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Fish farmers harvest honours at rural industry awards

Every one a winner: Jimmy Dakin, left, Valentina Romano and John MacPherson were presented with awards in Dunblane last night. Photo: FFE.
Every one a winner: Jimmy Dakin, left, Valentina Romano and John MacPherson were presented with awards in Dunblane last night. Photo: FFE.

Three fish farmers who each changed their career course to join the aquaculture industry have won awards for their commitment to training.

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Dawnfresh assistant site manager Valentina Romano, Grieg Seafood’s John MacPherson and Scottish Sea Farms trainee site manager Jimmy Dakin were among those who took home trophies from the Lantra Scotland ALBAS (Awards for Land-based and Aquaculture Skills) event in Dunblane last night.

It was a double triumph for Romano, 29, who works at trout producer Dawnfresh’s Kinnaird hatchery near Brechin. Romano, who has been studying for a Level 4 (degree level) technical apprenticeship in aquaculture management through the NAFC Marine Centre, won the Higher Education Leaner of the Year award, and was one of four people to be given an award by the Council for Awards of Royal Agricultural Societies (CARAS).

There was also plenty to smile about for MacPherson, who was named Aquaculture Learner of the Year. The 23-year-old’s triumph came just days after he learned that he had been promoted to manager at Grieg’s Corlarach site in Loch Dunvegan, Skye.

The runner-up in the category was Dakin, 33, a former fisherman who is being trained to manage Scottish Sea Farms’ Eday site.

Valentina Romano with both her awards. Photo: FFE.
Valentina Romano with both her awards. Photo: FFE.

Marine biology

Romano’s route into fish farming started when she visited a marine biology station in her native Italy when she was nine years old and decided to become a marine biologist.

It was when she was studying for a marine biology degree at Stirling University’s Institute of Aquaculture that her interest in aquaculture grew.

After following her degree with a master’s degree in aquatic biology at the IoA she took a temporary job as a technician at the Dawnfresh freshwater cage site at Loch Awe.

Practical skills

“When I left university, I realised I had no practical skills, so I wanted to work my way up,” said Romano.

“It was only a three-month contract but then the position opened up at Kinnaird, where I work now. I worked there for a year as a hatchery technician and then I was promoted to assistant manager.”

One of the reasons Romano chose to do a technical apprenticeship was to have some official acknowledgement of the skills she has learned in six years with Dawnfresh.

“You pick up a lot of skills but there is nothing to validate it,” she said. “Dawnfresh have been so supportive. They were the ones who suggested doing the course.”

I want to dedicate the awards to all women in aquaculture … It is important that they are supported

Dawnfresh assistant site hatchery manager Valentina Romano

Although the NAFC is located in Shetland, Romano’s course was based at her workplace, with NAFC aquaculture training lead Stuart Fitzsimmons travelling to Brechin to carry out practical assessments.

Romano thanked Fitzsimmons, and also Women in Scottish Aquaculture (WiSA), which supports female entrants to the industry.

“I want to dedicate the awards to all women in aquaculture. There are a lot of us out there trying to make it. We launched WiSA last year. There are more and more women coming into the industry and it is important that they are supported,” said Romano.

John MacPherson, left, is presented with his award by host Jim Smith. Click on image to enlarge. Photo: Lantra.
John MacPherson, left, is presented with his award by host Jim Smith. Click on image to enlarge. Photo: Lantra.

Familiar with fish

John MacPherson decided to switch to salmon farming while studying to join the Merchant Navy at college in Glasgow. It is a change of course but by no means an unfamiliar environment for the Skye native, who has been around salmon farms all his life because his father ran a site on the island.

His rise through Grieg’s ranks has been rapid.

“I was farming for just under a year before I got made up to assistant manager and then for just over a year to be made up to manager,” said MacPherson, whose aquaculture apprenticeship has been done in conjunction with Inverness College UHI.

MacPherson, who was accompanied to last night’s ceremony at the Dunblane Hydro hotel by his manager, Kal McCulloch, is looking forward to taking charge at Corlarach, though he says it is a challenging site.

“My site is not stocked yet – it will be May or June – but I can organise it,” he said.

Jimmy Dakin receives his runner-up award from Jim Smith. Click on image to enlarge. Photo: Lantra.
Jimmy Dakin receives his runner-up award from Jim Smith. Click on image to enlarge. Photo: Lantra.

Jumping ship for new career

Jimmy Dakin spent a decade on fishing boats before deciding he liked the opportunities offered in salmon farming and joining Scottish Sea Farms four years ago.

Originally from Kent, he moved to Orkney 16 years ago when his parents bought a pub on Sanday. Fish farming allowed him to return to the island and use the skills he’d acquired as a fisherman.

“For me it is the future, a sustainable practice of producing good quality food, and that was something I wanted to be part of,” he said.

Lured by learning

“Learning was also a big part of it,” added Dakin, who has done his apprenticeship through the NAFC. “In the first year you get a hell of a lot of training and some people embrace it and some don’t.

“I have learned an awful lot and met a lot of nice, interesting people along the way and continue to do so.

“The interesting thing about the industry is the amount of skills you need to do it. That is another thing that has made me interested in the job. That is what I wanted, to try to better myself.”

‘Bringing life to the islands’

Dakin also has first-hand experience of the difference fish farming has made to Orkney.

“Aquaculture is bringing life back to these islands,” he said.

“My folks own a pub, and even in the first couple of years they [Scottish Sea Farms] have recruited [for new farms]. The local businesses all profit from the extra infrastructure on the isles.”

Exceptional candidates

The ALBAS were hosted by farmer and stand-up comedian, Jim Smith, and organised by Lantra Scotland, the sector skills council for the land-based, aquaculture and environmental conservation industries.

Rural affairs journalist Erika Hay, who chaired the judging panel, said the candidates for this year’s awards had been exceptional.

The other fish farmers shortlisted were Alexandra Couti (Grieg Seafood and NAFC), Calum Elder (SSF and NAFC), David Stewart (Scottish Salmon Company and NAFC), Emma Rochester (Cooke Aquaculture and NAFC), Gari Watson (Dawnfresh and NAFC) and John Stirling (SSC and Inverness College UHI).

Women in Scottish Aquaculture (WiSA) was also shortlisted for a partnership working award which went to the group’s land-based industry equivalent, Women in Agriculture Taskforce.

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