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July 30th 2020

The tail to this crisis is going to be long and painful. There will be second waves and third waves, localised hotspots and regional lockdowns in various parts of the world not to mention the millions of job losses and mountainous government debts.

And yet, and yet - a sense is starting to build within the Scottish salmon sector that something better, stronger and more resilient could emerge from the wreckage.

The first seeds of this idea were sown in the response the sector submitted to the Benny Higgins' inquiry, which was tasked with finding a way forward for the Scottish economy out of the Coronavirus nightmare.

Mr Higgins, the former chief executive of Tesco Bank, was looking for high-level ideas, for strategic thinking and for ways in which industry and business could lift the Scottish economy out of the Covid mire.

To paraphrase JFK, Mr Higgins did not want to know what the country could do for us, he wanted to know what we could do for the country - so we told him: Scotland's farmed salmon sector has the potential to be a flag-bearer for the Scottish economy, leading it out on to firmer economic ground.

Our companies not only weathered the Covid storms with very little government help but they also coped admirably with the virtual collapse of export markets and the closure of domestic food service.

Not only that, but our farmers kept their fish healthy and growing, continuing to supply domestic retailers without a break and changing work patterns to ensure absenteeism could be kept to an absolute minimum.

There is a great deal of pride - and rightly so - within the sector at how resourceful and resilient our farmers have been over the last three and half months. Our member companies have soaked up everything this crisis has thrown at them and bounced back again.

But it is the future that counts and this is where the real opportunity lies.

The UK desperately needs to sell good abroad. It needs it for income and to improve its balance of payments and, as the UK's largest food export, salmon has a key role to play in this. There is also the simple issue of tax revenue. In 2018, the Scottish farmed salmon sector generated almost £100 million in local, Scottish and UK tax revenues.

So the question to Mr Higgins and to wider government is this - how much more could the sector do if it was given the chance to grow and grow sustainably?

The world loves Scottish salmon. The global market, if not absolutely insatiable, still has a huge potential for growth within it. Ten years ago, the Scottish salmon sector had a ten per cent share of the global market. Now it has less than seven per cent.

The market has grown, others have taken advantage of that growth and Scotland has been left languishing while our international competitors have powered ahead.

The Scottish Government is looking for a green recovery, a sustainable revolution that will lead to a low-carbon future.

Well, the salmon sector is already ahead of the game in this area too. Salmon production has the lowest carbon footprint of any comparable livestock, it uses less fresh water, has a better feed-to-protein ratio and produces more protein per product than any of its competitors.

But there is more than this too. The Covid crisis has focused attention much more closely on health, healthy eating and the largely first-world problem of widespread obesity.

What better to lead a crusade for Scotland than one of the healthiest proteins on the planet? Not only is salmon packed full of Omega 3 but it is a low-fat product providing a fantastic source of vitamin D.

It has not escaped the notice of Scottish ministers that our rural areas suffered severely during the Covid crisis because so many communities rely heavily on the tourist trade for survival.

All along the west coast and up through the islands, communities hunkered down, safe in the knowledge that the fish farms were still earning, that staff were working and bringing in money while the bed and breakfasts and guests houses were boarded up.

The average salary in Scottish salmon farming is £34,000, well above the national average. This is money that has been keeping rural communities in sparsely populated areas alive.

How much more could we do if given the green light to grow, and grow sustainably?

And that is the crux of this issue. The Scottish salmon sector ticks all the boxes for the government. It already generates substantial tax revenue and helps with the balance of payments, it keeps hundreds of rural communities alive, it provides a low-carbon, sustainable, healthy protein to the population and it could provide a potential source of well-paid employment to thousands more Scottish youngsters.

Yet its share of the global market is shrinking, its influence and reach is declining and it is being overtaken by others all because of a lack of clear leadership and vision from government and regulators.

Scottish salmon has the potential to lead Scotland out of this crisis but it is in danger of being held back by timidity and hesitant decision making. At the moment, our farming companies have to wait months, even years for decisions on new farms.

We are not asking for looser regulation, we just want better regulation. We want it to be clear, understandable, efficient and speedy: that's all.

Not only can we help the country pick itself up and get going again, we can lead that crusade. We do not need the incentive of subsidies or hand outs. All we need is a national decision-making environment that appreciates our potential and regulation that allows sustainable growth to happen.

Give us the 'green' light: this is the message we will trumpet as the country starts to emerge, blinking from the lockdown.

This is a moment of real opportunity - its time we seized it.

This article by the SSPO's Director of Strategic Engagement, Hamish Macdonell, first appeared in July's edition of Fish Farmer magazine.