salmon farming has gone from being a negligible, experimental part of the Highland economy to, in a good year, the United Kingdom’s biggest food export (Scottish salmon is locked in a perennial battle with the entire UK confectionery industry for the top spot in that chart).
It employs a couple of thousand people, mostly in the Highlands and Islands. Its overseas sales mainly to the USA, France and the Far East are worth almost £1,000,000,000.
Its internal British sales gross even more. Not very long ago salmon, smoked or raw, was a rich person’s delicacy. Now it is one of the cheapest and most nutritious foods in the country.
It is possible to applaud all of those things — the jobs, the export earnings, the affordability of the product — while nursing serious doubts about some aspects of fish farming.
The industry’s workers have monotonous and often poorly paid jobs. The immense profits are almost all reaped by Norwegian multinational companies.
And of course, doubts about disease and environmental harm show no sign of going away.
The salmon farming industry plans to expand to three times its current size in the next 10 to 15 years. That tripling of output to 300,000 or 400,000 tonnes of fish a year would of course involve an equivalent increase in jobs and export earnings — much of the proposed new production would cater to booming Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and other eastern markets.
It would also entail two or three times the number of fish in two or three times the number of cages in Scottish inshore waters.
The Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee thinks that is unsustainable and could cause “irrecoverable damage”.
The committee’s report on the subject is worth attention. Far from being adamant opponents of fish farming, its cross-party members are broadly supportive of aquaculture.
They are however convinced that the big salmon farming companies have so far been given an easy ride. They are virtually unregulated. That must change. “The status quo,” say MSPs, “in terms of approach and regulation, is not an option.”
You do not have to be a virulent anti-fish farmer to see the sense in that. The fish farming companies themselves recognise that they have a problem with sea louse epidemics, and it is not in their interest to have to dump tens of thousands of infected fish or to gain a reputation as despoilers of the natural environment. On the contrary, much of their appeal and promotional campaigns are centred on their origins in clean, fresh, unpolluted Highland waters.
But such industrial giants — most Scottish salmon farming is now in the hands of just six companies — cannot be trusted to police themselves. Their senior executives, in Oslo or elsewhere, are accountable first and foremost to their shareholders and profits. The well-being of the people and environment of the west Highlands is low on their list of priorities.
The industry protests that it is merely experiencing teething troubles and that all forms of livestock farming have to deal with parasites and diseases.
That won’t wash. Salmon farming is no longer in its infancy — it has had several decades to come to terms with its difficulties.
No matter how powerful the lobby, and the UK’s biggest food export is a very powerful lobby, the Scottish Government now has a duty to introduce regulation. If it cooperates and has nothing to hide, the salmon farming industry will have nothing to fear from sensible measures.
And while they are thrashing out the details, we might also hope that devolution to local control of the Crown Estate, which leases almost all of Scotland’s fish farm sites, will result in more of the profits finding their way to Highland communities.