Salmon farming is a major sector for Scotland today, but the industry began with one harvest of just 14 tonnes, half a century ago on the shores of Loch Ailort, on Scotland’s west coast.
The farm at Lochailort – the spelling is different for the sea loch and the village – was an experiment that paid off for Marine Harvest, the company now known as Mowi, the world’s largest supplier of farmed salmon.
Marine Harvest had been founded in 1965 by Unilever, the UK food and domestic products giant, with a view to securing a supply of fish at a time when it was becoming clear that traditional fisheries were going to struggle to meet the demands of a growing population. Unilever was involved in sea fishing, freezing and processing, and also owned a number of trout farms in England.
Scotland’s fishing industry was concentrated on the east coast, and Marine Harvest benefited from the support of Unilever’s research centre in Findon, near Aberdeen. Despite also trialling trout and halibut, it became clear that, commercially, salmon was a potential winner. The geography in the east did not favour fish farming, however, so the company searched for a site on the west coast, where sea lochs offered shelter from wild weather.
Lochailort had a number of advantages, as well as its sheltered position. The local landowner – Mrs Lucretia “Putchie” Cameron-Head, the widow of the laird of Lochailort – was passionate about creating jobs in the Highlands, and supportive of the project. Lochailort had good road and beach access; and as it had been a commando training base, the camp buildings provided ready-made accommodation.
Industry veteran Steve Bracken retired from his position as Business Support Manager with Marine Harvest in 2018, after 41 years working with the company. He started with Marine Harvest at Lochailort in 1977 and recalls: “There were no handbooks, manuals or outside experts, nor were there any environmental or fish welfare schemes.”
The company had started with pens in a solid framework, which soon ran into the problem of fouling and proved harder to clean than nets, which were introduced from 1971 onwards. Bracken says: “It was a challenge to find equipment that could withstand bad weather.”
Communication was another challenge. There was no remote monitoring or even mobile phones. Back then, as Bracken explains, even to talk to the sales team: “You often had to rely on rural call boxes.”
Working at the cutting edge of a new industry meant the staff often had to find their own solutions to problems. Support came from Unilever’s R&D facility in Colworth, Bedfordshire, but as Bracken says: “There were no specialist supply companies and no support network for the equipment we needed. Unilever had to create a lot of it.
“In the early days we were counting fish with cameras and video cassettes. And to move the fish we tried a fish elevator – we had no fish pumps.”
Still, he recalls, it was a fascinating industry to be in: “There was a buzz about trying to create something from nothing.”
Lochailort is still operated by Marine Harvest’s modern-day incarnation, Mowi, as a state-of-the-art freshwater hatchery, opened in 2013.
Nick Joy, once Managing Director and now a consultant to Loch Duart Salmon (and regular columnist with this magazine) says: “One of the challenges was mooring because the pens were made of wood and thus moorings needed to allow some flex. Some of the very first were hexagonal which proved extremely difficult to moor, which maybe explains why they didn’t last long as a design.
“It’s hard to imagine using eght metre pens now with five metre deep nets. In my time the volumes in our nets and the corresponding stocking increased twenty-fold. Now it is much larger than that. we were restricted by what can be lifted by hand, in every way from feed to nets.”
The industry has also learned a lot about fish handling. Transporting, grading and treating fish have changed a great deal, Joy says, and the damage inadvertently done by over-handling has been greatly reduced.
Salmon was seen as a premium fish, even more then than now, and Joy recalls: “Fishmongers used to ring us up and ask, can I have some fish? They didn’t ask the price, size or quality, there was so little salmon about. The price would be would be more than £6 per pound, but now it’s less than half that.”
When the price eventually fell it was a problem for many operators. Joy says: “The price came down, a lot. Was that because we were producing more or did the market itself change? Probably a mix of both.”
Ian Armstrong, founder of Nevis Marine, started out with Marine Harvest at Lochailort, aged 16. He says: “It was hard physical work, but thanks to the people I worked with, I enjoyed it!”
He took a BSc in Wildlife and Fisheries Management at the University of Edinburgh, and returned to Marine Harvest as a graduate trainee. Apart from a two-year stint helping to establish the company’s Chilean operations, he was based in Scotland and has seen the industry there transformed.
As now, biological issues were among the most serious threats for salmon farmers. Armstrong recalls: “Furunculosis was a big challenge in those early days. There were no vaccines, so the treatment was antibiotics – and when that was misused by some inexperienced farmers, it led to resistance. Vaccines were a game changer.”
Alex Adrian, Aquaculture Operations Manager with Crown Estate Scotland – which provides necessary development rights for the industry – has more than 30 years’ experience in first managing, then overseeing, fish farming. He started with Lighthouse of Scotland and worked for its successor companies, joining Crown Estate Scotland in 2007.
Adrian, who gained a Masters degree in Fish Biology at Plymouth University, started working in Scotland in the late 1980s. He agrees with Ian Armstrong: “The biological pressures have never gone away. When I started it was before vaccines, so bacterial diseases were a big challenge, not least furunculosis. You would dread the summer because you know mortalities would rise.”
One thing that has changed, he notes, is that biological problems have become less seasonal: “We used to get a break – sea lice, for example, didn’t seem to be so active until the late spring, early summer. Now, it seems to be a constant threat.”
This may be due, he thinks, to warmer sea temperatures during the winter months.
Another change, he says, is that roles in the industry have become more specialised as fish farming has become ever more reliant on specialist knowledge. As he puts it: “There is no such thing as a ‘salmon farmer’ any more. There are a number of jobs that, collectively, make up salmon farming. I was, variously, a technical manager or fish health manager, but now those roles are increasingly split.”
Another change in the industry has been consolidation. The success of Lochailort was followed by a proliferation of fish farming businesses along the west coast and the islands, including Orkney and Shetland. Since then, however, hundreds of businesses have been whittled down to just eight, most of which are part of international businesses.
David Sandison is Chair of Shetland UHI and a trustee of the NAFC Marine Centre in Shetland UHI, a leading educational institution for training in fish farming and fisheries. Prior to that he managed the Shetland arm of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation.
He says: “Initially, salmon farming was seen as an extension of the crofters’ lifestyle. It was available to anyone who held croft land, on a suitable coastline. The Shetland Islands Council had powers to develop a Works Licence Policy and this provided the first permissions to farm in the islands.
“There were probably more than 60 fish farming businesses in Shetland, at its height. Even in the late 1990s there were more than 40. Now there are three companies operating here.”
How did that happen? Sandison says: “The biggest driver for that is scale. If you grow any business to a certain scale, you need to finance it. Salmon farming is a capital-intensive business and you have to have deep pockets, and the ability to invest for the long term.”
The salmon industry in Scotland has also seen rising criticism from some quarters. While it has long benefited from encouragement from government and state agencies, the industry’s interaction with the environment – especially wild salmon – and issues of fish welfare have increasingly come under scrutiny.
Alex Adrian suggests: “There was always anti-salmon farming activism, but now there is a different set of scrutineers, around the community, who are better informed. It reflects the fact that, around the world and particularly in Scotland, people are far more proprietorial about the marine environment.
“Previously, by far the biggest reason given for rejecting proposal for a new fish farming site was its visual impact. That’s still important, but I think it reflected at the time that people were more concerned about what was going on, the top of the water rather than underneath. Now, people are very much concerned with what’s going on underneath.”
The industry now faces an imperative, not only to continue to find new ways to operate sustainably, but to ensure that it is seen to be doing so.
Ian Armstrong believes the salmon industry in Scotland has a very bright future, but argues that it needs to maintain its own niche in a global market. He says: “It’s got to be about provenance and sustainable production. Scotland won’t compete by going to the lowest common denominator. Scottish producers will continue to develop the highest standards of fish welfare and they will grow fish which have excellent taste and texture. And we need to do that on a scale that remains cost-competitive. The Scottish governmnet and regulators have to deliver on their responsibilities to the modern Scottish economy.”
Would he advise a young person now to go into today’s salmon farming industry? “Yes, yes and yes!” he says.
So would Alex Adrian. As he puts it: “It’s aquatic food production, and we all realise that is where a lot of the world’s protein needs to come from.”
David Sandison also sees great opportunities as the industry continues to find new ways to work and thrive. He says: “The industry has never stood still for five minutes. Technological advancement has been the key to how things have moved along. It was always not just about becoming bigger, it was about being smarter.”
Archive photographs are by kind permission of Mowi Scotland.