In speaking to Scotland’s rural economy and connectivity committee (RECC) for its report into the current state of the country’s salmon farms, Marine Harvest and feed giant BioMar Group said they feel land-based recirculating aquaculture systems, or RAS, are not viable alternatives to ocean-based net pens in the country.
“Marine Harvest Scotland and BioMar identified that the move to RAS systems
may be premature, with further testing and financial viability required,” the report reads.
In its submission to the RECC, Marine Harvest said a land-based tank system is often quoted as a possible replacement for farming fish in the sea, “but our extensive
research, and the experience of companies who have carried out trials, has shown that much more work needs to be done before it could be considered a viable alternative”.
BioMar went a little further, stating that financially, it is not realistic to suggest that the future of Scotland’s aquaculture sector is onshore. “No system to date has economically proven itself producing harvest-sized fish, where the whole life cycle has been in a recirculation system.”
The Scottish government itself is thinking along the same lines, as illustrated by a letter from the cabinet secretary for the rural economy — Fergus Ewing — to the RECC.
He said “recirculation and closed containment is a fairly new concept to Scotland, at
least in comparison to how the majority of the industry operates”.
New technologies and innovations may advance processes further and influence future development, but their mainstream commercial application currently remains unviable, he added.
He also claimed that some argue the fish produced in an onshore facility “may not offer the same level of consumer appeal and flavor taste of those farmed salmon that have spent time in the sea”.
As one of its recommendations for the salmon sector moving forward, the committee said it endorsed the environment, climate change and land reform (ECCLR) committee’s recommendation for “urgent research” on the subject of closed containment farms, and the consideration of ways to incentivize the industry to explore further use of the technology.
The ECCLR committee wants to see — as a matter of urgency — independent research
commissioned, “including a full cost-benefit analysis of [RAS], and a comparative analysis with the sector as it currently operates in Scotland, alongside further development and implementation of alternative technical solutions, supported by the use of incentives”.
The RECC added that it is aware that RAS is not the only closed containment option, and encouraged wider research on alternative technologies.
“The development of closed containment facilities could have a significant positive impact on the farmed salmon industry and has the potential to address many of the environmental challenges it faces,” it concluded.
However, the development of this technology has its own challenges in terms of large-scale rollout, it acknowledged. “These include its physical footprint whether on land or at sea; energy costs; carbon output; stock welfare issues; and the potentially negative impact on perceptions of provenance and quality.”
Richard Luxmoore of Scottish Environment Link — the self-styled “voice of Scotland’s environment community” — told the RECC one of the main arguments against technologies such as closed containment is that they are more expensive to operate at a profit. As such, a financial incentive would be useful, he said.
He noted that other farming industries, such as cattle, have to pay to dispose of their waste, whereas the salmon industry externalizes these costs by dispersing waste in the
sea. “[RAS] is more expensive but, in effect, it brings in some of the costs to the economic envelope of the farm and gets them properly dealt with. The sooner we can move in that direction, the better.”
Environmentalists argue for move onshore
Like Luxmoore, other submissions from environmental groups argued RAS should be seriously considered to protect Scottish waters.
Guy Linley Adams, on behalf of Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, said as many incentives as possible to encourage closed containment should be brought in. “An option that the Scottish government has before it is sea-bed leases. Now that the Crown Estate is devolved here, there is no reason why a Crown Estate lease for a novel site should not be available for a peppercorn rent.”
Andrew Bradford, who manages the Kincardine Estate (including its salmon fishing river) near the Aberdeenshire coast, claimed cost is not a defense for a system “that so evidently is harmful through pollution, infestation etcetera”. Energy issues could be addressed by using renewable energy, he suggested.
A number of submissions, in particular, those with wild salmon interests, strongly support a move to closed containment systems, the RECC wrote. For example, Alan MacDonald of Doonside Fishing expressed the view that “closed containment is the only solution to the problems caused by the currently unsustainable salmon farming”.
Others noted the systems may be helpful in tackling the challenges of sea lice, climate
change, and be a more effective solution to protect salmon from seal predation at sea.
Others also noted to the RECC that the energy requirement for onshore facilities was likely to be high. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency said investigating potential carbon footprints will be one aspect of any future decisions.