Aquaculture sector: speech by Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands

Speech by Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands Mairi Gougeon at Aquaculture UK conference in Aviemore on celebrating Scotland’s aquaculture sector and supporting long term sustainability.

Good afternoon everyone. I am delighted to have been asked to kick off this session on Sustainability and Innovation. 

I know that the last couple of conferences have of course been impacted by Covid and that this is your first time hosting and meeting in person for a while.

It is so, so nice to see you all here today and to see the innovation and brilliance of the sector on display.

Please do enjoy the conference, enjoy being in each other’s company, collaborate and make new connections.

I am a champion for the aquaculture sector in Scotland – it is a significant contributor to our rural and island economies, providing well paid jobs in some of Scotland’s most fragile communities.

The aquaculture sector is a vital part of our economy in Scotland. It is a significant contributor to our rural and island economies in particular, providing well paid jobs in some of Scotland’s most fragile communities.

And Scotland is open for business – our policy is sustainable growth, in the right places, and it will remain so as we work together to promote sustainability.

We, of course, have to work together to address and mitigate any impacts on the natural environment, whilst maximising the benefits which the sector brings to local communities.

And the benefits are something I’ve seen first-hand when I’ve been out visiting some of our more remote, rural and island areas, witnessing the positive impact aquaculture makes in communities.

I am even more so impressed by the global success of the sector and the sharing of expertise and knowledge. I would especially like to welcome any overseas guests here today seeking to foster a relationship with Scottish aquaculture businesses.

We must invest in Aquaculture for our future – it is vital that we continue to work together to ensure the long term sustainability of jobs and nature.

And it’s important to remember that for every production job in rural and island communities, there are several more in the supply chain and innovation.

Jobs, skills and modern apprenticeship opportunities are promoted actively by the industry.

I am impressed by the reach that aquaculture has across Scotland’s constituencies – and not just those in the highlands and islands, but those where processing, services, science and equipment manufacture take place. This includes the sector’s active involvement in the Women in Scottish Aquaculture and Lantra skills programmes.

I welcome the industry’s commitment to continued research and innovation which will enable sustainable growth, while maintaining the right balance across Scotland’s economic, environmental and social responsibilities.

I would also like to note in particular the involvement of the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre in our success, part funded by Scottish Government, in providing a mechanism for applied science to address industry challenges on the ground.

I know that you will all celebrate your successes in the past year at the conference awards tomorrow and I wish you all the best of luck in that and an enjoyable event.

Just reflecting on the last week, is a great showcase of what Scotland has to offer.

Mairi McAllan, Minister for Environment and Land Reform, was able to join some of you at the opening of recirculation aquaculture system academy in Oban. Recirculating technologies are helping the industry to grow larger fish, improve fish health and welfare and reduce time fish spend in the sea – benefiting both the fish and its interactions with the wider environment.

Last week also saw the opening of Scotland’s Seaweed Academy. There is a long history of harvesting wild seaweed in Scotland and although the existing Scottish seaweed industry is small, there is a growing interest in further developing the commercial seaweed-based industry through creating new high value products from wild seaweed and through cultivating seaweed to supply various existing and emerging markets.

To support the sector’s sustainable development, the Scottish Government has committed to fund, in partnership with Crown Estate Scotland, a development post within the industry to support the growth ambitions of the Scottish seaweed sector and to help the sector articulate a strategic vision for its future

And lastly, last week I was fortunate enough to join some of you at the Seafood Expo in Barcelona to celebrate and showcase Scottish seafood, including the UK’s number one food export - Scottish Salmon.  And it was incredible to see and hear of the demand for one of Scotland’s key exports.

It is an exciting time for the sector and I am encouraged by the recovery of exports and predicted growth in Scotland’s aquaculture production.

This Government has made significant commitments to respond to these extraordinary times.

We all reflect on recent world events– Brexit, Covid and Ukraine.

These events go to show our strengths, the resilience of our markets and supply chains – and yet also their intricate connections and fragility. They also bring into sharp focus global food security.

We’ve supported our seafood industries in navigating EU Exit. Our Marine Fund Scotland is providing vital grant assistance to the seafood sector and since its launch we have supported the aquaculture sector with funding to enhance quality and add value, as well as providing over £10m of funding towards the Recovery Plan for the wider food and drink sector.

We have worked closely with the sector to deal with the technical challenges arising from EU Exit.

But as well as the short term support we have provided, we recognise the need to support the longer term recovery of the sector.

There are still challenges along the way. Just last week we had the announcement of yet more delays to the implementation of border controls, announced without any consultation or engagement with the devolved Governments, and a move which continues to put our exporting businesses at a significant disadvantage.

My officials have been working with local authority, ports and industry alike to be prepared for the changes since the first iteration of the border operating model.

The number of delays by UK Government is unacceptable, as are the unilateral decisions that have been taken.

Above all else, we know that businesses requires certainty.

The UK Government’s decisions are impacting directly on businesses who have shown the willingness to prepare, whilst showing a disregard to those who had to make the same preparations for export.

We are continuing to do all we can to protect Scotland’s interests.

We have further challenges, difficult discussions and decisions ahead. But I have no doubt that we will navigate these together, as we focus efforts to address the climate and biodiversity crises.

We are committed to developing the aquaculture policy framework for finfish, shellfish and seaweed aquaculture in Scotland this parliamentary term.

We committed to a new vision and strategy and an immediate programme of work to better protect wildlife and the environment.

We also remain committed to taking forward action on fish farm regulatory reform and innovation.

Last year I commissioned Professor Griggs to conduct an independent review of the regulatory landscape, to gather stakeholder perspectives and recommend actions to improve aquaculture consenting in Scotland.

This marked the first phase of a broad review with an ambitious remit. As I stated at the time, I want Scotland’s aquaculture regulatory regime to be regarded as one of the most efficient but also effective and transparent in the world.

Professor Griggs published his report in February of this year. It is a comprehensive account that sets out ambitious recommendations and I want to reiterate my thanks to him for this thorough piece of work.

I have welcomed these recommendations in principle and I, alongside my officials, have been considering how to move into the next phase of work.

The report recognises the unique challenges and opportunities faced by different types of aquaculture, recommending different regulatory frameworks for finfish, shellfish, and seaweed, whilst also stressing the importance of consistency of process.

We know that change is needed and that there are steps we can take to make rapid improvements.

And I welcome the challenge of ensuring that momentum to deliver a regulatory framework fit for a modern aquaculture industry.

I am pleased to say that I will personally oversee the next phase of work. I will launch a new Ministerial Aquaculture Strategy Forum to help shape and deliver our aspirations for the sector and address the challenges which the sector faces.

This strategy forum will be responsible for ensuring equal progress of our commitments – including environment, vision and regulatory review.

In order to make progress at pace to streamline the consenting system, I have instructed my officials to set up a small consenting task group to support the work of the forum.

I can also announce today that I have instructed my officials to extend the marine licence renewal period for finfish and shellfish farms from 6 to 25 years, bringing it in line with the Crown Estate Scotland Lease cycle.

The marine licence deals with navigational issues only and this change will reduce the burden on both Marine Scotland and industry, without affecting environmental or other outcomes.

Finally, I have asked the Scottish Science Advisory Council, under advice from the Chief Scientific Adviser, to consider the issues relating to aquaculture science referred to by Professor Griggs in his report.

The Scottish Science Advisory Council is Scotland’s highest level science advisory body which provides independent advice to Scottish Government. It is therefore ideally placed to help inform the next stages.

The Scottish Government is committed to moving beyond the status quo and I look forward to meaningful discussions with the new Forum in the near future.

Collaboration will be central in our endeavour. Progress will be achieved when the economic, social and environmental interests are brought together.

It is only through respect, collaboration and the sharing of ideas that we can provide common understanding, increase transparency and foster innovation. 

I recognise the challenges here - as highlighted in Professor Griggs’ report – but I am also determined to reset relationships and emerge the stronger for it. That will require leadership from all involved, including through difficult discussions.

The sector can only be a truly sustainable success story if economic growth goes hand in hand with positive outcomes for Scotland’s communities and Scotland’s natural environment.

Everyone here today will of course be aware of the Scottish Parliament Committee inquiries into salmon farming in Scotland.

I think it is important to recognise the significant progress made since then through the salmon interactions working group and the recent SEPA sea lice risk assessment framework consultation for wild salmon.

Progress on efficiency will not come at the expense of other work, rather they are complementary and vital ingredients to ensure a robust, yet efficient, framework.

The sector itself has made sustainability pledges through its charter, “A Better Future For Us All”, and we support those ambitions.

As we look toward 2045, the positive credentials of the sector should not be overlooked. The industry provides a source of home grown, nutritious low carbon protein that is enjoyed at home and abroad.

There is growing evidence supporting the health benefits of farmed fish and seafood and we are keen to encourage more people at home to eat more of what we produce here in Scotland.

We all know how our climate is changing, how our global population is growing and how our natural environment is under ever-increasing pressure.

The transition to net zero emissions is crucial to reversing these pressures, and we welcome and share the aspirations of the aquaculture sector in achieving this goal.

Another significant piece of work has been taking place, focussing on our Blue Economy.

The Scottish Government published the Blue Economy Vision for Scotland at the end of March.

We all benefit from the natural capital that our seas provide, so it is important that we manage this resource carefully for future generations.

Assessments have shown that action is needed to achieve good environmental status for our seas, and that’s why we have committed to designating at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas by 2026.

The Blue Economy approach is internationally recognised and our vision and outcomes put Scotland at the forefront of this movement, playing our part in global ocean governance and supporting UN Development Goals.

The document sets out six long term outcomes for our marine environment, for people and our economy. The outcomes describe our high-level of ambition for transformative change in the way we see and use our oceans.

A Blue Economy Action Plan will be published later this year, setting out how the Blue Economy Vision will be delivered. This will be done in partnership with stakeholders to deliver for Scotland.

A vital component of our blue economy is of course the aquaculture sector.

And this year, the Scottish Government will set out its vision for the sustainable future of the aquaculture sector, in line with the blue economy objectives and principles.

I look forward to working with all parties from the finfish, shellfish and seaweed sectors to enable positive outcomes.

How we operate today must not compromise tomorrow’s generations and this thinking will be at the heart of the Vision.

A sector committed to growing within environmental limits, that trades on strong regulation in Scotland and is committed to sharing in its success with its host communities will cement Scottish aquaculture’s reputation for quality at home and abroad.

I would like to thank you once again for inviting me to this year’s conference.

I look forward to further progress and I wish you all a successful conference.

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