Few dishes resonate with Scots like fish and chips. Whether it’s “salt an’ sauce” in Edinburgh or salt and vinegar pretty much everywhere else, our nation is hooked on its fish suppers, with around 1,000 chippies serving up more than 13 million portions each year.
Our love affair with fish doesn’t begin and end with deep-fried cod or haddock either. Whether it’s oysters to set a romantic tone on Valentine’s Day or a fillet of salmon as a quick mid-week tea, Scots are embracing fish in their diets like never before.
The health benefits of eating salmon and other oily fish are well-rehearsed, with the protein, vitamins and minerals they contain forming an important part of our diet. Advocates also regularly trumpet the environmental benefits of farming fish, which uses less energy than rearing livestock.
Yet perhaps what’s not as well-known is the impact that “aquaculture” – or farming fish and shellfish – has on Scotland’s economy. Many fish lovers will be able to picture fishermen donning sou’westers and sailing off on their trawlers into the North Sea or the North Atlantic, but fewer may be familiar with what goes on closer to the coastline.
While agriculture involves farmers heading out into the fields on their tractors to tend their sheep and cattle, aquaculture sees workers fastening their lifejackets and boarding boats to monitor fish in cages or mussels attached to ropes. Whether caught in the wild or farmed on the coast, fishing is a way of life for many communities.
Aquaculture already supports 8,800 jobs in Scotland and generates £1.8 billion for the economy. Many of those jobs are on the islands or in rural areas, supporting families in some of the most remote parts of the country.
The industry has set itself targets to grow dramatically, doubling its economic contribution to £3.6bn by 2030 and creating an additional 10,000 jobs. To support those ambitious aims, the humble fish is going high-tech.
“It’s an exciting time to be part of the aquaculture industry,” says Heather Jones, chief executive at the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) in Stirling, which was set up in 2014 to bring together academics from Scotland’s universities and research centres with experts from fish and shellfish businesses. “Some of the best brains and industry practitioners in Scotland are collaborating to improve aquaculture.
“SAIC’s role is to create as much opportunity as possible for innovation to happen. From supporting projects through the grant funding process, to encouraging more businesses to support internships to create work-ready graduates, championing diversity and supporting more women in aquaculture, our days are filled connecting and facilitating creative, successful partnerships.”
Jones and her team have boosted their government budget with significant contributions from industry. In just over three years SAIC has invested £17.9 million in innovative projects, with much of that money coming from companies. For every £1 of public money spent on funding, £3.60 is generated.
The SAIC is one of eight innovation centres set up since 2012 by the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise. The centres cover a broad range of areas – from construction and oil and gas through to data and medicine – with each designed to bring together businesses and universities to innovate and grow the economy.
Top of the list of challenges being tackled by the SAIC is sea lice, a pest that stalks salmon farms. Scotland isn’t alone in facing the problem, with lice affecting its competitors in Chile and Norway too.
“Whilst there are many positives and improvements in the sector, I wouldn’t be credible if I didn’t acknowledge that there are challenges, most of them naturally occurring, and common to any food production process,” admits Jones. “For example, the industry has to control sea lice, and also tackle fish health issues as they emerge.
“So, we’ve already supported a range of projects that use biological and technological methods to control sea lice, and we are helping to put Scotland at the forefront of deploying ‘cleaner fish’ to deal with sea lice. We’re also working with businesses and academics on a number of projects around fish health, helping the industry to address problems collectively.”
Tackling sea lice and keeping Scotland’s fish healthy will be key to the industry continuing to grow. Disease-free fish are needed both at home and abroad because exports sit at the heart of the plan to expand the sector.
Figures released last month by HM Revenue & Customs showed that Scottish salmon exports leapt by 35 per cent last year to hit a record £600m. The United States remained Scotland’s biggest customer, buying £193m of salmon, followed by France with £188m, China with £69m and Ireland at £34m.
Taiwan broke into the top five markets for the first time, buying £16m-worth of salmon. Germany, Poland, Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands made up the rest of the top ten.
Selling salmon overseas doesn’t just boost Scotland’s economy, but also helps to feed the growing global population. With the number of people on the planet expected to increase by a third before 2050, producing enough protein to satisfy growing appetites represents an opportunity for the aquaculture industry.
Rearing fish rather than simply catching them in the wild is playing an increasingly-important role in filling the world’s bellies. Forty years ago, trawlers and anglers accounted for 93 per cent of the fish we ate; now, wild stocks only meet half of global consumption, with reared fish on the rise.
Jones is quick to point out that expanding her sector can’t come at any cost though. She’s well aware of the need to maintain a healthy ecosystem in which to rear salmon, mussels and other seafood.
“Another issue for aquaculture is to monitor and manage any impact it has on the environment – in this, it’s no different from agriculture,” she adds. “So, another area where we’re working with industry and academics is to improve our data and knowledge of any impacts on the seabed.
“This will help both regulators and salmon producers to optimise environmental monitoring and compliance, which is important for the future development of the industry. Whilst we do have challenges and areas where we need to extend our knowledge, Scotland is well positioned to address these.”
Monitoring and improving the environmental impact of fish farming is a key topic for environmentalists. “WWF recognises the contribution that farmed fish and shellfish makes to global food security and to relieving pressure on wild fisheries,” says Esther Brooker, the charity’s marine policy officer in Scotland.
“However, to mitigate the numerous environmental issues associated with the industry, we support progression towards recognised standards of sustainability, such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) accreditation for all aquaculture operations. We encourage retailers to supply seafood products that meet these standards, and consumers to check the products they buy have been sourced sustainably.”