Derek Ferguson: "Shetland can be a challenging environment, but if you like working outdoors it shouldn’t be an issue."

'Now is a great time to get involved in aquaculture'

Salmon farmer Derek Ferguson went home with two accolades at Lantra Scotland’s Awards for Land-based and Aquaculture Skills (ALBAS) last year, winning the Higher Education SCQF Level 9+ category and being named overall runner-up. Ahead of this year’s ALBAS next month, at which other fish farming workers will be honoured, he gives an insight into life on the farm.


Derek Ferguson, from Lerwick in Shetland, has dedicated most of his working career to the aquaculture sector. The 35-year-old started in fish processing at the age of 19 and worked his way up to become assistant farm manager at Scottish Sea Farms’ Gletness site just off the east coast of Shetland. Having grown up on the island, Ferguson has always felt a connection with nature, and like many Shetlanders, has forged a successful career in salmon production, which is a major contributor to the island’s economy.

He said: “Being a Shetlander, working outdoors comes naturally to me and you can’t go anywhere without meeting someone who’s either a farmer or works in aquaculture. Over the years I’ve learnt a lot about the sector, from fish health and welfare through to farm management and humane harvesting. I’ve been able to bring that experience to my current assistant farm manager role which has been a big help.”

Ferguson is responsible for the management of a fully stocked salmon farm. “Our over-arching responsibility out on farm is to maintain the optimal health of the fish, from initial input of the smolts through to harvest, so the best part of my job is seeing them leave for market in peak condition,” he said.

A lot of skills

“Day-to-day, I’m involved in fish health checks, farm team health and safety, equipment maintenance, responding to any challenges as and when they arise, and communicating with other teams.

“You develop a lot of skills in the workplace, learning from your peers and doing daily tasks. I’ve developed so much both as a person and as an assistant farm manager. You also receive IOSH (Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) and COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) training in everything from fish health and boat tickets to hazardous substances.

“Earlier this year, I completed an SVQ in Aquaculture Management at SCQF level 9, through work-based training with my employer and UHI Shetland. I managed to finish it a year ahead of schedule and went on to win two national awards at Lantra Scotland’s ALBAS, which I’m very proud of.”

Breath-taking wildlife

Working off the coast of Shetland can be a demanding, physical job, but Ferguson doesn’t believe this should put people off. He said: “You must have your wits about you as Shetland can be a challenging environment, but if you like working outdoors it shouldn’t be an issue. There are also huge benefits working in a remote place like this. The natural beauty and wildlife can be breath-taking. We regularly see pods of orcas, basking sharks and minke whales in the summer, not to mention all the bird life. It’s also great to be working as a part of a team – the camaraderie is great, and you meet some fantastic people.”

Over the past 15 years, Ferguson has been impressed with the technological advances transforming the sector.

“Aquaculture has changed a lot since I first started back in 2005,” he said. “The tech is increasingly impressive and makes our job easier – for example, underwater cameras and feeding systems that can be managed remotely when the weather is too severe to get out to farm.

“We also have in-pen systems that measure the weight of fish as they swim by, then send the data directly to the farm manager for analysis, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that make pen maintenance less labour intensive.”

Different careers

Ferguson is positive about the future and has some words of encouragement for anyone thinking of a career in the sector.

“I think now is a great time to get involved in aquaculture,” he said. “Things have never been better. If you like working outdoors and are willing to put the time and effort in, then I say go for it. There are plenty of different careers within aquaculture, whether it’s the production, processing, or sales side. You can go into management, academia or teaching, the options are almost endless and there’s something for everyone.

“I have grown so much as a person since getting involved and I continue to learn every day. Like any form of farming, growing salmon has its challenges, but if you’re the right kind of person you’ll thrive in what is a fast-moving and exciting sector.”