Aquaculture is a major contributor to the Scottish economy, has brought employment and investment to remote rural areas, and contributes to Scotland’s domestic supply of healthy food. Scotland also has significant scientific expertise both in aquaculture itself and in assessing its environmental footprint. The report of Professor Griggs, published in February 2022, however, highlighted major concerns between some communities over the lack of trust and transparency within the aquaculture sector, including differing interpretations of science and evidence.
The Scottish Science Advisory Council (SSAC) was invited by the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands to examine current use and communication of science and scientific evidence in aquaculture consenting and sustainable development of the sector. The SSAC approach was to have virtual discussions with a range of stakeholders individually, prior to convening a virtual roundtable (over 50 attendees) to collect ideas on how changes to the use of science and evidence by the different communities might help to identify a more sustainable development of the sector.
Areas for improvement in the understanding, interpretation, and use of science
Communication and engagement: the complexities of developing policies in the 21st century which are simultaneously trying to strengthen economies, enhance quality of life and protect the environment are exemplified by over 190 countries signing up to delivery of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals1. Social media, however (also a 21st-century phenomenon), tend to rely on short messages which are not designed to present a balanced or comprehensive perspective. Thus, some of the excellent science on aquaculture and the decisions underlying its use, is not sufficiently visible. Innovative ways of communicating key messages and greater engagement of social scientists and communication specialists should be encouraged.
Syntheses of science: it is instinctive to think that an authoritative synthesis of science could be produced to resolve conflicting interpretations, yet the dynamic nature of environmental science means this is unlikely to be true. The most heated conflicts are at a local level and informed, facilitated debate may be the best approach here to try and reach agreed compromise since consensus is unlikely. At a higher level, all stakeholders would benefit from independent, international horizon scanning syntheses to provide advance warning of likely environmental impacts of major external influences such as climate change and shocks to the global economy.
Fragmentation of research: aquaculture science is fragmented in Scotland with multiple funding streams and often separate from other parts of food production and the blue economy. Given the contribution of aquaculture to the economy and its use of natural resources, wider communication on relevant aquaculture issues, could open avenues to existing funding streams which are not currently targeted at aquaculture by identifying synergies with other research projects.
While lack of trust between communities within the sector was observed, discussions at the roundtable showed a willingness to engage collectively around science. Examples of positive engagement at a local level leading to conflict resolution were also referenced. Scotland has scientific excellence in animal health, environmental science, and increasingly in the interface of social science and policy. Encouraging networking to place aquaculture more mainstream in the food sector and blue economy could enhance collective engagement and a shared understanding of wider societal risks.
Key risks which science can help to manage
All food production has an impact on the environment. Major environmental risks of aquaculture systems which were identified by stakeholders (full list in Annex A) included: impacts to sensitive seabed habitats and features; cumulative impacts of aquaculture alongside other marine developments; sustainability of fish feed production and interactions with wild salmonids including sea lice, escapes, and introgression. In addition to these issues, stakeholders highlighted a number of likely impacts of climate change and climate change policies during the roundtable. As well as impacts associated with rising sea temperatures, these included increasing storminess, potential new salmon diseases, changing migratory patterns, and spatial squeezing (competition for the seabed). Risks to wild salmon and salmon welfare issues were also raised as contentious issues.
Regulations are the main policy tool for managing those risks and effective regulations require science. Scotland has been strengthening its scientific expertise and governance around aquaculture, as has the industry, but the work of the SSAC has highlighted the importance of engaging with impacted communities, including about the uncertainties intrinsic to science. Uncertainty in science is nothing new and the best example of good practice in communicating uncertainty is that developed by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who explained the nature of that uncertainty and the importance of the burden of proof. Developing a shared vision as to how science can help to manage environmental risks and hence articulate the benefits which aquaculture can bring to Scotland should provide a basis for collective engagement.
Recommendations for the Scottish Government2
1. Marine Scotland (in consultation with the community) should issue a call for expressions of interest for bids from consortia (which include a track record in convening multi-stakeholder meetings and social science expertise) to: i) convene an annual, Scotland-wide multi-stakeholder discussion with the aim of sharing knowledge on national and global scientific advances and policy changes within the aquaculture sector; ii) serve as a source of advice for the structured convening of similar meetings at a local and regional level.
2. Aquaculture (as for land-based food production) is an industry that has environmental impacts and is susceptible to climate change. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) or another part of the SG should consider commissioning independent, horizon scanning syntheses of the international literature to give advanced warning of where regulations may need to change. The frequency could be aligned with recommendations from the Climate Change Commission.
3. Marine Scotland Science are emerging from a review of their structures. Once concluded, they should aim to be an exemplar of being transparent about how research topics are prioritised, interpreted, and communicated.
4. The fragmentation of research for aquaculture needs to be addressed, in particular to fill the gap in evidence to answer specific policy-driven questions. Initiatives hosted by Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland (MASTS) and Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), both at the time in receipt of funds from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC)3, have helped enhance collaboration in aquaculture but there is scope for encouraging more support to understand aquaculture’s contribution to Scotland’s vision for domestic food production and the blue economy.