The little-known food industry that is big business

To many, the term ‘aquaculture’ is somewhat of an unknown. Yet if you enjoy fresh salmon, mussels, prawns or seabass from your local supermarket, then chances are it is already a part of your diet.

Scottish aquaculture – produce that is commercially farmed from Scotland’s pristine waters and sheltered sea lochs – is increasingly big business. Recognised for its uncompromising quality and welfare standards, it commands a premium price and is sought after by major UK retailers, wholesalers and restaurants alike.

Its reach doesn’t stop there. Named best in the world by international seafood buyers, farmed Scottish salmon is enjoyed in more than 60 countries for its quality, texture and flavour, with the result that it is consistently amongst the UK’s top two food and non-alcoholic drink exports.

Domestic and international demand combined, Scottish aquaculture now contributes £1.8bn annually to the economy and supports more than 8,000 direct and indirect jobs, many in remote mainland and island communities. Impressive figures for one of the UK’s unsung food heroes – however, the industry itself has no intention of stopping there.

A growing global population and, in turn, an increasingly urgent demand to supply heart-healthy protein sources, points to the huge growth potential of aquaculture, which now delivers more than half of all seafood consumed around the world. This prompted the Scottish industry, in 2016, to launch its own strategy 'Aquaculture Growth to 2030’, setting out the explicit intent to grow the value of Scottish aquaculture to £3.6bn or more by 2030, potentially supporting as many as 18,000 jobs. 

Supporting the sector
Working alongside the sector to help deliver that industry success is the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) – one of an eight-strong £120m programme of Innovation Centres established by the Scottish Government to accelerate further growth in economically important industries.

Launched in 2014 by the Scottish Government, with £11.1m support from the Scottish Funding Council, SAIC’s overarching goal is to deliver industry success through research partnerships.

First and foremost, that involves connecting and collaborating: we connect industry with academia to help accelerate applied research and game-changing innovation. In two short years, we have helped catalyse and co-fund 13 collaborative projects, worth a total of £10.35m, that address industry’s priorities for innovation, with many more project proposals in the pipeline.

These projects stand to benefit not only the partners involved but the wider industry, thanks to an ethos of knowledge exchange across the sector.

Of course, industry can only grow if it has ready access to the skills and knowledge it needs, which is why we are collaborating on ways to equip new and existing talent with industry-relevant training, whether that is via an industry-placed internship, a funded MSc place or the introduction of an aquaculture-specific management and industry leadership course.

We are also working hard to attract additional UK and EU funding for innovative R&D, recently coordinating a successful bid on behalf of 11 companies for £1.76m funding from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.

United by ambitions for growth
Crucial to all of this innovative work is the collective willingness of the industry to engage and help identify gaps in existing provision and resource.

Take, for example, our recent scoping study into the concept of establishing a dedicated centre of innovation excellence for aquaculture. Commissioned by SAIC, and conducted by independent consultant and respected industry figure Alan Sutherland, the study was borne from our question to industry, ‘What do you need to grow – and what’s missing?’

The answer we were given time and again was a centre or network through which innovative R&D could be coordinated, along with test and trial facilities to enable research to be done here in the UK as opposed to abroad, prompting SAIC to launch an early-stage scoping study into the opinion of the wider sector.

Over 100 senior figures from industry, academia, governmental and non-governmental agencies contributed their views, highlighting sector-wide support for a dedicated centre of innovation excellence for Scottish aquaculture, as well as an urgent need for seawater and freshwater field trial facilities.

The number one priority action outlined in the final report, ‘Exploring the concept of a centre of innovation excellence for Scottish aquaculture’, is the establishment of a steering group to explore how best to take the concept to the next stage.

Not only that, but this same report will also be offered to the newly formed Industry Leadership Group for Scottish aquaculture, which will oversee the actions set out in the 2030 strategy.

It is yet another great example of how businesses and organisations across this little-known sector are uniting behind big ambitions for further growth.

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