There is nothing so relaxing as watching the sea. As a Shetlander whose family live overlooking Bressay sound, a fresh south westerly breeze and the movement of the tide brings perspective to life.
Bressay makes Lerwick a natural harbour. A body of water where orcas, seals and porpoises are regularly spotted alongside shipping of all sizes, pelagic and salmon processing, oil decommissioning and the nightly ferry to Aberdeen.
Islands depend on the ever-changing balance between the marine environment and economic activity. The Covid-19 pandemic has made such places quieter – too quiet. If there is limited economic activity, there is little work. In Lerwick, had it not been for salmon farming over the past 12 months, many marine engineering businesses would have had no work at all.
This is a common refrain across the salmon producing coastal areas of Scotland. Across the Northern and Western Isles and Scotland’s west coast, salmon farming employs more than 2,000 people. The supply chain — all kinds of businesses from haulage companies, net makers to high tech start-ups making advanced monitoring equipment — employ another 10,000.
This sector is massively important in rural and island areas where there are not too many alternatives. There certainly are not other economic sectors whose average salary is £34,000 a year. Coastal and isolated parts of Scotland need these good jobs.
People who work in the salmon farming sector are the core of their local community. Their children make up local school rolls, and mums and dads sit on parent and community councils and the local village hall committee.
Salmon farming wages support the economics of a local garage, the village shop and the pub. Fish farm staff live in Unst, Kintyre and Skye year round. They rely on local businesses — whether it’s the plumber or a sparky — year round. It is a 365 day a year commitment to their local area.
Salmon farming companies do more than just pay the wages. They provide sponsorship and other investments in local projects and local groups. That is what good employers do and as the major employer in many areas of Scotland’s west coast our member companies take these responsibilities very seriously.
In return, our sector asks for a fair crack of the whip. That is not what happened when Highland Council’s area planning committee refused permission for a salmon farm in the waters around north Skye recently.
Organic Sea Harvest’s application had been agreed by all the regulatory bodies. The environmental impact of the farm had been carefully considered by professional independent regulators and found to be appropriate within local and national policy. The professional planners of Highland Council, having reviewed all this expert opinion, recommended approval. Yet it was refused by councillors.
Elected members have a heavy responsibility on planning committees. As a former member of Shetland Islands Council’s planning committee I know that all too well. Councillors are asked to weigh up professional advice with their knowledge and experience. They must also grasp the big picture. It is never easy.
That is especially true nowadays when they are attacked by the social media keyboard warriors, most of whom live hundreds of miles away. It takes a brave elected representative to ignore the inbox and the reprehensible online abuse.
Organic Sea Harvest’s application did seem straight forward. The official advice was to accept. The north of Skye has a compelling need for full time employment and investment. This fish farm would mean nine full time jobs.
OSH had 38 applicants for these positions. That demonstrates the demand for well paid, high skilled local jobs. Especially when the Portree travel to work area has witnessed a tragic 421 per cent increase in tourism related unemployment due to Covid-19.
The pandemic has laid low Skye’s tourist and hospitality industry just as it has across Scotland. Unemployment in the Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross area has risen from 1.6 per cent to 7.3 per cent between July 2019 and July 2020. That is the highest increase in the Highlands and Islands Enterprise area.
Highland Council have recognised that. The council’s Covid-19 economic recovery plan stresses the importance of new employment opportunities particularly in areas where there are not many to be had. Salmon farming jobs help with that.
OSH grow organic fish. That is a growth sector in the UK and across European markets. The audit requirements on OSH in producing their fish for this market are exacting. So any objective assessment of this application would recognise a high burden of environmental and fish husbandry responsibility placed on the company.
The salmon farming sector, our member companies and the staff across Scotland, recognise that we operate in the marine environment, growing healthy, nutritious food.
Looking after our fish is our main task. Fish grow best when husbandry standards are exemplary. OSH are part of the excellence our whole sector strives for day in, day out.
We simply ask that when these incredibly significant decisions on a farm’s future are made, elected representatives weigh up all the factors. Because if there are no local full time, well paid jobs, there will not be many electors to ask for the vote.
In Shetland, surrounded by the North Sea to the east and the Atlantic to the west, working age islanders want sustainable, high skilled, well paid jobs. Salmon farming provides that. I rather doubt people who live all year round in Skye are greatly different.
Tavish Scott is the former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and is now chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation.