How Scottish salmon exports its way around the world and maintains its reputation

Three days, that’s all it takes. That’s the maximum time needed to get salmon from the cold waters of a pristine sea loch in the far north-west of Scotland to an upmarket restaurant in Beijing, Sydney or Cape Town.
Optimal transport logistics require salmon farm workers, such as these at Mallaig, to harvest the fish at night.Optimal transport logistics require salmon farm workers, such as these at Mallaig, to harvest the fish at night.
Optimal transport logistics require salmon farm workers, such as these at Mallaig, to harvest the fish at night.

Often it’s quicker than that. Salmon harvested just after midnight in Mallaig are in the main transport hub at Larkhall, just off the M74 south of Glasgow, by lunchtime that day, often arriving at Heathrow the same evening.

Sent out in the bellies of passenger aircraft, the fish can then be presented on dinner plates in New York the following day.

Salmon is Scotland’s biggest food export and in the top-three of UK food exports too.

It is, quite clearly, a hugely successful product. It is renowned globally for its quality and regularly comes top of surveys rating the best salmon in the world.

But, because it is a perishable product, the routes to market have to be swift. That is why so much effort goes into getting from the sea to the customer as quickly as possible.

That is also why the harvesting often begins at midnight. That way, the normally quiet hours of the night are utilised to transport the fish and get them to the processors by the morning.

There they will be packed in ice boxes and sent to Larkhall.

But the fish isn’t just destined for Heathrow and flights to the US or China. More than 56,000 tonnes of fish leave the DFDS depot in Larkhall every year for the Channel and the huge French market in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Travelling overnight from Scotland these loads of salmon are at the French port when it opens early in the morning – barely 24 hours after harvest. There the fish is bought by importers who then send it to all the corners of Europe.

The situation is similar in the US. A significant amount of Scottish salmon is flown to Boston then transferred to chilled warehouses on a site similar to the DFDS operation in Larkhall.

The salmon then goes out in refrigerated trucks on often massive road journeys around the States, earmarked for restaurants and fishmongers everywhere from Florida to the Midwest.

Just before North America’s biggest seafood show kicked off earlier this year, The Boston Globe newspaper organised a taste test to rank salmon from all over the world.

Salmon from both sides of Canada, from Norway, Iceland, the Faroes, Alaska and from Scotland were all tasted and the Scottish fish came out on top.


This sort of success stems in part directly from the way Scottish salmon are reared. The fish are given time to develop in the clear cold North Atlantic waters.

But this reputation for quality also comes from the high-quality feed which is designed to make sure Scottish salmon thrives in the very top markets around the world.

Much of Scotland’s salmon exports also have much higher Omega 3 levels than their counterparts from elsewhere, which gives the product a healthier profile and this also helps boost sales too.

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation is one of a number of food and drink organisations helping to fund a series of in-market export specialists around the globe.

These are experts placed in key overseas markets whose role it is to promote Scotland’s food and drink products in those individual markets.

Lorraine Bruce Helmkay is one of those in-market specialists operating in North America. She says: “We get a tremendously positive response selling Scottish salmon into North America.

It is viewed as the very best here, so we take the story of our crystal clear waters, our animal welfare, pen density, all those wonderful things that create an amazing product that Americans love.”

She adds: “I think in comparison, if you take a look at Scotland, we are rated as the best, because we are and we deliver on that.”

The figures tend to back that up. In the first quarter of 2019, Scottish salmon exports were valued at £152 million (22,500 tonnes), an increase of 27 per cent – or £32m – over the same period the year before.

This rise was driven by increased exports to the US and the EU, and these first quarter results are close to the record, achieved in the first quarter of 2017 which was £156.5m.

Overall, the European Union still remains the sector’s largest market, taking about 45 per cent of Scotland’s salmon exports, while the top-three individual destinations were France, the US and China.


As is the case with any farming sector, salmon farmers know that they have to be constantly improving and fighting for market share.

There are signs that some of our competitors are waking up to Scotland’s success in capturing so much of the premium market and are producing top-quality fish to try to squeeze Scotland out.

Then there are the looming political issues of Brexit and a possible trade war between the US and EU over aircraft subsidies.

As a result, Scotland’s salmon farmers know they have to keep innovating, looking for new markets while constantly reassuring existing customers. Above all, they have to keep getting their fish to market as soon as possible.

Scottish salmon deserves to enjoy its reputation for global excellence. It is a benchmark which has been hard won and which many people are working fiercely to maintain.

But it relies on that slick supply chain, those workers harvesting the fish in the cold, dark hours of the night, and the airlines squeezing the boxes into aircraft holds to get the salmon out to foreign customers as soon as possible.

It is not just a local success story but one of Scotland’s greatest export successes of all time, and there isn’t a single person in the sector who isn’t determined to keep it that way.

Hamish Macdonell is director of strategic engagement at the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation.