An insider’s eye on sustainability in fish farming

Posted on July 04, 2019 by Ronnie Soutar

The BVA position on UK sustainable animal agriculture specifically notes that it includes aquaculture and sustainability is certainly a hot topic within Scottish salmon farming. On 31 May, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) launched a new regulatory framework for protecting the marine environment from discharges from fish farms. At the beginning of June, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, gave a statement on the progress of delivering a sustainable aquaculture sector.

This follows the publication in May 2018 of Scotland’s 10-year Farmed Fish Health Framework (FFHF) which aimed “to support and promote innovation in fish health management in order to secure improved productivity and survival of farmed fish and to underpin the sustainable growth of the sector.” The Scottish Government’s recognition that fish health and welfare is crucial to the sustainable development of what is now the country’s top food export is hugely important to the vets who work in aquaculture, and it ties in well with BVA’s position on UK sustainable animal agriculture. It might, however, sound strange to members of the profession outside the sector, given that media reports seem only to highlight welfare challenges and negative environmental effects. So, what is really going on?

Combatting the headline?

My own opinion, as a vet working for one of the largest, and most successful salmon farmers is that the people I deal with on a daily basis, from farm husbandry staff to executive management, not only recognise that sustainability is key to salmon farming’s future but actively promote fish health and welfare. The men and women on site (we have very good workforce diversity) care about their stock just as much as any land-based farmer, while those in the boardroom recognised long ago that healthy fish mean healthy profits. “Bio-efficiency” is a watch word, and that means minimising the impact of stress and disease and very definitely keeping mortalities to a minimum.

And yet there are worrying reports of damaged seabeds, horror stories of tonnes of dead fish and shocking pictures of fish heavily infested with sea lice. These isolated incidents are regrettable and demonstrate some of the challenges facing a relatively new livestock sector in a changing environment. However, like a lot of sensational reporting, they are a long way from representing the everyday situation. They may reflect poor practice on individual farms or the sheer bad luck of farmers trying to do their best. They certainly never seem to recognise the impact that such disasters can have on the people on the farm.

Transparency within the industry

Although every episode of negative welfare is a concern and a focus for fish vets, it is important to bear the scale of the sector in mind. A single pen may hold 40,000 salmon, and a whole farm 500,000 fish or more. It can help to consider these incidents in percentage terms – not to generate complacency but to keep a sense of perspective. The salmon farming sector as a whole has now signed up to a reporting system for mortality figures and levels of sea lice which is world-leading not just within aquaculture but in global livestock farming. While cynics will say that regulation would have forced this anyway, I think the profession should welcome this transparency and consider whether such moves would aid the sustainable development of other animal farming sectors, if only through improved public understanding and support.

Looking towards the future

However, transparency alone won’t improve the health and wellbeing of individual farmed fish and a lot of work remains to be done to balance protecting fish welfare and protecting the environment. The new SEPA framework includes restriction on medicine use that colleagues in other sectors would find very hard to bear, including significant pressure on our access to the prescribing Cascade.

Thankfully, recent years have seen constructive dialogue between farmers and regulators and the position of fish vets at the very centre of sustainable aquaculture development is undoubtedly recognised at the very highest levels.

Ronnie Soutar

Written by Ronnie Soutar

Vet Fish Specialist, Fish Veterinary Society (FVS) representative on BVA Scottish Branch Council

Ronnie has been a fish vet for 30 years, and until recently was blending clinical work in aquaculture with a series of management roles in mixed and, latterly, companion animal practice. He now works part-time for a large aquaculture company.