How salmon farming brought new life to the Scottish Highlands and Islands

LONG READ: Commercial aquaculture has become the economic backbone of some of Scotland's most isolated areas, but much of its potential is still untapped.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 04 Oct 2018

At just over two and half miles long by one and a half miles wide, the Isle of Muck is the smallest of the four Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides, 20 miles off the west coast of the Scottish Highlands.

Home to just under 40 people, there is no permanent shop and the only access to the island comes via the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry - a two hour sail out of the mainland port of Mallaig. Up until four years ago, seasonal tourism provided just about the only form of sustainable income for island residents, but then the salmon farm changed everything.

In 2014 the Norwegian-owned conglomerate Marine Harvest opened a small salmon farm just off the northeast coast of the island. As well as producing 2,500 tonnes of fish annually, the open water site has created ten permanent jobs and provides an estimated combined salary of nearly £300,000 a year to the residents.

Before the salmon farm the lack of opportunities meant it was hard to attract young families to Muck, but the fact that some of the company’s staff have settled permanently on the island has brought ‘a lot of benefits socially’, says Toby Fitchner-Irvine.  He moved back to Muck a decade ago and has run the Gallanach Lodge guest house for the past five years with his wife Mary. ‘From our point of view, having a few more kids in school in such a small community helps to keep it thriving.'

Marine Harvest has also built several houses, improved the island’s single stretch of road and donates all the mooring charges from its jetty to Muck’s school. It even helps out when there’s a storm.

‘If the weather blows up we tend to miss quite a few sailings from our lifeline service,’ says Fitchner-Irvine. ’These guys have got boats going to the mainland quite a lot so they're always happy to offer lifts or bring freight and post out.’

It’s a story commonplace around the Scottish Highlands and Islands where aquaculture - the farming of finfish, shellfish and some seaweed – is having an increasing social and economic impact.

According to a report compiled by Marine Scotland and the Scottish Government economic development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the industry supports an estimated 12,000 jobs across its wider supply chain. The report tracks the social impact that the aquaculture industry has had on the area, noting that aquaculture not only offers year round, full time employment opportunities but also helps to keep young people in the area, mitigating the effects of the ageing population.

It’s important to put this in perspective. A salmon farm may provide up to 10 new jobs directly, which across an area with a total population of 440,000 doesn't sound like much. But these are often in some of the most remote rural areas in the country, in communities where the population numbers a few hundred or even a few dozen, so the introduction of 10 full time jobs can be quite transformative.

Sauce, soap and salmon

Commercial aquaculture only came to Scotland in 1965, when Unilever established a trout farm at Lochilet. The first batch of salmon (all 14 tonnes of it) arrived in 1971, when Marine Harvest was set up as the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate’s commercial fishing wing.  

The industry slowly gained momentum throughout the late 1970s, but it was still very much the domain of individual farmers. The early 80s then saw consolidation as large corporates entered what was starting to become a lucrative market.

Unilever’s involvement ended when it sold Marine Harvest to a Norwegian company in 1992. Today there are seven main finfish farming companies alongside a host of independent shellfish farmers, which together produced 171,722 tonnes of finfish (salmon and trout) and 7,270 tonnes of shellfish (mostly oysters and mussels) in 2015.

It has emerged as one of the UK’s most valuable food export sectors. The latest figures show that Scottish aquaculture contributes £1.8 billion annually to the Scottish economy.  

Aquaculture production (the actual growing of fish) occurs almost exclusively in the waters around the Scottish west coast, but the impact is felt nationwide with more than 12,000 people being employed within the wider supply chain - up to 8,000 of these directly in the Highlands and Islands.

Workers at a Wester Ross Salmon farm

The farming of Atlantic salmon has been a particular success, currently accounting for 95% of all aquaculture production. With 92,000 tonnes of salmon a year being shipped to over 50 countries globally - at a total value of £600 million - it is the UK’s second largest food export behind whiskey. Indeed, since 2016 the export value of Scottish salmon increased by 35%.

The USA represents the biggest single market, accounting for £193 million of sales in 2017, but there is growing trade with the Far East, where the burgeoning Chinese middle class has developed a taste for high-end, healthy seafood.

This has helped to attract major investment from foreign corporations, which now dominate the salmon farming industry.

A capital intensive business

Marine Harvest Scotland, for example, is part of the Bergen headquartered Marine Harvest Group, which has interests in 24 countries worldwide including the Faroe islands, Chile and Canada, producing a quarter of the world's farmed salmon.

With 48 open ocean farms and four freshwater loch farms peppered across the Western Highlands and Islands, the company produced 60,000 tonnes of salmon 2017 - roughly one third of the entire Scottish market output - and employs 1,250 people on a total wage bill of £48 million per annum.

The company says the Scottish Highlands’ optimal water temperatures and relatively sheltered coastline make it the perfect breeding ground for farmed salmon.

'It's a bit like where you can grow wine,’ says Ben Hadfield, Marine Harvest Scotland’s Managing Director. ‘You're looking for a distinct temperature band in the ocean and high purity in the water. We tend to grow salmon in relatively isolated, non-industrially developed areas.’ There are two regional bands where these conditions exist. The northern hemisphere band includes Scotland, Norway and British Columbia, while the southern includes Chile and parts of Australia.

Scotland is third only to Norway and Chile in terms of its global market share - this largely corresponds to the size of suitable coastline - but Scottish provenance affords the product a premium status.

In the 1990s Scottish Salmon was awarded PGL (Premium Geographical Indication) status in the EU, with the likes of Parma Ham and Champagne. Hadfield reveals that Scottish salmon 'generally trades at 8-10% higher’ than salmon grown in Norway.

Sheltered salmon farm at Ardmair

Foreign multinationals haven’t been the only ones to capitalise on the Scottish aquaculture brand. Since 1977, Wester Ross Fisheries Ltd – Scotland’s ‘only independent, indigenously owned salmon company’ – has centred its farming operations around Ullapool, a small port town located roughly 56 miles to the north east of Inverness on the banks of Loch Broom. Over 30 of Wester Ross’ 55 employees are Ullapool residents, making the salmon farmer the largest private sector employer in the area.  

The business is on a much smaller scale than global big fish like Marine Harvest. With a turnover of £14 million (2016), Wester Ross’s three open water farms produce between 1,500 and 2,000 tonnes of salmon annually, but the company has had to work hard to find its niche in the market.

Wester Ross hand feeds its fish with ‘minimal mechanical input’. While this focus on more ‘artisanal’ rearing techniques leads to higher costs – Wester Ross employs six times more people per tonne of salmon produced then other farmers – its MD Gilpin Bradley says it has helped to establish a loyal and appreciative customer base willing to pay for a premium product.

Profit is not always immediate - or guaranteed. Typically it takes around nine months for a salmon to grow from egg to smolt (the stage at which it is moved to open water). Once the fish have been moved to the 15 square metre sea pens, it can take anywhere between 12 and 22 months for them to reach the typical market size of four to six kilos. ‘It’s a very capital intensive business,’ says Bradley.

Even at the smaller farms, he explains, salmon farming is a complex operation involving lots of different stakeholders to supply logistics, equipment and ‘added value’ services like smoking, filleting and drying.

‘There's a mindset within salmon farming companies to spend locally where we can,’ says Bradley. ‘It's no underestimation to say that aquaculture is one of the backbones of the highland economy now and big businesses have built up on the back of supplying services to the industry.’

Ardessie Salmon farm, May 2018

The Inverness based Gael Force Group is one such business.

It was founded by Stewart Graham on the Isle of Lewis in 1983 to manufacture creel and other equipment for the commercial fishing industry. But as that market started to decline, and Scottish aquaculture started to expand, the company gradually started to refocus - and it’s a transition that paid off.

Today Gael Force is a £30 million company. Headquartered in Inverness, it employs 200 people across six sites in Scotland and England. Two-thirds of Gael Force's sales are to aquaculture businesses - the other third goes to other commercial marine industries - and 95% of these sales are to a domestic market.

It’s a vibrant, innovative sector, which has enabled Gael Force to build up a rather disparate portfolio of products. From anchors, fish pens and feeding barges to underwater cameras, environmental sensors and pontoons - the list goes on and varies in technological complexity. Within the last year alone the group has taken on 50 new staff.

'The jobs today are very much about science, technology, engineering, biology. There is any amount of employment opportunities in this industry,’ says Graham.

So far the company has been able to ‘work through’ finding the adequate skills to match the positions, but Graham is adamant that as an industry aquaculture will need to develop a strategy to ensure that it can continue to attract talent in the future.

So that - alongside a number of other stakeholders - is exactly what he has been trying to do.

Swimming for growth

Aquaculture might be booming, but industry insiders believe it could be doing much better. In 2016 they formed a working group to help it realise its ‘true’ growth potential.

What emerged was the Aquaculture Growth to 2030 strategic plan, which has the 'reasonable aim' of doubling the economic value of the industry to £3.6 billion by 2030. This will require up to 400,000 tonnes of finfish and 21,000 of shellfish to be sustainably produced per annum.

Some of the plan’s key aims involve working with government to remove some of the ‘barriers and blockers to growth’, in particular around planning processes for new farms and the inflexible 2,500 tonne limit on the amount of biomass (the physical fish and any biological associated waste) that each farm can produce. Graham explains that while this is necessary in order to ensure sustainability, the industry wants the limit to be considered on a farm by farm basis. Ensuring that the industry has access to the skills and funding needed for the future is also a high priority.

'It really only amounts to around 5% growth a year from the position in 2016, which doesn't sound too difficult but could double the economic value of the industry by 2030,’ says Graham, who is co-chairman of the Industry Leadership Group that was formed as a result and which pulls together senior leaders from the sector every quarter to assess progress and oversee the implementation of the plan.    

But the group’s biggest hurdle involves increasing concerns over the environmental impact of commercial aquaculture.

The Scottish Parliament’s environment committee published a report in early 2018 studying the impact of the industry and along with groups like the charity Salmon and Trout Conservation, it has expressed concerns over the pervasive impact that fish farms can have on wild populations.

The biggest problem tends to be sea lice - parasitic fish that feed off salmon. These already exist within wild salmon populations, but the species can thrive within the heavily concentrated open water pens of the farm, which in turn can have an impact on local wild populations.

Campaigners have also highlighted the high mortality rate among farmed fish - where sometimes up to quarter of a crop fails to be harvested - as something that needs to be addressed.

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Those within the industry insist that while sea lice remain an ongoing problem, it is something they are working hard to tackle.

'As a food producer in the open environment and in the ocean you need to take your obligation to debate and answer questions about your impact,’ says Marine Harvest’s Hadfield.

Traditional industry prevention methods have involved the use of licensed medicines and the erection of barriers around the pens, but over recent years increasing resources have been invested into more novel solutions, such as the breeding of Wrasse ‘cleaner-fish’ to live in the salmon pens and feed on the sea lice.

In 2018 Marine Harvest in collaboration with Scottish Sea Farms successfully managed to rear Wrasse brooding stock after six years of research, with the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency.

In a bid to improve transparency the Scottish Salmon Producers Association - the professional body representing salmon farmers - has started publishing farm by farm data on sea lice numbers.

A year and a half in, it is probably too early to judge the impact of the 2030 Growth plan, and there's still a lot of work to be done. But if these environmental problems can be addressed, there's certainly cause for optimism.

With the global population continuing to rise and wild fish stocks continuing to decline, industry insiders see aquaculture as a compelling proposition to serve the world’s protein needs.

'The only way we can continue to serve that need is through aquaculture, unless we completely destroy and deplete existing wildstocks,' says Stewart Graham. Scottish Salmon currently accounts for only 8% of the global market, so the industry has plenty of room to grow, which would surely be to the benefit of a regional economy that has at times risked being left behind.

If the industry hits its 2030 plan, it is estimated that this could take the number of full time jobs provided by commercial aquaculture to well over 18,000, which for small communities like those on the Isle of Muck could prove transformative.

Image credits:

Header: Courtesy of Wester Ross Fisheries

Body: Courtesy of Wester Ross Fisheries


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