Scottish Sea Farms' head of veterinary services Ronnie Soutar says sea conditions are reflecting climate change. Photo: SSF.

Looking back, thinking ahead: Ronnie Soutar

Fish Farming Expert has asked individuals connected to the salmon farming industry about their year, and what they hope for in 2021.We continue the series today with Ronnie Soutar, head of veterinary services for salmon producer Scottish Sea Farms.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has made 2020 a difficult year for many businesses and organisations. How has it affected yours?

Although the pandemic, and the restrictions around it, have been really tough on individual members of our team, the impact on our stock has been less than I first feared. We were relatively lucky in that the initial lockdown, in spring 2020, came at a time of year when things were relatively quiet on the farms. The effect of having fewer people available on-farm and in support services was therefore bearable – although mainly through the extra work which everyone did. Had those restrictions come in Q3, with warmer waters and more biomass on farms due to the limited market, things might have been very different. The on-going limits on travel, etc, have moved us rapidly towards the remote delivery of fish health support and other services – a direction we’ve been travelling in anyway – and, like many other organisations, we’ve had a lot more virtual meetings this year!

What other factors have had a bearing on your business/work?

Sea conditions, which certainly look to be reflecting climate change. From late summer, the combination of planktonic events and our old enemy, sea lice, have made life difficult on a few sites. It’s heart-breaking for farm staff to see their hard work in caring for their fish devastated by sudden events outwith their control. Often, we have no prior warning either, we just see the after-effects of environmental challenges. That’s why we’re working at national level to get better monitoring of what’s happening in the sea around us and to share and implement best practice in reacting to these events.

What was the most significant event of 2020 for your company/organisation?

Without doubt it was our new RAS hatchery in Barcaldine coming into full production. It’s now producing smolts of a size and quality which represent a step-change in inputs to our marine farms.  These big, robust fish, produced in genuinely bio-secure conditions, have proven the value of this investment and are now being harvested some two months ahead of previous crops. Less time at sea, combined with the ability to cope with higher-energy sites, means less exposure to marine challenges – a big step forward for fish welfare!

What would you like to see happen in 2021 to help the Scottish fish farming industry thrive?

Continuing discussions between all stakeholders aimed at ensuring the regulatory framework in which we operate is fit for purpose.  There’s a lot of goodwill around in this respect but we need to see action, particularly on the availability of safe, effective, humane treatments for the health challenges which our fish face. That, and the success of Covid vaccination to keep all our people safe, happy and working!