The Old Man and the Sea

Such is the title of a magnificent book by Ernest Hemingway. For those who haven’t read it, it details the story of an old man who catches a huge tuna, which is slowly eaten by sharks as he tries to get it home. It is a triumph of human endeavour – and a bit like the development of salmon farming since I did my training in Inverness in 1979. I am glad to say that we have had a considerably better outcome than the book.
It is a bad idea to ask an old man to reminisce! Yet if the early days of this industry aren’t recorded somewhere, then no one will know quite how insane it all was.
You would think the people who created the businesses would mostly be people who had a passion for fish but in fact the motive was more often financial. From retired army captains to pop stars, there were many idiosyncratic characters. One of the guys I worked for lost his extremely expensive Rolex on the pens and it sank over 20m into mud. The next day he hired a team of divers to try to find it, having been told by everyone it was a waste of time. It was, and expensive too. Most of the owners I knew in the early days understood very little of the sea and the risks involved in working with it
Many of the people I worked with, not for, were ex-fishermen. Almost nobody had been trained in marine biology, let alone aquaculture. Murdo Maclean, who taught me how to repair nets and regaled me endlessly with stories, had been a whaler in his youth. I can’t say I had a longing to have followed in his footsteps!
Working with characters like this made up for the deficiencies in the equipment we had to work in or on. Pens were made of wood and regularly broke. Many people from my era will remember dancing across bits of broken walkway or trying to lash them in a storm to stop the group breaking up.
One group – which I did not moor – started to drift off in a huge easterly with three members of staff aboard. Luckily the anchors caught on a bar and the pens didn’t break up. We had already taken the guys off! Boats were extremely dodgy as nothing was designed for the industry, and nearly always carried too much.
I was once crossing a bay in a northerly gale, driving an ex-army riveted assault craft, which leaked like a sieve and rattled as all of the rivets were worn loose. The half-ton of feed it carried was way too much and water was slopping over the bow. As I reached the middle of the bay, I became concerned that I might not make it to the pens. Having just completed one of the first safety at sea courses I stopped, stood up and raised my arms, giving the emergency signal as one should. It was very pleasing to note that everyone on the pens could see me, as they very kindly waved back, which was not entirely what I was looking for!
Those who worked on the pens had to be multi-skilled. From mooring work to net mending or feeding to smolt transfer, every day was different. There was a level of fitness required. I remember a competition to see who could carry the most feed bags onto the pens from a barge. A guy from New Zealand won with nine 25kg bags. Yes, that is 225kg!
I don’t decry the changes; in fact I am extremely glad of them. Salmon farming is infinitely safer and I hope that I contributed to some of the improvements in my time. It is also a matter of great pride to me that we never lost anyone though it did come close. In fact if it was not for the bravery of a number of people, the outcomes might have been very different. One chap, Duncan Grant, leapt into the water to rescue a colleague who had fallen into the water with an ice bin, which also knocked him out. If Duncan had not done what he did, one young man would not have survived. People like him made decisions that were selfless.
So here I am after 40 years, the old man in the story. The tuna is landed and though not much remains, I have been lucky enough to live through these many years in an enthralling profession. I still love it and admire the many people who have joined it and continue to advance our skills and knowledge. We are still a young industry with a few rough spots to paper down but I have always believed that what we do is terribly important for the future of our species. If we do not learn to farm the seas, as we have learnt to farm the land, then we will fail to feed everyone. I have kids and grandkids and I would prefer that they had something to eat when I am long gone!


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Fish Farmer magazine June 2024 cover

The June 2024 issue of Fish Farmer magazine is out now online