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Hudghton (ARE) - Madam President, I would like to thank the Commissioner for his helpful statement and for his recognition of the fragility of the salmon market and for the concern he expressed about the consequences of this disease for the hard-pressed fish farming industry, particularly in Scotland, where it is of vital economic importance to areas such as the Highlands and Islands where there is very little alternative employment. Around the coastline some 340 salmon farms are supporting some 6 000 jobs in some of the most rural areas of Europe. It is an industry that is well organised and well managed, but it is in crisis due to infectious salmon anaemia. This disease, which is a kind of salmon 'flu, was exotic to the European Union until it first appeared in Scotland in May 1998, since when millions of healthy fish from just ten affected farms have had to be destroyed. ISA has been known to cause very high mortalities in farmed salmon cages, but it is a disease that cannot affect human beings and it does not render the affected fish inedible. European Union directives as well as UK regulations aim for eradication. However, the eradication policy does not address the social and economic consequences of the destruction of millions of fish. The reality is that mass destruction brings with it the prospect of financial ruin for many of the small family firms which are involved. It can destroy the whole financing of smaller enterprises. Since this issue was put on Parliament's agenda, the Secretary of State for Scotland has acted, recognising the employment consequences. As Mr McMahon said, the government has promised GBP 9m over three years, but this being on a matched funding basis with the industry, it is now under negotiation. It may not be possible for the small farms to meet the matched funding and so what sounds generous may, in fact, for some small enterprises be meaningless. Banks have indicated that they will not lend on the security of fish stocks, so unless the larger companies are prepared to act as a financial umbrella, it is difficult to see how the offer will stave off financial ruin for these small firms. The big companies might be able to buy up the small ones, but in many cases it is the small companies which have a fine investment record in our rural areas. Norway has tacked this problem with a policy of containment rather than slaughter and the question must be asked whether consideration should be given in the European Union to alternative methods of combating the disease. It is vital that we take action. Scottish salmon farms are standing at a critical juncture, with decisions on buying next year's smolts now imminent. It is essential that urgent consideration be given to what further measures, including compensation, may be possible to assist the small-scale enterprises I have referred to. I cannot emphasise enough the seriousness of this situation. Swift and determined action is essential if we are to avoid the severe consequences being felt in some of Europe's most economically vulnerable communities.
Finally, Commissioner, may I ask you to confirm whether you would be prepared to consider the introduction of a Community-funded eradication programme should the current national proposals fail?