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In any normal year, this sort of annual roundup would be fairly routine: there would be successes and challenges to discuss, innovations and new markets to champion and performance to assess.

But not this year. This past year has been so unusual, so unexpected and so challenging that we will be talking about it and analysing the fallout for many decades to come.

It has tested our member companies in so many ways: from the sudden imposition to new work patterns to the virtual collapse of previously solid foreign markets,

But through everything, one feature has remained constant – the extraordinary resilience of our sector.

As is well known, the vast majority of the Scottish salmon that goes out to long-haul markets travels in the bellies of passenger aircraft. Suddenly, with very little warning, those routes were all but curtailed.

Most passenger flights stopped operating from the end of March to our second and third biggest export markets, the US and China.

At about the same time, food service effectively shut down across large parts of the world.

And yet everyone in our sector moved swiftly and efficiently to prevent a crisis.

The SSPO’s sustainability team secured extra flexibility from the regulators. This meant our farmers could keep fish in the water for longer than planned.

That in itself helped prevent fish being harvested with no markets to go to.

We put early pressure on the Scottish Government to ensure salmon farmers were identified as essential workers. This meant they could get emergency childcare and travel to work unhindered.

Indeed, what was really gratifying through those early weeks of the crisis was how responsive and amenable governments were.

It can often take weeks to secure a meeting with a senior government minister. Within days of the lockdown, we were on weekly calls with cabinet ministers in Scotland, fortnightly calls with UK ministers in London and having daily briefings with senior officials.

It wasn’t just talk, either. For those of us who have watched the glacial pace of government business with mounting frustration over the years, it was refreshing to see how fast the wheels of the state could turn, when they had to.

Despite this help, those first few months were difficult, very difficult. Some of our export markets dropped significantly but increasing domestic consumption, primarily through the supermarkets, and exports to Europe, kept the sector going.

Contingency plans were put in place. The SSPO worked with the Scottish Government to secure funding for a back-up freezing and storage scheme, in case the market became so overloaded that companies needed to keep product back for more buoyant times.

But these largely remained as contingencies. Salmon farming in Scotland had changed: skeleton crews worked the farms, shift patterns were changed to avoid unnecessary contacts, see-through screens appeared all through production lines and fish had to be diverted from long-haul markets to outlets closer to home.

But the sector didn’t just survive, it adapted and developed and drove forward through the challenges.

A very small number of head office staff were furloughed in only a couple of companies and one of these companies later returned the furlough cash to the government, so it could be spent elsewhere.

There were blips. Just when the Chinese market looked like getting back towards normality, a food scare in Beijing was erroneously linked to imported salmon and it went backwards again.

But there were boosts too. The UK Government’s decision to subsidise eating out in July and August gave a much-needed fillip to domestic food service.

It was hard, understandably, for other plans to continue as normal. A big campaign to invite the public to Scotland’s salmon farms, timed for May, had to be abandoned as did ambitious SSPO plans for a major school education programme in June.

But an initiative to map out a sustainability charter for the Scottish salmon sector, although delayed, did emerge this year. Originally planned for a launch in April, the document – A Better Future For Us All – was published in November.

Setting out clear targets across a range of agendas, from fish health to the environment, the charter will provide the sector with a roadmap for future development for many years to come.

Actually, the sustainability charter’s November launch gave it added resonance. By that point, the Scottish Government was not just talking up the concept of a Green Recovery to lead the country out of austerity but it was emphasising the now familiar idea of the Blue Economy leading that charge.

The sustainability charter took both those ideas, brought them together and showed how salmon farming sector could lead the way.

By the end of 2020, the position was looking much better. Exports hadn’t quite recovered to 2019 levels but they were doing well.

The domestic market was reassuringly solid and all our member companies had moved so efficiently into the new ways of working that it was almost as if nothing had changed.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t concerns on the horizon. As we approach the end of 2020, we have Brexit to think about.

However, given what our farmers have gone through and how they have adapted, there is definitely a sense that – having got through this year, we can cope with anything Brexit throws at us.

Are we right to be that confident? We will have to wait until next year to find out.

This blog by Hamish Macdonell first appeared in December's Fish Farmer magazine.

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