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November 2nd 2020

One experienced salmon farmer tells of growing up in the Western Isles in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the warning handed down by teachers to children who failed to pay attention in class.

"Study hard and get good grades," the teacher would say, "Otherwise you'll end up working at the salmon farm."

Now the opposite is true. Teachers are much more likely to tell their pupils: "Study hard and get good grades or you'll miss the chance to work at the salmon farm."

It is easy to see why.

Two major economic reports have been issued by the Scottish Government in the past month, one by Ekosgen on the marine economy and the other by Biggar Economics on the impact of aquaculture.

One put average salaries in salmon farming at around £34,000, the other pitched the 'cost per staff member' figure considerably higher, at £43,000.

But even at £34,000, salaries in the Scottish salmon sector are considerably higher than the UK national average wage of around £30,000 a year.

Many of these fish farming jobs are in remote, rural locations where land farming and tourism tend to be the main alternatives, neither of which tend to offer the sort of well-paid, long-term employment prospects offered by the salmon sector.

READ MORE: Scottish salmon farming vital to rural community viability

In total, Scotland's salmon farmers paid out £185 million in wages and other staff costs in 2018, much of which went directly into Scotland's remotest communities.

But add in the supply chain, and the ripple effect of salmon farming on rural Scotland becomes even more apparent. According to the reports, salmon farmers bought three quarters of all their supplies from within Scotland in 2018 - a financial injection more than £1 billion.

This supported nearly 12,000 indirect jobs in the supply chain, from lorry drivers to net manufacturers.

There are those who argue that these economic arguments are hardly new and that the financial lifeline provided by salmon farming to Scotland's rural communities is well known.

That is indeed true but what is different now is that we are entering the harsh and unforgiving post-Covid world of broke governments, mass unemployment, huge public sector deficits and struggling businesses everywhere.

What that means is that, while those good salaries in remote, rural locations were important in the past, now they are vital.

But there is another side to this too. Every news bulletin seems to start with someone pleading for government cash. Almost everyone, it seems, expects to be bailed out by the taxpayer.

It has not been a good year for our sector, that's obvious. Exports took a huge hit through the second quarter and some key markets may take years to recover fully.

And while our farmers have appreciated all the help and support they have been given by both the UK and Scottish governments throughout this crisis (mostly in terms of helping preventing a glut of fish on the market) they are not one of those groups holding their bonnets out and asking for cash to keep them going.

That is because our sector is resilient, innovative and flexible. But there is only so much our farmers can do on their own.

There is one senior figure in an international salmon farming company who is more than happy to produce a paper he carries around with him showing the relative costs of doing business in different parts of the world.

In Scotland, the costs are higher than anywhere else. Our farmers have to pay more to get approval, they have to pay more to adapt and develop their farms and they have to be pay more for regulation along the way.

Ten years ago, the Scottish salmon sector had a ten per-cent share of the global market. Now, it has a seven per cent share.

The global market for salmon is growing yet the Scottish slice of that market is shrinking and much of the blame has to be laid at the door of the expensive and cumbersome regulatory regime our farmers have to cope with.

But there is an opportunity here too.

The post-Covid realities of empty government coffers and dwindling tax revenues will focus the attention of decision makers on those sectors which have not only weathered the pandemic in pretty good shape but which can also stride forth in confidence, making more money, creating more jobs and supporting Scotland PLC.

READ MORE: Scottish Government publishes report into the value of aquaculture

The next Scottish elections are only eight months away and Covid recovery will be the key theme during that campaign.

That is why the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation will use these two government economic reports to point out, not just how important our sector is now but how much it can help the country get back to normality once again.

We want to ensure that Scottish salmon's potential for sustainable growth is right at the centre of every electoral contest in our farming areas and that every politician knows about us and what we can deliver.

But there is one final, and telling, contribution that those economic reports can make.

The conclusion to the Biggar Economics report stated: "Fish products tend to be lower carbon emitters than other protein-based food products. As a result, they are likely to form an increasing share of protein consumption in the future by more environmentally conscious consumers."

And it added: "Action may, however, be required to address structural limits to an expansion of the sector's supply, including in the planning system and the availability of new sites."

So that's a Scottish Government report, not only identifying salmon as the likely food of choice for environmentally conscious consumers but flagging up the need for a streamlined regulatory system and more places available for us to farm.

If we can get this message taken seriously by every candidate standing for election to the Scottish Parliament next year, then it won't just be in the Western Isles that children will be encouraged to work hard so they can work in the local salmon farm, it will be in every part of the west coast and throughout all our islands too.

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