From left: Charlotte Maddocks, fish health manager at Mowi Scotland, SAIC knowledge exchange officer Sam Houston, SAIC chief executive Heather Jones, Benjamin Kao and Patricija Balina. Photo: SAIC.

A trip to remember: visiting a fish farm for the first time

University students Benjamin Kao and Patricija Balina, aquaculture innovation interns at the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, describe their first-ever visit to a salmon farm which, despite a bout of seasickness, left them impressed by the tenacity and passion of those at the cage side.

On a wet July morning in the Western Isles, we drove out of the centre of Stornoway into the Scottish countryside to visit a fish farm. Most of our experience working with SAIC thus far had been office-based; therefore, visiting a fish farm for the first time was a great opportunity for us to further our understanding of Scottish aquaculture.

Traversing the ‘line’ between Lewis and Harris, the relatively flat landscape of Lewis transitioned into a more Highland affair – reminding us of scenes from The Lord of the Rings. We did not let the threat of rain dampen our spirits. In a way, we were looking forward to getting the full Western Isles fish farming experience, with the varied weather being an important part of the package. Luckily, the weather held up during the visit. Before we knew it, we found ourselves at the Mowi Scotland shore-base on the banks of West Loch Tarbert.

The interns

  • Patricija Balina has just finished her second year studying Environmental Science at the University of Stirling and is originally from Latvia. During the start of her second study semester of 2019, she found an advertisement for the Scottish Life Science Internship programme – and that’s how her intern journey started. 
  • She decided to intern with SAIC because she recognised the importance and growth potential of the aquaculture industry, as well as how little awareness of aquaculture exists in society. Patricija says she sees this as a wonderful opportunity to learn about an industry that will drive our future, and acquire the right tools to further promote aquaculture within her university and among her peers.
  • Originally from Brazil and Taiwan, Ben Kao has just finished his first year studying Biology and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews. He wanted to gain a perspective on the aquaculture industry because of an interest in seafood production, as he is from an island, and an academic interest in sustainable food sources.

Warm welcome

We were warmly welcomed by our host, Charlotte Maddocks (Mowi Scotland’s regional fish health manager for the Western Isles), assistant site manager Chris Morrison, and Britt Helen Sandnes, fish health observer. At the time of our arrival, the pens were being remotely fed. This is a highly controlled process where underwater cameras are used to monitor feeding response while also keeping a close eye on salmon behaviour.

Members of staff explained that poor feeding response can mean excess food pellets in the pen, signalling the operator to reduce pellet supply using the feeding software. Elimination of feed waste is important as the feed represents more than 50% of the production cost. However, a change in feeding behaviours can also indicate a health problem, prompting site staff to take the necessary actions.

After looking at the fish monitoring and feed release system, we boarded the workboat and set off towards the site.

It was cosy half-hour boat ride in the cabin, talking about salmon farming and management. For one of us, the ride was an out-of-body experience, with a stomach feeling as if it was ‘castaway’ on the nearby island that inspired the reality television series. This meant that Ben was more focused on the rising and falling of the waves – and the ‘are we there yets’ to stem his seasickness – than the journey itself. This experience reminded us that a life at sea, especially in less than ideal conditions, is not for everybody. Fortunately, it was not a long journey and we caught a glimpse of the salmon pens on the horizon.

From a distance, the site’s 16 circular pens, organised in two sets of eight, look like floating rings on the sea surface. On closer inspection, it became clear that the pens are more complex than expected. It was difficult to fully appreciate the impressive sub-sea engineering involved, but Charlotte offered a detailed explanation of the site’s many components and bewildering amount of auxiliary equipment.

Stopping by the first pen, what struck us immediately was how the salmon leapt out of the water periodically. Following the advice to always keep at least one hand on the pen, we slowly made our way around it while getting an explanation on how lice skirts and cleaner fish work in practice. The presence of cleaner fish was particularly interesting, as the purposeful rearing of a cohabiting species to coexist with another on a farm takes a lot of work. This was apparent within the pen, in the deployment of a fake seaweed forest that mimicked the natural environment of the cleaner fish.

One of the highlights of the day was helping to carefully return a lumpfish back to the pen, as it was caught in the net when the salmon were due for a health check-up. A sample number of fish were taken from the pen and put into a bath with anaesthetic. Charlotte showed us how to recognise different stages and gender of lice, how to inspect gills for diseases, and how the diseases can be differentiated. All fish inspected were in good condition.

We also learned how treatment programmes are conducted, when necessary. Charlotte told us that she tries to communicate regularly with her counterpart in another company that operates within the same farm area. This communication results in the coordination of similar treatment programmes and the early notification of health-related issues that may arise. This cross-company communication and synchronisation serves an important role in ensuring the health and welfare of the fish.

Patricija was particularly interested in what it is like to work in the farm on an everyday basis, with the variable weather conditions presumably being a challenge. Not surprisingly, the farmers replied that on average there were no ‘good weather days’ in a working week. They highlighted that while stormy seas may not be great for the people working on the farm, the salmon are perfectly at home in those conditions; although warm weather may make for a better working environment, fish health issues occur more often in the summer season.

After the health check-up, we proceeded to look at the remote-controlled net cleaning operations. Then we moved on to another pen, where fish mortality and net structural integrity inspections were being executed by professional divers.

We headed back to the boat, catching the last glimpses of the many operations being simultaneously executed at the site, all requiring high levels of coordination and management.

Standing on the workboat deck, staring at the receding view of the Atlantic, we could not help but think about the value aquaculture brings to the Western Isles and to Scotland as a whole. The fish farm supports jobs for local people, and not just within the company that runs the farm. Some jobs, like the divers, were outsourced to a local company. Not to mention the economic input and international recognition that come with the promotion of Scottish salmon.

Moreover, the people working on the farm showed an admirable camaraderie, displaying how the industry can provide a great working environment and culture.

This visit also made us appreciate the cooperation and tenacity needed to make the industry a success. Seeing the passion of the people who illuminated our first sea farm experience, we are confident that the industry’s progress – in contrast with Scotland’s turbulent seas – will be smooth sailing.

The SAIC team wishes to thank those at Mowi Scotland who gave up their time to make the study visit possible.