The Changing of the Guard

So here it is, my dear old Mum is nearing the end and it is a sad, sad process to have to stand by and watch. Many of you will experience, or have experienced, such an event and it is not only sobering but also thought-provoking.

My Mum is 92 and has had an utterly extraordinary life. Brought up in and around Orkney, she has seen profound and lasting change. She travelled around the world and was fearless in the most extreme of circumstances. I can remember well the time she was being shouted at by a Syrian border guard, who was pointing his machine gun at her. She shouted back with equal vigour and the guy backed down. She was a force to be reckoned with. Sadly, everyone fades eventually.
You may wonder what on earth this has to do with fish farming, but it made me think about the changing of the guard; the old being replaced by the young. With it comes the refreshing energy of newness and youth. What is often lost are the experiences gained by the old.
The original pioneers in our industry have faded away. We have some stories but, to some degree, we have lost the understanding of how we got where we are. As one whose time is coming to an end with this industry (not quite done yet I hope!), I’m not going to rail against the new and the young because I am as much at fault as any. I didn’t appreciate what the early figures knew and I let them leave without a good debrief.
So let’s take a brief look at some of what has changed in my time. The number of fish we had in a pen was tiny in those early days; this meant that populations were small but also that there was a high human to fish ratio and we spent much more time looking at fish behaviour. The disadvantage was that there were many layers of net as each pen had its own net, and thus flow was hugely restricted. Also, we only saw the fish from above. Cameras weren’t even dreamed of, so we assessed populations on the basis of surface activity which we now know was pretty inaccurate!
Nets could be handled by a couple of guys at a time. This was undoubtedly an advantage as you could feel when fish were trapped or panicking. The disadvantages were that there were a very large number of nets to manage and all too often this caused injury amongst the staff, or the jobs got rushed.
Not many vets had any real understanding of fish. There were incredible characters, often in the feed companies, like Geoff Withnall, who would come to the farm and do autopsies to help us understand the causes of stock loss. Quite often the entire staff would turn out from a lunch break just to learn from him.
On one farm I was on, a boat was stuck on the slip. Without hesitation in his beautifully polished shoes, Geoff waded in and put his shoulder to the boat. It was never forgotten.
People with little pathology training were having to decide when their fish required treatment, but the word of the staff at sea was listened to because they had to make judgements. I’m not sure that is so much the case now; we have become reliant on someone making a judgement from far away. Getting the balance right is hard.
Are we a better industry now? We certainly are bigger, hugely so and that couldn’t have been achieved without improvement. There is much better technology and much greater specialism, both of which have brought benefits in many ways. Nonetheless we should try to remember our roots so that we can be objective about what we have achieved and what we have lost.
We must never lose the “specialness” of salmon. If salmon farming tries to become the cheapest protein in the market, with next to no taste and little health benefits, then it competes with chicken and the like which are much more predictable to produce. Salmon is a wonderful tasting, healthy food. As long as it remains so, it will remain a valued part of a healthy diet and so our industry will continue to thrive.
I don’t think the industry is worse. I think it’s safer, more thoughtful in some ways and more balanced. I’m not sure that I always agree with the direction it takes but I do think that’s true of every generation. I am sure that there are plenty who think that I made enough mistakes of my own. In the end, we all do our best and try to move things forward. After all these years, I still think this industry has a vibrant future!


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Fish Farmer February 2024 cover, net pens in winter with snow

The February 2024 issue of Fish Farmer is out now online