When trees are big and strong enough, they sometimes show their roots outside the ground. That’s when it often dawns on us that, underneath all the dazzling things we see on the outside, there is a strong structure that is not only feeding it but also anchoring it firmly to the earth. Talking to Tavish Scott, CEO of Salmon Scotland, we had the feeling that we were looking at one of those magnificent trees whose roots, increasingly visible, are firmly rooted in the Shetland Islands, which is to say in the Scottish salmon farming sector.
Salmon breeding, fishing… all the seafood sector is central to Shetland’s economy, and the islands are central to him, having represented the people there in the Scottish Parliament for 20 years. Friends working in the sector, colleagues in the supply chain to the sector… as he says, this was a very easy role for him to both know enough about, and also want to know more about. A job where he feels anchored to his land, to his community, to the things that matter to him, to his roots. “The kind of job I wanted because I think you need to care about what you do”, he says.
Although always focused on Scotland, you come from politics and then rugby, why this leap into aquaculture? What are you bringing to the table from your previous experience?
I suppose the easiest way to explain that is because I come from Shetland, and salmon, the salmon farming sector, and indeed other seafood industries, have always been central to our economy. When I was first in public office, in Shetland, salmon farming was just emerging. We had lots of Norwegian connections, so we were copying them. And indeed, now the farming companies in Shetland are broadly owned by Norwegian parent companies and thus the economic connections between Shetland and Norway were always historically significant – and remain to this day. So, I was always very interested in the sector – lots of friends work in the sector, lots of colleagues are in the supply chain to the sector.
And then, I came out of politics I suppose because I had done it for it 20 years, wanting some new challenges. I had a brief time at Scottish Rugby, working in the national sporting governing body, which was a lovely experience, and then, the trade body that is now Salmon Scotland was looking for a new chief executive and was exactly the kind of job I wanted. I think you need to care about what you do, and you need to care about the sector and the people that you look after, and that was very easy for me in the salmon sector because of that Shetland connection.
You have said that Scottish salmon can help lead Scotland out of the COVID-19 crisis, building on its sustainable foundations and driving an ecological recovery. What advantages do you think aquaculture has over other industries when it comes to sustainability?
Both in national public policy terms and indeed in European Commission and European Union policy terms and under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the blue economy has to be a big part of how we feed the world. We have a rising world population, and no sign that that is stopping or reversing. We’ve got to find ways in which we feed our citizens wherever part of the world they’re in, and I’ve always very firmly believed that the seafood sector, in my country and around the world, is always going to be extraordinarily significant in that in the coming years. In the coming decades, how we fish farm will always evolve and there’ll be very considerable amounts of innovation.
But fundamentally, we know how to look after salmon because it is all about animal husbandry. We can do it very well in the waters around Scotland and we can do it extremely sustainably as well. And that’s why I think salmon farming from Scotland, and indeed from Norway, and Faeroes, and the other northern parts of Europe in colder water, have a super opportunity in domestic terms and in worldwide terms. They are part of that blue economy that the world needs in order to feed that ever-growing population, and we’ve got to continue being sustainable because that’s what the consumer expects and demands. And it is ultimately, as a sector, how we are audited by consumers through supermarkets and through international accreditation organizations.
I think that transparency is a good thing, and it makes us very alive to both consumer reflections on where their protein comes from, but also how important sustainability is. But also, I think it keeps us very focused on always making decisions on the basis of good science and on good data. And that helps the forward projection of our sector, not just here in Scotland, but I would argue around the world.
One of Salmon Scotland’s priorities is to “improve understanding of the Scottish salmon farming sector and offer open and transparent insight into how it operates”. Why this objective? Do you think the industry is getting its message across well or, on the contrary, do you think it has a PR problem?
I think the point is I don’t think we’ve done this well enough in the past, and I don’t think we’ve told our story about how quickly the sector has moved and the changes that have happened in that sustainable direction over the last 10 years. So, I think we’re playing a bit of catch-up with maybe two target markets. One is the public bodies – that means government, parliaments, regulators, and the public sector – and then the second is the consumers. We’ve got issues with both of those two target audiences. For example, we held a reception in our national parliament here in Edinburgh with politicians. It was about talking to them about what’s going on, what’s changing, and we took a number of our board members, managing directors to that, and introduced them to the politicians. We’ll do the same at local government level. And then, the second target is obviously just broader consumer interest, and we do that in two ways, one of which is we run initiatives in schools in Scotland. We are running a salmon in schools project in one particular part of Scotland in Stirling, where we’ve made salmon available to a school chefs to put into school menus. And that’s again all about education and the product. And then we also run career days at high schools where we have the farming companies, we have the supply chain, we have the educational providers, we have the further and higher education colleges altogether, speaking to both young people between 12 and 18 and parent. We tell them this is what the sector is about, these are the careers we can offer, here’s our sustainability journey.
And I think when we put those things together, it’ll take a little bit of time, but we will steadily improve the profile of our sector, both in terms of that sustainability journey, but also as an attractive place to work. We’ve got the same challenges that everyone has about availability of labour, and we need bright young people who want to do a science degree, or who just wants to look after fish, or want to become a vet, or whatever they might want to do – we can offer them a career in the sector. So, I think it’s twofold: it’s that educational bit we need to keep working on with those two target audiences; and then the second element is recruiting the next generation.
Regarding the public part and thinking, for example, about that reception you said you had, do you think this kind of work to make the sector known among politicians can help so that they will also support it more to give more licenses, for example, so that it will be easier to start new companies or make the existing ones bigger?
Yes, that’s exactly right. Our objective is to grow the sector in terms of the volume of fish we produce and the value of fish we produce, both for the domestic market and UK but also internationally. And the Scottish Government and the UK Government both want us to do that. So, I think the governmental policy at the top, is fine but you’ve put your finger on the biggest challenge we have and that is the regulations that we deal with. They are more difficult, and they take longer here in Scotland than they do, say, in Norway, or in Faeroes, or in Iceland, where the industry is growing very dramatically at the moment. We need government overall policy to be aligned with a regulatory system which, of course, looks after the environment and does all the good things a regulatory system needs to do, but it’s quicker in its decision making. It is lamentably slow at the moment, just dreadfully slow. So that’s the element that we are working really hard on. And we look forward to government moving that forward as well, and that’s a lot a large part of what Salmon Scotland does on behalf of the sector.
You are the CEO of Salmon Scotland, which represents all salmon farming companies in Scotland along with companies throughout the Scottish salmon supply chain. From your position, we understand that you firmly believe that partnership and collaboration between companies are key to moving the industry forward but, what about the human side? What role do people play in this industry?
You’re right, the sector and the producing companies work closely together on what I suppose I might call precompetitive issues. So, improvements in kit, improvements in technology, innovations in feed, innovations that come forward, then knowledge is shared across the industry because there are only 6-7 producing companies and therefore it’s quite a small world. You can get the seven production managers, or the seven environmental managers, or indeed the seven managing directors together very easily. And I think that is important because we’re all trying to achieve the same thing in terms of driving down the impact we have on the environment while increasing the sustainable production of our sector. Where, of course, there is no collusion whatsoever is when they get to the sales point, when they’re competing for contracts with supermarkets and the domestic market both here in the UK but also internationally. That’s a very competitive place, and as it should be, that’s the market. So, I think that must work well and we’re always looking to improve that and refine that with the supply chain.
On the second point about the people, I suppose it’s no different from any kind of farming. I mean, I grew up on a family farm with cattle and sheep in Shetland. We depended on producing that livestock for the market by good animal husbandry, and that depends on people. And fish husbandry is no different from animal health husbandry, it’s the same principles which apply, and we need great people to do that. So, it’s a sector very dependent on the quality of the men and women who work for us in the producing companies and in a supply chain. The quality of the supply chain in terms of producing the technical equipment we need is prerequisite in successful business terms. People are central to what we do, and I think all the companies don’t just talk about that; they actually do it.
I would suggest that the most impressive group of people in our producing companies are actually the HR directors; the human resources directors of all the companies who are a very bright bunch of people who push forward on educational needs and internal company protocols and in company-training programs and all those kind of things. I think we give people great careers, and we give people great educational opportunities as part of their careers to further their own skills and that’s incredibly important. So there’s a big emphasis on that, but also on encouraging, for example, more women into aquaculture, which is traditionally a very male orientated world. But I’m pleased to say now that that direction of travel is moving, and we are becoming better at saying to bright young girls at school “go and do marine biology at university and then come and work in our sector, or if you’d like to be a vet or if you want to look after fish as a fish technician that we will welcome you”. So that is a message that’s increasingly working. And some of that relates to how many more girls at school take science subjects now compared to boys. We need those bright scientists, so I think that over the next 10 years will also change. We will definitely see more women coming into the sector as well.
What challenges will face the industry, Salmon Scotland, and yourself in the coming years?
For Salmon Scotland, I think our biggest challenge is that we could do with certainty about the UK relationship with Europe. France is our biggest export market. Spain is significant. Other markets in the European Union are really important. So, the UK leaving the EU was not a good outcome I would argue for Britain, but it’s not a good outcome because it’s made exports more difficult, and we lost labour as well. Like many other industries in the UK, we had many Poles, or Bulgarians, or Hungarians, or other East Europeans working in the sector, and many of those people have sadly gone back to their own countries. That is good news for their own countries, of course, but it has given us significant challenges. So, we could do with just that certainty over our relationship with the European Union and for example, what’s going on at the moment, the Northern Ireland Protocol, and all those kinds of things, create market uncertainty for us. I’m sure those things will get sorted out. The uncertainty is not just affecting the salmon sector, it’s the seafood industry and export generally, and it makes sense for the UK to have a sensible trading relationship with the European Union and vice versa. So, we need government to get their act together on that one.
And I think internationally we’ve just got to win the argument, which for me is very simple but it’s still clearly an argument. about the blue economy and a sustainable farm fish production, whether it’s salmon or sea bream or trout or all the other species. We need that argument to be absolutely recognized by policymakers and seen as a very sensible way in which we feed that growing world population. I think that’s the challenge we need to address, given that there are people who would pause any protein production system, and there are campaign organizations which act internationally to cause as much damage as they can. So, it’s back to the question you rightly asked about transparency and openness, and sustainability. We just got to be better and better at that internationally – not just here in Scotland, but we’ve got to do that across the world.
And about me, I don’t really think about that stuff kind of, to be honest, too much. I tend to just get on with it. I mean, I think the challenge I’ve always got and it’s true for all of us who run organizations, is just making sure you surround yourself with the best people you can. And I suppose it’s a pretty competitive jobs market at the moment. With the cost of living crisis, costs are shooting through the roof here. Inflation is high, and energy prices are potentially going to rise exponentially very significantly in the back end of the year. So, things are difficult for people, working people, and people of all levels, and that makes running any organization quite a challenge at the moment because you have to be alive to peak demands and be realistic about what an organization could do in that case. I don’t think in that sense I’m any different from any other boss who’s just dealing with that kind of thing at the moment. We’re going through a very acute economic challenge worldwide at the moment caused by Brexit, the Ukrainian war, the US-China situation, which always goes kind of up and down depending on who’s in the White House. All those things have an impact on international trade, and we are by definition a trade business.
So yes, those are the kind of challenges that we just have to manage our way through and therefore I spend a lot of my time whether it’s in the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Government or the UK Government. One of the things we’re looking at is how we then reengage with the European Commission. We used to spend a lot of time in Brussels, and we need to do that again because we just need to make sure just as the Norwegians do, that Brussels is aware of our contribution to Europe and what we can and how we can continue that.
When we had this chat, it was still a few days before the UK Government introduced legislation to unilaterally amend the Brexit agreement for Northern Ireland and the EU Commission announced legal action against the UK. However, Salmon Scotland’s CEO already knew that this conflict was going to be their biggest problem, adding to the other challenges facing the industry, not just in Scotland. We spoke to him again then, and he confirmed what he was telling us here, he will work to bring understanding between the parties. That’s what he wanted when he came to aquaculture, “some new challenges”. But, above all, he wanted that kind of work where you care about what you do, and he cares. He knows very well what it’s like to defend the interests of his people. He’s done it before and he’s going to do it again. Tavish Scott is that tree with deep roots in Shetland.
About Salmon Scotland
The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) changed its name to Salmon Scotland in November 2021. They represent every company farming salmon in Scotland along with companies from across the Scottish salmon supply chain, championing the sector’s interests. The organization works “to help create the conditions for the long-term, sustainable growth of the sector and to give more consumers, at home and abroad, the chance to enjoy this world renowned, low-fat, healthy protein”. Scottish salmon is UK shoppers’ number one fish of choice, but also Britain’s top food export to consumers in more than 50 countries.