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April 20th 2020

There was a moment, captured on wobbly video and posted on social media late last month, which demonstrated precisely how much has changed - and, equally, how much has stayed the same.

It was a few seconds of echoey applause and cheering as the camera swept across a production line.

The place was Mowi's salmon processing plant at Rosyth, those applauding were the employees and those been thanked were the NHS workers doing so much to get the country through this extraordinary crisis.

The fact that workers in an essential food processing sector - the hidden heroes as they have become known - were pausing for a moment to cheer colleagues in another vital sector was heartening enough but it was the detail of the scene, behind the applause, that actually said an awful lot more.

All those in shot were wearing gloves and overalls and hair nets, as they always do. But on each line there were Perspex screens, erected to separate workers who had to operate close to their colleagues. Where there weren't screens there were gaps, big gaps, between the workers to make sure everything possible was being done to keep these employees safe.

Everything had changed and yet it hadn't: the production line was different but food was still being produced, cleaned, packaged and shipped, just as it had been before.

A similar picture could have been taken almost anywhere across our companies. Shifts have been staggered to reduce interactions, skeleton crews have been installed to keep all but the most essential staff away from the workplace and special transports have been laid on to prevent workers from having to travel to work next to their colleagues.

And yet work is still going on, salmon are being reared and harvested and the population is being fed.

Yes, there is hardship and difficulty. Yes, there have been desperate cases of illness and separation. Yes, exports have collapsed and emergency measures have been rushed through to try to keep delayed-harvest fish healthy.

But there is a core resilience in this sector which has seen it adapt, change and manoeuvre to meet the challenges thrown up by this virus head on.

We were feeding more than a million mouths in the UK every day before this crisis and we are still doing that now.

But it is not just at a company level that new ways of working have been found.

As soon as the crisis hit, the SSPO's sustainability team started working with the regulators to find ways of easing the mounting pressures on farms.

With the virtual collapse of our export markets almost overnight, our farmers were suddenly faced with fish that needed to be harvested but which had no markets to go to.

SEPA and Marine Scotland acted swiftly and flexibly, working with the SSPO to give farmers the breathing space they needed. Fish are now being kept in the water for longer, there is new flexibility of fallowing and monitoring and medicine regulations have been tweaked, allowing more to be done with fewer staff.

Then there was the response from government. Both the UK and Scottish governments moved quickly to make it clear that food production workers were seen as essential - and this included all in the supply chain too.

Virtual meetings with senior government ministers which, not so long ago, would have taken weeks to arrange and hold, were now taking place on a daily basis as everyone came together with a common purpose: to keep the salmon flowing from pens to plate.

COVID-19: Cabinet Secretary praises salmon farmers' response

One message dominated all others - the need to protect the health and welfare of all those employed, directly or indirectly, by the farmed salmon sector.

But a secondary theme quickly emerged - the determination on behalf of everyone involved to keep UK consumers supplied with the fresh, healthy, Scottish produce they needed.

As the country went into lockdown and all restaurants and food service outlets closed, the supermarkets came under extreme pressure from consumers, a pressure which quickly worked its way back up the line to producers.

That our producers more than matched that demand is a credit, first and foremost, to the farmers and all those keeping the supply chains open. But it is also a credit to the regulators, the politicians and the officials who have forced open doors, worked hard into the night and cut their way through the normally stifling red tape to make sure that supply of food can continue unrestrained.

Now, none of that good news should blind us to the extraordinarily difficult issues we are now dealing with.

We had thought that issues with the European market, which we anticipated if the UK fell out of the EU without a deal, might cause problems.

But no-one foresaw the almost total collapse of all our export markets, at the same time.

And while our farmers have gratefully accepted the flexibility which will allow them to keep their fish in the water for longer, everyone involved in this sector knows that is only a finite solution.

The easing of regulations has given us breathing space, nothing more. Those fish are going to be harvested at some point soon and, when they are, they are going to need a market to go to.

Both the UK and Scottish governments have shown a keen willingness to embrace a strong 'Buy British, Buy Scottish, Support Local' campaign which could, if probably established, pave the way for more Scottish salmon to be sold in UK shops.

This is just one of the areas we will be driving at in the weeks and months ahead. Some export markets will open up quicker than others and, when they do, our producers will be there, fighting their way back in to ensure Scottish salmon gets back to the pre-eminent position it enjoyed before the virus hit.

There will be intense competition from our foreign counterparts, all of whom will be vying for the same market space.

But if we can show even a fraction of the strength, speed and flexibility our farmers have shown in coping with this crisis at home it shouldn't be long before we are back where we belong - as the most sought-after salmon in the world, all over the world.

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