In 1972 Richard Nixon was still in the White House and Ted Heath was Prime Minister of the UK, while David Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, was bringing a unique brand of glamour to the pop charts.
And on the west coast of Scotland, a new venture was under way: farming steelhead trout. Kames’ operation today is based on the experience, innovation and – inevitably – lessons from setbacks gained in fifty years of fish farming.
Stuart Cannon, now Kames’ Chairman, set up the company along with two friends, Tony Dalton and Eddie Gully. Cannon had grown up in a farming family in Lincolnshire, albeit a very different kind of farming – arable rather than aquaculture. He had grown to love trout at an early age, however, as a schoolboy fishing with a friend on the River Dove.
Cannon first came across the idea of farmed fish in an article in Farmers’ Weekly, which suggested that the return on capital could be a lot higher than for conventional farming. When he started his course at Harper Adams Agricultural College in Shropshire (now Harper Adams University), he asked for his placement to be with a fish farm. It was with Kenmure Fisheries, a freshwater trout farm in Galloway, founded by aquaculture pioneer Graeme Gordon, and the experience helped to convince Cannon there was a future in the sector.
Cannon says: “[Graeme] was a wonderful mentor and he gave me the confidence to say ‘gosh, I think I can do this’. Previously I had thought it was really for the big mega-companies.”
Cannon also enrolled on the first short aquaculture course at the University of Stirling, where he met Tony Dalton, whose father was a distinguished vet who had developed a vaccine for the disease coccidiosis in livestock.
The Kames fish farming business started off with a hatchery in old seaweed sheds on the shore of Loch Melfort, Argyll, at a site which remains the company’s headquarters up to the present day.
As well as Cannon and Dalton, the start-up was backed by the Gully family, particularly Ed Gully, who remains a board director and who has farms on Shuna and other islands off Argyll.
Cannon says: “It was a pure learning curve. In the first year we didn’t produce any more than about 20 tonnes of fish, so it was a very slow development.”
The stock were firstly mixed sex, but with the males maturing before 3kg-plus harvest weight, all female fish were developed, because females do not mature so quickly. And as with salmon, a sexually mature fish is not palatable for human consumption. After some trial and error, the company adopted a technique of treating the eggs under pressure to make them triploid, thus sterile which is still the approach today – albeit at a larger scale than in the early days.
The trout were fed on a feed that was composed, basically, of fish offal and minced prawn shells. In the first few years Kames then moved on to high protein, pelleted chicken type feed and then commercial feed mills started producing fish feed for the growing farmed sector. Cannon describes this as a massive improvement for the whole emerging industry.
Initially, the smolts were released into wooden cages in the loch. It was clear that something bigger would be needed, and initially the farm experimented with steel cages. Unfortunately these were prone to metal fatigue and Cannon developed a large, modular wooden cage up to 30 x 20 metres. The design meant the cage could be assembled on site, and the Kames model became a standard for many fish farms in the UK and overseas.
The sites were challenging in some ways because the tidal flows were very strong – although this also helped, not only for dispersing waste and ensuring good quality, but also in building up the trout’s muscle mass through swimming against the tide.
One of the challenges, commercially, was overcoming the perception that what they were producing was the same as freshwater trout, which was and is viewed as a “portion” fish – that is, one for which the whole fish is one serving.
Steelhead are not only larger than freshwater trout, so they can be served as fillets or portions, but also being raised in the sea gives the fish a much better flavour and texture.
The success of the cage side of the business led to opportunities to get involved more directly with fish farming around the world. For example, a contract to supply cages to Selonda Aquaculture, a sea bream and sea bass farmer in Greece, led to Kames taking a 25% stake in the business and running farms for the company.
Cannon has also been involved in setting up and running fish farms in Chile and in Iraq, the last of which came to an abrupt end when the Second Gulf War led to the destruction of a local dam and with it, the farm.
Other aquaculture projects Cannon has been involved with include ventures in Kuwait, Malaysia, the Falkland Islands, Nigeria and Egypt.
Kames’ involvement in Selonda finally came to an end in 2005 and since then, Cannon has largely focused on the core Scottish business.
Facing the challenges
The company has had its share of setbacks. In the early days, an outbreak of bacterial kidney disease (BKD) meant the whole stock had to be culled, and in the 1980s the spread of infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) in Norway closed off an important source of ova.
There was a strategy to diversify into halibut, in shelved cages because halibut swims near the seabed rather than in open water. This ended abruptly in 2007 when animal rights activists “released” the fish into the wild, where most perished. Kames lost around 200 tonnes of harvest fish plus smaller fish.
Kames was one of the founders of Scot Trout, the UK’s first collective cooperative of farmed trout producers, which became Scotland’s leading trout processor, with a market share reported around 80%, as well as running some farming operations.
Unfortunately the global financial crisis hit bank lending just as Scot Trout had borrowed to build another wing for its processing plant and expand its farming production to meet growing demands.
Cannon recalls: “The bank said, ‘the team don’t think fish farming is the thing to do’.”
The final straw came when Scot Trout’s invoice finance facility was withdrawn, and the business was sold to Dawnfresh in 2008 (Dawnfresh itself went into administration earlier this year and the processing plant, at Uddingston near Glasgow, has since been acquired by Thistle Seafoods).
Not surprisingly, there have been offers made for Kames from the early days onwards. Cannon has always resisted, preferring instead to create a sustainable business. Now, his son Andrew is on the board and his daughter-in-law Cate, who was previously a marketing director in the book industry, is Marketing Manager.
Achieving a critical mass is central to the strategy, but so is being aware of the duty of care to the environment and to the animals under the farmer’s care.
Cannon says: “I was lucky I was a farmer because I understood husbandry, care and welfare.
“My father always said you’ve got to farm for tomorrow. He was a third-generation farmer, and there’s something in that!”