Friday, 21 November 2008

Aquaculture debate in the Scottish Parliament

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): As a member of the previous Environment and Rural Development committee, I was involved in consideration of the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill in 2007, so this debate is like déjà vu all over again, as they say.

The renewed strategic framework for aquaculture is to be welcomed, because each Government must have a different name for the same thing as it develops. However, the industry is developing and, despite the times in which we live, we have been successful in maintaining jobs in fin fish and shellfish in some of our most remote areas. I will speak about the perpetuation of those jobs in a minute, but I want first to look at one or two of the themes in the consultation on the renewed strategic framework, especially the "planning, consents and sites" theme.

It would be useful if the minister could provide an update on the use of sites, because although fish farm sites can be good neighbours, some people see them as bad neighbours. When we debated these issues in March 2007, we found that 121 out of 252 salmon leases established by the Crown Estate had reported nil production in 2004. In 2005, the figure was 125; in 2006, it was 140. Sixty-seven leases reported nil production in the total period 2004 to 2006. There are good reasons, such as fallowing, for keeping certain sites empty, but often it is done for anti-competitive reasons—to stop smaller companies coming into the market. That must be examined. When we considered the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill, we were concerned that the Crown Estate did not have an effective way of dealing with the matter.

I hope that changes to our planning processes will enable us to limit the time for which leases are held. If they are not used within five years, planning permission should be withdrawn; there should be a means of regulating that. I hope that the minister will be able to expand on the issue, because local communities are concerned about large companies such as Panfish, which have sites and have applied for more. Those include the site at South Corriegills in Arran, which has been the subject of a public inquiry. Why is the company applying to take up new sites, against the interests of local communities, when many of its sites are unused?

Michael Russell: The member raises an important issue, but it was not possible to address the matter in a comprehensive way until we knew where all the sites were. Incredibly, the work that has been done on sites over the past year has enabled us for the first time to map them and to compare them with designated sites in Scotland. That will allow informed decision making for the first time.

Rob Gibson: I welcome the publication of the map, which shows the progress that is being made in these matters; I referred to that earlier. However, it will also be necessary to tighten up regulations.

The "markets, marketing and image" theme is important. Reference has been made to the image of salmon farming, which is improving considerably. However, we know that the market conditions for shellfish are very difficult at present. Given the fantastic resource of clean waters that we have, it is a great pity for the people who produce shellfish to see prices going down. In this period—the run-up to Christmas—there is a lot of evidence of difficulty. Prices are slow. French and Spanish dealers who would normally have struck deals for lobsters and other shellfish by this stage have not done so—they say that the Christmas season has not yet arrived.

The credit crunch is affecting our European neighbours, as it is us. Orkney fishermen say that they are having difficulty selling cooked partans. We need to find the means to float companies in weeks 49, 50 and 51 of the year. If the price rises are not achieved then, many shellfish merchants will be in serious difficulty. We therefore hope for evidence of a change in the process for marketing shellfish. There is a period of low demand in January, and if people have to keep over their stocks until then, they will not make money out of them.

Perhaps this is the time to stimulate the home market. Perhaps we should not, with all due respect, be eating turkeys at Christmas, but lobsters or shellfish—as people do in countries such as Portugal. That might be a good thing, because there are large stocks of them needing sold. We hope that there will be help with marketing through the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, which claims to work with aquaculture and which should be given a chance to do more in that direction.

We have questions about the environment, which I am particularly interested in from the point of view of the proposed climate change bill. If, as RSPB Scotland suggests, the growing aquaculture industry is to be consistent with the Scottish Government's sustainable development strategy, we should perhaps ask the minister whether we could have some means of doing a carbon count of the effect of the aquaculture industry, as we do for other industries. Aquaculture is a good industry to choose for ascertaining whether or not it is environmentally sustainable. That fits well with how the forthcoming marine bill will take into account marine spatial planning and the best use of our extremely clean waters.

I hope that the debate focuses on some of the major factors that will help the aquaculture industry to develop. As we have heard, we now have a greater uptake of salmon. Perhaps that is because of the difficulties of getting other fresh stocks, which have been run down through overfishing in some parts of the world. More processed salmon is being eaten. Nevertheless, that is good for the Scottish industry at the top end.

I doubt that we have had enough global warming to develop the necessary climate for flying fish to reach this part of the world, as the Tories suggested, but who knows, they might be farmed in future. In the meantime, in the serious world, this is an excellent debate on an excellent industry that we must support.

No comments: