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A diplomatic tour of the isles

THE FULL impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on plans for deep sea drilling off the west coast of Shetland remains to be seen, according to the Scottish environment minister.

During her three day visit to Shetland this week, part of a series of summer tours around the country, Roseanna Cunningham wanted to focus on more local issues, aquaculture and the islands’ natural heritage.

But how we use our natural resources for food and energy production is a debate currently affecting many communities, and Shetland in particular.

Deep water oil drilling has fast become a controversial issue, the Deepwater Horizon escalating it to global concern and provoking Greenpeace into confronting the oil industry on the matter.

Ms Cunningham believes that only when the cause of the US disaster has been established will its full impact on future plans for the industry be determined.

She considers, however, that the incident should be seen as a “challenge” and people should focus on solutions rather than problems.

Oil production is only one way in which the sea may be used as an energy resource, she said, and it may come into conflict with the future development of marine renewables.

She wants to ensure that people work to establish the optimum use of the sea, minimising conflicts between different developments and managing them well.

During her stay in the isles, the minister was far more interested in how the sea was used to produce food rather than energy.

She visited the fast expanding Blueshell Mussels business in Brae and the innovative NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway, holding meetings with salmon farming trades body Shetland Aquaculture and touring the busy Lerwwick Fish Traders processing factory at Gremista.

She is optimistic about the industry’s future in Shetland in spite of recent setbacks, such as last year’s outbreak of Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA), the disease that has devastated the salmon industry in Chile

She believes the industry has learned its lessons and is working towards changes, such as joint management agreements, that mean the outbreak off Scalloway is “highly unlikely to happen again”.

Despite being soaked by heavy downpours, the minister was impressed by the islands, in particular their strong sense of identity and self sufficiency, brought home by the cultural sites of Jarlshof and Old Scatness, the natural wonder of Hermaness, and Scotland’s first community-owned allotments at Mossbank.

She was reluctant to step into the row about plans for a community-owned wind farm in the isles, though she was very aware of the debate. Not hailing from Shetland or living here gave her no basis for personal opinion, she felt.

She preferred to see local people handle the debate, and like other renewable energy projects the outcome should be what is “the best solution for community”.

And finally, her thoughts on the current campaign for a Sovereign Nation of Shetland and its up and coming conference at the end of the month?

With a fine flourish of political diplomacy, the SNP minister insisted it was a debate that she looked forward to hearing more about.

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