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October 15th 2019

Walk into the control room of the feed barge on a Scottish salmon farm today and what will greet you is more space race than farming.

There will be an array of screens, some showing ever-changing figures and charts but many with live video footage from inside the pens.

There will be electronic microscopes to monitor plankton levels, digital thermometers for the water temperature and gauges showing the feed levels in the stores.

This is modern, Scottish salmon farming. It is farming but done with such a degree of technical sophistication that the pioneers would scarcely recognise it.

Salmon pen images relayed to a feed barge to allow monitored feeding

But those early farmers would undoubtedly relish the extraordinarily good position that Scotland is now in, 50 years after they made those first tentative steps.

They knew aquaculture was the future back then and it is even more the future now.

Already more than half the fish eaten across the globe is farmed. By 2030, that percentage has to rise to 62 per cent if we are going to feed the world.

And here we are in Scotland with a thriving, buoyant fish farming sector which is recognised as being at the very top of the world order.

We have the coastline for farm-raised salmon, we have the water and we have the farming expertise. We have some of the toughest regulations anywhere and world-leading certification and auditing schemes.

Everything is in place, you would think, for Scotland to take advantage of the growing demand for lean, healthy protein and for salmon to assume the central role in the economy that it does in somewhere like Norway.

And yet, and yet ....

There are still those who would do salmon farming down.

Some of this is driven by prejudice, some by misinformation and some by myths which are based on false impressions of a farming sector from 20 or 30 years ago.

Just take the issue of fish feed. Back in the 1990s, 69 per cent of salmon feed was made of fish oil and fish meal.

By 2015 this had dropped to 31 per cent and it is predicted to drop to just 10 per cent in the next few years.

Salmon feed pellets

Salmon farmers are using less and less fish in their feed as other, plant-based ingredients come on the market.

And even the fish that is being used as an ingredient in the feed is coming from different, more sustainable sources.

The main producers of feed for Scottish salmon now use trimmings from fish processing - unsuitable human consumption - to make up almost a third of fish content.

Our farmers do not use feed which has ingredients from non-sustainable sources like India, Vietnam or The Gambia and they are proud of this record.

Then there's the issue of medicines.

Over the ten years to 2018, medicine use dropped by nearly half (49 per cent) to its lowest level for a decade.

Much of that is because farmers are using new and different treatments for sea lice - like cleanerfish, the wrasse and the lumpfish that eat the lice off the salmon in their pens.

It has taken time but our farmers have now managed to close the breeding cycle and will soon be able to hatch, rear and grow their own cleanerfish, rather than take them from the wild.

Salmon have the best conversion rate for feed to meat of any similar livestock. It takes about 1.2kg of feed to produce 1kg of salmon, an extraordinary rate which is why the United Nations believes aquaculture really is the way to feed the world of tomorrow.

Those camera feeds from the pens to the control barge help this process too. They ensure just the right amount of feed is delivered to the salmon at exactly the right time.

Wasted feed which drops to the sea floor is no good to anyone which is why such strenuous efforts have been made cutting it back, efforts which mean that just 50g in every tonne, or just 0.00005 per cent, is now wasted.

And this raises a wider but crucial point: farmers want to protect the environment and this includes making sure there is as little waste as possible.

It is the cold, clear, pristine waters of the Atlantic which produce such great Scottish salmon so farmers are working hard to make sure they stay that way.

Scotland's farm-raised salmon have a good environmental story to tell. It is a story of top-quality feed, sourced from sustainable sources, of the lowest lice levels for six years, controlled largely by natural methods which have helped reduce medicine use to extraordinarily low levels.

But it is also a story about Scotland not just playing its part in a global food revolution but leading it too.

Solutions and technologies tried out here which will be used in aquaculture across the developing world in the future. Every step we take in making our sector more sustainable and efficient will be taken on a hundredfold elsewhere.

This is the future: so we really can start feeding the world - from here, from Scotland.

This article by Hamish Macdonell, SSPO Director of Strategic Engagement first appeared in The Herald : https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/17969072.scottish-aquaculture-reigns-supreme-king-fish/