Fair hearing?: Last week the Scottish Parliament’s ECCLR Committee took evidence from five scientific ‘experts’ from SAMS following publication of their 196 page report on the environmental impacts of salmon farming. The committee have published papers for their meeting this week in which they intend to take further evidence about salmon farming.

Those called this week include representatives from the community group Friends of Sound of Jura, Scottish Environmental Link, the SSPO, the Highland Council planning department, SEPA and a couple of representatives from Marine Scotland. Loch Duart Salmon was originally listed as giving evidence, but they have now been omitted.

Given that this enquiry concerns salmon farming, the evidence sessions appear heavily weighted against the industry. One single representative will speak on the industry’s behalf and would seemingly be expected to be able to answer any question emanating from a report which required explanation from five scientists. At the same time, the industry has to share this platform with its critics rather than being given the benefit of the session to itself. We believe that in the interests of fairness, the committee should have allowed the industry to gather a panel of its own specialists, who should have been allocated at least the same length of time, given to the SAMS scientists, to defend itself.

 

Odd one out: Fishupdate.com highlights a new move to protect salmon stocks across England, as they are reportedly among the lowest on record. The 2015 national salmon stock assessment indicated that many English rivers failed to meet their minimum safe level. The trend continued into 2016 and new measures have been based on this assessment. A five-point approach has been developed by the Environment Agency which includes priorities to improve marine survival, reduce exploitation by nets and rods, remove barriers to migration, safeguard water flows and maximise spawning by improving water quality. A commitment to this plan has been received from the Government, but also the Atlantic Salmon Trust, the Angling Trust, the River Trusts, the Association of River Trusts and the Institute of Fisheries Management.

This is an impressive list of support, but there seems to be one omission from the list; the one organisation which includes conservation in its name. This is Salmon & Trout Conservation, formerly the Salmon & Trout Association. However, they are probably far too busy finding ways to blame salmon farming for the ills of the wild salmon sector to consider the fate of salmon stocks elsewhere. They seem to have a view that if they can rid the west coast of all the salmon farms, then the rivers and lochs of the west coast will once again be full of returning wild salmon and trout.

Clearly, as there are no salmon farms in England, factors other than salmon farming must be responsible for declining stocks. However, Salmon & Trout Conservation have become so focussed on the salmon farming industry that other factors appear of little consequence.

Meanwhile further north, BBC News reports that fisheries managers have said that the there must be a ‘sensible debate’ about ways to protect the fish in the River Dee; one of the most important salmon rivers in Scotland. According to a new study, almost three quarters of young salmon are dying before they can reach the sea. One hundred smolts were tagged and their progress down the Dee was tracked. Over 70% of the smolts died before leaving freshwater. The finger of blame is pointed towards predatory birds.

Some birds are already shot under licence, but the river managers believe that more should be culled to protect the fish. This is of course a whole new debate which will be fiercely argued by the environmental sector. The debate may also be extended to include other predators, which might harm the salmon during other parts of their lifecycle.  The salmon farming industry receives a great deal of criticism for killing the odd rogue predator and thus we will be interested to see what the same critics might say about an organised cull to protect wild salmon and the associated sport.

Of course, there is another solution. This would be to avoid the problem altogether and bypass the freshwater stage so avoiding the risk of predation by birds. Fertilised eggs taken from returning wild fish would be reared until they smolt, at which point they would be released near the sea. The process of rearing smolts is straightforward as well as being well-established. The salmon farming industry do it as a matter of routine. Releasing reared smolts means that the fish avoid exposure to the potential predators, so survival will be many times higher than if nature can take its course. Of course, natural reproduction will still occur in the river, further boosting the future stock.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of a smolt release programme is unlikely to happen. This is because many anglers are against the idea of restocking as they think the fish have been tainted by human contact and therefore the fish they might catch are no longer truly wild. At the same time, rearing smolts will incur costs and much of the wild fish sector do not think they should pay for something that should occur naturally. However, the reality of modern times means that the catches of fifty years ago will not be repeated now unless positive action is taken. Anglers can ask to shoot more birds, but this is not the only option.

 

Consuming issues: Fish update reports that the Norwegian Seafood Council hosted a one-day summit in London to discuss the issues of Brexit and changing fish consumption. Two comments made during the day caught our attention. The first was that reference was made about a forthcoming trip to Norway by either ten chefs holding Michelin stars or a group of chefs with a total of ten Michelin stars between them. We are not sure which it is. The chefs were heading north to fish for Skrei cod in what is now an annual event hosted by celebrity chef Michel Roux.

The second item to attract our attention was a presentation by Ollie Lloyd of Great British Chefs. He told the assembled gathering that 17% of consumers are classed as being foodies and are extremely interested in the food they buy. Another 13% are weekend foodies, who will take more of an interest in their food at weekend when they have more time but during the week lapse into similar patterns as the wider public. Mr Lloyd said the remaining 70% of consumers are of no interest to him or the Great British Chefs.

The message here is that the focus is very much towards the top end of the market; to those who have an interest in food or where cost is less of a consideration. Yet Mr Lloyd says that this is a segment that is worth investing in. He says that such consumers already prepare and eat fish. For example, 69% of this group eat salmon as compared to 53% nationally. For cod, it is 70% against 60% for the whole country. Quality and origin also mean something to this group and they are more willing to try lesser known foods. This may well be true, but as they already eat fish, they are unlikely to require further prompting to continue doing so. It seems to us, at Callander McDowell, that it is the remaining 70% who need to hear the message about eating fish, rather than those who are already happy to do so. According to Mr Lloyd just 9% of consumers never eat fish whilst another 36% eat it occasionally. However, eating an occasional fish and chip dinner from the local chippy is not the same as actively buying and cooking fish at home. Home consumption of fish and seafood is certainly becoming much less frequent.

Our view appears to at odds with that of Mr Lloyd. He says that fishmongers are increasingly popular with 10% of the nation shopping at them regularly, whilst 27% of committed foodies do so. We can only assume that these foodies are thin on the ground because in Northern Manchester where we are based, we cannot think of one independent fishmongers shop. They all disappeared long ago. (There is one specialist shop serving a local ethnic community, but it does so without the traditional fishmonger’s display). At the same time, we do not believe that supermarket fishmongers are thriving either. Most supermarket fish counters are now a shadow of their former selves.

Mt Lloyd also says that contrary to current opinion, young people are also buying and eating fish. He says that 30% of committed foodies between the 0age of 25 and 34 are fish consumers. However, this equates to about 5% of the wider population. It is this younger age group nationwide who need to be convinced of the benefits of eating fish.

Meanwhile, it is not just the UK that is seeing falling consumption, especially amongst younger consumers. Intrafish report that Norwegian consumption of fish fell by 15% in 2017 and 7% in 2016. Before that consumption was fairly stable. According to the Norwegian Seafood Council, the average 14-year old will eat four times more red meat than fish. Even sweets (candy) are eaten more than fish. Whilst higher prices have dampened demand in the past couple of years, there is a more worrying underlying trend causing young people to eat less seafood. Even a fish producing nation is not immune from the downward trend affecting many other western countries.

The Norwegian Seafood Council are now attempting to reverse the trend and increase consumption by 20% over the next three years. This will be driven by a new campaign ‘3 a week’ that is intended to inspire more regular seafood consumption.

We, at Callander McDowell, hope that this campaign will work, but we remain slightly sceptical. Similar attempts in the UK to persuade consumers to eat more fish have not really worked. A major campaign has focussed on the message ‘2 a week’ (now ‘fish2 a week) which have run in one form or another for near on ten years. Unfortunately, consumption remains at just over one portion of fish a week despite strenuous efforts to convince consumers otherwise.

We have always argued that rather than try to persuade these consumers to buy into the industry message, it may be more appropriate to adapt the message into a form which is more familiar to them. This is the real challenge facing those trying to boost fish and seafood consumption as the alternative is that the gap between product and consumers will widen beyond repair.

 

Closed off: Closed containment was briefly mentioned this week at the Scottish Parliament’s ECCLR Committee evidence session into the impacts of salmon farming on the environment. Also, this week, news broke that must have caused proponents of closed containment salmon production to almost jump for joy. A new land based closed containment farm is to be established in the US state of Maine at a cost of $500 million and is planned to produce 33,000 tonnes of salmon. The first phase, producing 13,000 tonnes, will cost about $150 million. The project is the brainchild of the Norwegian company Nordic Aquafarms and their CEO Erik Heim.

Whilst such massive investment will give closed containment a much-needed boost, the reality is that there is no track record of salmon production in closed containment on such a large scale. This still seems an unknown quantity as far as success is concerned. Yet, investors would have been scared off if there was any uncertainty. We suspect that the proposal for a farm of such a large size would appeal to investors because no-one with any doubt would suggest building a farm of this size. However, only time will tell.

The most interesting aspect to this new Norwegian land based closed contained salmon farm is that it is not located in Norway but rather the US. The other major land-based farm development from Atlantic Sapphire is also being constructed on US soil.

The viability of farming salmon on land is not considered in this commentary. Instead, and against a background of calls from opponents that the current net pen-based industry must move to similar closed containment units, we would like to highlight to those politicians in Scotland considering the impacts of salmon farming that if they recommend such an approach, it will be the death sentence for salmon farming along the west coast of Scotland.  Land-based closed containment will never happen in the west Highlands.

Irrespective of whether the salmon farming industry does impact on the environment or not, closed containment is not the answer for the west coast. Just as Nordic Aquafarms has moved to Maine USA, salmon farming will move from the Scottish west coast, not only because such production will be too expensive but the same critics who don’t want to see net pen farming will not want land-based farming along their shores. If nets at sea are perceived to ruin the view, then industrial scale buildings will not be welcome either.

If the industry can no longer benefit from the Scottish west coast identity, then there is no point in being there at all. Such a move would be welcomed by wild fish interests, who want the west coast to themselves for their own activities. They mistakenly believe that the removal of salmon farming will bring about a major regeneration of wild fish numbers which they can then catch and kill for their own sport. As can be seen from the declines in fish catches along the east coast, salmon farming is not the problem, so their aspirations will not be achieved. Instead, whole communities will be devastated by job losses and a collapse in the local economies. There will be an exodus of young people to the cities in search of work leaving an ageing population behind. This will suit the NIMBYs and the holiday home owners, who are the main objectors to salmon farming, but will be a disaster for Scotland, that will never be offset by tourism or sports fishing.

There are plenty of houses for sale in Belfast Maine at the moment including a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house priced at just $189,000. Perhaps, if the politicians recommend the Scottish industry should move to closed containment, some fish farm workers may take a chance of moving to the US where salmon farming is more likely to relocate.

 

The next market: There always seems to be a preoccupation as to where the next new market for salmon will be. We wonder why there always must be a new market? Why cannot we focus on developing existing markets instead. The case in point is the French market which, in our view, is not what it was. High prices and falling demand have changed the profile of salmon in France. We remain puzzled as to why France cannot be returned to its former glory in terms of salmon sales rather than worry as to who wants to buy salmon next.

Intrafish reported from the National Fisheries Institute’s Global Seafood Marketing Conference (GSMC 2018) in Miami. Experts at the conference said that the only way for the salmon market to go is up. Consumption of salmon compared to other proteins is extremely low with chicken at 91lbs, beef at 56.5lbs and pork at 50.1lbs. By comparison, salmon consumption stands at just over 2lbs per head per year. This suggests there is huge scope for expansion.

However, just because salmon lags so far behind chicken consumption does not mean that this will translate into boosting consumption such as in a new market. In fact, salmon has been available in the US for many years without seeing any significant rise in consumption. It will take much more than wishful thinking to boost salmon sales to US consumers.