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Guest Column, August 2003

Robin Harper was Scotland's first Green Party parliamentarian. He is passionate in his determination to ensure that Scotland's precious environment is protected and preserved for the benefit and comfort of future generations.

The Strategic Review: A Critical Lack of Urgency

Robin Harper, Scotland's first Green parlaimentarian, on the shortcomings of the Scottish Executive's recent Strategic Framework for Scottish Aquaculture.

One of the jewels in the crown of the Scottish Parliament has been the Petitions Committee. In 2000 Alan Berry lodged a petition calling on the Executive to set up a full-scale public enquiry into the effects of aquaculture. This petition became known as PE 96. After traveling the usual course, it came to the Transport and Environment Committee, having already been considered by the Rural Affairs Committee.

The two committees supported the petition but the Executive were not disposed to set up a public enquiry on the grounds that they were going to prepare a strategy. Towards the end of the 2001-2002 session in May at a meeting of the Transport and Environment Committee, I suggested that we set up a rolling Committee enquiry.

Bristow Muldoon and I were appointed reporters and gathered evidence. Over the ensuing months I consulted with scientists in Edinburgh, Stirling, Aberdeen, with SaMS in Dunstaffnage, visited two SQS fish farms off Skye and attended meetings of the tripartite working group and the Scottish Shellfish Growers Association. The Transport and Environment Committee took evidence and, in summer 2002, published its report. A year later the Strategic Framework for Scottish Agriculture was published.

The mission statement that preceeds the document is very difficult to argue with unless one is prepared to argue there should be no fish farming in Scottish waters at all. I repeat it here: "Scotland will have a sustainable, diverse, competitive and economically viable aquaculture industry, of which its people can be justifiably proud."

My concern, however, is an apparent lack of a sense of urgency in this document. I think it is quite clear that all concerned have accepted that regulation is required, that more research is needed, and that where potential risk, let alone actual damage is identified swift action should be taken.

The section on location and relocation of farms is the one that alarms me most. It should not take another two years to identify those farms which are already poorly located, too close to river mouths, with poor flushing qualities. The position of these farms is surely known already, and what the Executive should be doing if it has any concern for our marine environment and the survival of our wild salmon is offering generous relocation grants to the farms concerned.

I have no wish to see a process that could be interpreted in any way as being punitive. However, the evidence that I have heard time and again from wild salmon and trout interests is that salmon farming particularly in these locations is already a real threat to the health and survival of the wild stocks, and I feel we should address this part of the problem immediately, holding out a very big bag of carrots rather than wielding a stick.

There is much in the document which I find reassuring: the commitment to utilise sustainably sourced fish feeds; the precautionary principle; and to keeping a small number of areas free of aquaculture, particularly those that are valued for their so-called wild land quality (para 2.30). The question is, is this paragraph a precursor to the development of some marine national parks? Or is the Executive thinking small? By a small number of wildlife areas do they mean a small number of small areas?

Paragraph 3.23 is perhaps for many people the most alarming in the document. Having read the statement that transgenics play no part in Scottish aquaculture production I skipped happily to the next paragraph. I returned to read that in fact the industry is actively considering the farming of transgenic fish. Considering that the last experiment in transgenic salmon production could have destroyed the entire stock of North Atlantic salmon if any of them had escaped. I see this as a totally unacceptable proposition.

Even an improved breed achieved through normal selective breeding techniques would need to be rigorously tested for its likely effects. There is evidence to suggest that interbreeding of ordinary farmed salmon, let alone genetically modified salmon with wild Scots stocks is harmful.

If poorly located farms are not identified until after 2005, and given that farmers would want at least to finish a growing cycle before being moved, it could be another 4 or 5 years before the first poorly located farm is at last towed from its mooring to be sited elsewhere. This could mean, that given the starting gun was fired in May 1999, it might have-taken nine years before the executive got round to taking effective action to protect wild salmon - they do not seem to be in any hurry.

This strategy document needs to be revised soon with tighter targets for the publication of research, a clear indication for the sake of the industry of what the Executive is prepared to invest in environment protection measures and relocation and a further indication of the steps that are going to be taken to give local authorities more control."