Yifeng, is a postgraduate Political Science student who undertook a paid internship with the SSPO in the summer of 2021. Here he writes about his internship, what he learns about the sector and how his opinion of Scottish salmon farming has changed.

Summer’s Adventures in Highland: Say Sláinte to Scottish Salmon

The first salmon farm appeared on Scottish water in the 1970s, with it comes an ongoing economic success story. I sent the first email to the SSPO (Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation) office in April, with it came a surprise. The SSPO does not have an established internship programme and has not brought in new interns for years, so I never thought it would take only ten days from receiving the reply to getting the internship offer, nor would it be such an impressive experience.

I joined the communications and engagement team at the SSPO as a part-time intern. It was a four-week internship over the summer, and I spent my first week in Scotland and the remaining three weeks working independently and remotely at home. I am a political scientist, but I am not a big fan of running regression models (or put it more precisely, not good at statistics at all). I chose the SSPO because social science is, at the end of the day, about studying the real human society, the method of which is to be with the people and listen to their stories; there is no better place to do so than the primary sector. I am saying so because, during the internship, I was welcomed pretty much not as an intern, but as a guest and I felt like I was not doing an internship but fieldwork there.

My journey began at the Edinburgh Waverley station, where Andrew, the SSPO’s super-talented communications officer, picked me up and introduced me to the office. The SSPO probably has the most ideal location in Edinburgh and enjoy a panoramic view of the best attractions this city has to offer: Edinburgh Castle, Old Town, Calton Hill, Arthur’s Seat and the Scottish Parliament. What impressed me most, however, is the fact that the office has two ladies’ toilets, one gents and one accessible. One popular stereotype about fish farmers is ‘an old (and often drunk) man with a weather-beaten face’, yet the Scottish salmon sector is leading the industry in gender equality.

Everyone I met at the SSPO is kind, friendly and willing to talk with me. The work environment here is causal and non-hierarchical, and I am afraid I have wasted Tavish Scott too much time for themeless chats. There was not much work to do for week one, and I spent most of my time attending meetings internally and with communications officers from SSPO’s member companies. To be honest, I initially came to SSPO with some bias, as I had been told for years that farm fish is unhealthy, unsustainable, and full of chemicals. It was indeed what the sector looked like four decades ago, but now farmed salmon producers are aware of the criticism, and they have been taking initiatives to transform this sector into a sustainable and responsible 21st-century high-tech industry. The SSPO holds a weekly meeting to report and reflect on the recent progress in delivering the sector’s five sustainable pledges: animal welfare, environment, traceability, people, and community. The SSPO also has an additional ad-hoc pledge to me for my first week here: to show me the salmon farms.

I visited two salmon farmers in Fort William, one freshwater farm (the Hogwarts Express at the Glenfinnan Viaduct overlooks the freshwater farm) and one indoor farm, and it completely changed the way I perceive the salmon farming sector. The use of advanced technologies in Scottish salmon production is everywhere. I talked to on-site operators who have more than thirty years of experience, asking technical questions. They have been farming salmon for many, many years, and salmon production is their life. Sometimes it is hard to say if it is they feeding the salmon or the salmon feeding them. They told me that some irresponsible journalists and unscrupulous activists are always attacking them based on data from decades ago. The farmers smiled bitterly, some people believe the sector (and aquaculture as a whole) is inherently immoral and should be abolished, while you have 7 billion people on earth to feed.

Yifeng near the Mowi Scotland freshwater farm at Loch Shiel

I can still recall after the visit, Andrew told me at the dinner, “Do you remember the lady who took us for the tour today? She works at Mowi, her husband works at Mowi, and their children go to the local school. These are real people, and they have their daily struggles. If the sector disappears, hundreds of families will lose their hope; my job is to protect them.” I have to admit those words made me always take a very serious attitude towards my internship, because what he said is not rhetoric but the truth.

Some activists are trying to ban the entire aquaculture sector, claiming the sector is immoral and often citing the environmental and physical benefits of veganism. For example, there is a documentary to be released this month criticising modern food production and advocating veganism. However, if you have a look at the list of their sponsors, you will find a vegan venture capital company. They talk about moral principles but behind the scenes, it is all about business. Maybe I am a little bit off the topic, but if I were to give my opinion on this issue, I would say farmed-fish-denial is a luxury for the first-world lords. Eating non-farmed meat is a personal choice, but attempting to destroy the sector is hypocrisy.

Only the privileged have the financial resources to eat the expensive non-farmed-meat products, while normal people are often struggling to meet their nutritional needs, let alone the many people from the “developing world”. Some hypocrites want to show the world they are morally superior by the putting thousands of people out of employment. Therefore, my internship is to, partly, protect hard-working farmers from those hypocritical indulgence buyers.

The rest of the internship was devoted to a wide range of tasks in communications, from writing social media content and press release to completing policy briefs and market research. The SSPO wants me to receive as much training as possible and kept asking me if I like the task assigned and if there is anything else I would like to try. There are hundreds of trade bodies in Europe, and only few, if not one, would like to take interns for a tour at member companies. 99.9% of internships at trade associations are cynical: they just ask you to sign the contract, then sit down in the office, open the laptop, and start to work. The SSPO intended to let me get contextualised of my work, and it was proven to be very helpful. I saw the farms and talked to farmers working on-site, now I can work with confidence and tell my friends confidently: go eat Scottish salmon, it is safe, healthy and produced in an environmentally friendly and responsible way.

I would like to give my sincere thanks again to the SSPO and best wishes to the Scottish salmon sector. Next time when you see a farmer, in person or through the photo, working at the salmon farm, remember, it is not people feeding the fish, but the fish feeding the people.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post may not necessarily represent those of the SSPO, it's employees or it's member companies.