Ian Armstrong

Marine Harvest: 1977-1997

Fish Farmer - - Contents -

Armstrong be­gan his ex­pe­ri­ence with Marine Harvest as a school­boy in 1977, work­ing for Unilever Re­search at Lochailort dur­ing the sum­mer hol­i­days. ‘I worked for a cou­ple of won­der­ful sum­mers for Bruce Hill­coat and then Dick Alder­son, learn­ing as I went’, he says. ‘When I went to Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity I spent a fur­ther two sum­mers work­ing for Steve Bracken, pack­ing fish’, he says. ‘In those days we didn’t bleed them or gut them, we just put them in good qual­ity ice and sent them away – mainly to France or Aberdeen. I re­mem­ber once we had to go up to Skye to pack some fish on site and then I drove the small lorry to Aberdeen to de­liver them.’

Whilst at univer­sity, Armstrong spent his last two sum­mers in Nor­way and Ice­land re­spec­tively. In Nor­way he worked on fish farms, and his time in Ice­land was spent salmon ranch­ing. In 1983, af­ter grad­u­at­ing, he joined Marine Harvest as a trainee man­ager. ‘My first job was to help set up a new tem­po­rary site to man­age 120,000 sur­plus fish – this was Bothan Bay in Loch Su­nart.’, he ex­plains. ‘I then found the site at In­va­sion Bay to keep the team to­gether for another cou­ple of years. In late 1987 af­ter trav­el­ling for six months – dur­ing which time I worked on fish farms in Tas­ma­nia and New Zealand – I was made the first Sea Wa­ter Man­ager of Marine Harvest Chile.

‘Chile was a fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence’, Armstrong re­calls. ‘We es­tab­lished ten sites in that first year; there were no sea lice, no dis­eases and the learn­ing was mas­sive. The salmon were smolt­ing af­ter six months in the fresh­wa­ter lakes, and grow­ing phe­nom­e­nally fast in sea wa­ter. When I re­ported the first sea­wa­ter weights, no-one be­lieved me and I was promptly told to go and get the scales prop­erly cal­i­brated. We took Euro­pean tech­nol­ogy across and made a suc­cess of it – and the peo­ple in Chile are some of the nicest peo­ple I have met.’

Armstrong came back to Scot­land in the sum­mer of 1989, and for the next five years he ran the Wester Ross di­vi­sion, which was based in In­ver­ness. ‘At this point the com­pany was suf­fer­ing a num­ber of is­sues due to over­stock­ing, and we needed to re­duce the stress on the fish’, he ex­plains. ‘Whilst work­ing in New Zealand, I had ex­pe­ri­enced swim-throughs be­ing used as a way of clean­ing the nets, and the site teams were keen to trial it in Loch Ewe and Di­abaig. They’d have a group of ten pens and keep two free. Ev­ery week they’d

care­fully swim the fish into the empty pens and lift the nets on the re­main­ing eight to dry in the sun. These kept the nets clean – which was im­por­tant be­cause at the time Marine Harvest did not use anti-foul­ing – and re­duced stress on the fish.

‘I then did a Nuffield Trav­el­ling Schol­ar­ship to Ja­pan be­fore run­ning the pro­cess­ing plant at Blar Mhor, in 1994’, he says. ‘In 1996 we had a prob­lem with Lis­te­ria. I had care­fully lis­tened to this Nor­we­gian ex­pert, Elvin Bugge, at Aqua Nor 1995 and, to­gether with in­ter­nal spe­cial­ists, we solved the prob­lem. Elvin learned a lot, just as we all did. Another chal­lenge was in­dus­tri­al­is­ing the gut­ting process ef­fec­tively. Un­til the Baader 142, which came into Blar Mhor in the early 2000s, it was dif­fi­cult for pro­cess­ing man­agers to get the num­bers of fish through, with the com­bi­na­tion of hand-gut­ting and in­ad­e­quate ma­chines. Fish pro­ces­sors work hard in cold con­di­tions and we needed to make it eas­ier for them.’

In 1997 Armstrong left Marine Harvest and joined Hy­dro Seafood GSP, based in Oban. ‘When Hy­dro Seafood merged with Marine Harvest in 2001 the UK Com­pe­ti­tion Com­mis­sion rul­ing pre­vented Hy­dro Seafood’s Scot­tish as­sets from be­com­ing part of the merger, so it was sold to Leroy and Sal­Mar and be­came Scot­tish Sea Farms.’

Marine Harvest re­mained, and still re­mains, in­te­gral to his ca­reer af­ter leav­ing the com­pany. When he left Scot­tish Sea Farms in 2002 he set up his own com­pany, Ne­vis Marine. His first pro­ject was with Marine Harvest. ‘I helped in­tro­duce mod­ern well boat har­vest­ing to Marine Harvest’, he ex­plains. ‘It takes around 20,000 hours to grow At­lantic salmon but how you han­dle them in the last few hours and min­utes can have a huge im­pact on their qual­ity. Col­lect­ing the fish live in well boats – 100 tonnes in two hours – and tak­ing them to a cen­tral point for har­vest­ing re­duces stress on the fish and cre­ates a reg­u­lar sup­ply of fish to the pro­cess­ing plant, which in­creases pro­duc­tiv­ity.

‘I went to Marine Harvest with the idea in Au­gust 2002, and in 2003 the Marine Harvest pro­ject team started with a mo­bile harvest sta­tion set up in Kyle and ser­viced by their first well boat’, he con­tin­ues. ‘I had planned to build my own harvest sta­tion in Mal­laig to sup­ply Blar Mhor, hence the name Ne­vis Marine, but un­der­stand­ably they wanted to keep con­trol of their own fish so I be­came their con­sul­tant. In 2004 the harvest sta­tion at Mal­laig was com­pleted. The well boats went to each site and col­lected the fish, live, which were then care­fully chilled in the boat and taken to Mal­laig for har­vest­ing. On-site har­vest­ing was a mas­sive un­der­tak­ing – us­ing well boats re­moved the dis­trac­tion of har­vest­ing from the farms and al­lowed fish farm­ers to re­turn to farm­ing fish.’

The harvest sta­tion at Mal­laig gave Armstrong the plat­form to re­main in­de­pen­dent, and he was

They are not afraid of be­ing first, of back­ing new projects they see as hav­ing merit”

in­volved in the con­struc­tion of sev­eral harvest sta­tions across west Scot­land be­fore trans­fer­ring his well boat ex­pe­ri­ence to hy­dro­gen perox­ide treat­ments for sea lice. ‘I had been in­volved in the use of hy­dro­gen perox­ide in the ‘90s when I was with Marine Harvest’, he ex­plains. ‘I wasn’t at all con­vinced about the treat­ment then but my ex­pe­ri­ence helped Elvin and his Nor­we­gian col­leagues at Aqua Pharma to greatly im­prove the process.’ Along­side vet­eri­nar­i­ans and other spe­cial­ists, they de­vel­oped well boat treat­ments of hy­dro­gen perox­ide for sea lice with Marine Harvest Nor­way in 2009. Much has hap­pened since then and last year Armstrong was proud to help sup­port Marine Harvest Canada as they suc­cess­fully in­tro­duced the first tar­pau­lin treat­ments to Bri­tish Columbia.

Armstrong also re­tained his in­ter­est in food safety and worked as an in­terim man­ager for Marine Harvest Poland in its for­ma­tive years whilst a per­ma­nent man­ager was be­ing sought. ‘I then be­came a Free­dom Food asses­sor and Marine Harvest Scot­land was my largest key ac­count’, he says. ‘It was mas­sive that Marine Harvest wanted to be part of the scheme. They were aware of what the con­sumer wanted and re­alised that be­ing ac­cred­ited by the RSPCA would help re­as­sure those cus­tomers who may have had some ini­tial mis­giv­ings about the farm­ing of salmon.’ Both well boat har­vest­ing and hy­dro­gen perox­ide treat­ments are both ex­am­ples, says Armstrong, of how Marine Harvest is still a pi­o­neer. ‘They are not afraid of be­ing first, of back­ing new projects they see as hav­ing merit.’

Armstrong has ob­served a num­ber of changes within Marine Harvest since first start­ing with them in the late ‘70s. ‘The main change is the scal­ing up of ev­ery­thing and the use of tech­nol­ogy’, he says. ‘The na­ture of fish farm­ing has also shifted. It’s a tough job now, with a num­ber of so­phis­ti­cated skills re­quired. Fish farm­ers to­day are far more tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced than we were in the early days. For ex­am­ple, we would un­load 20 tonnes of feed by hand and stack them onto pal­lets. We’d have a race to com­plete the job first, and judge each other’s work. On top of that, fish farm­ers to­day are con­stantly hav­ing to jus­tify their en­vi­ron­men­tal cre­den­tials, and have learned to be­come more open and trans­par­ent about what they do. They have also adapted to the change in the mar­ket­place and lis­ten to what con­sumers want. It is a credit to the in­dus­try as a whole that it has be­come so pro­fes­sional.’

Look­ing back at his time with Marine Harvest, there are a num­ber of things of which Armstrong is par­tic­u­larly proud. ‘As a sea wa­ter site man­ager, you’re al­ways proud of your first harvest’, he says. ‘In Chile, set­ting up the first sea farms and giv­ing 80 lo­cal peo­ple a start in the new in­dus­try of salmon farm­ing was par­tic­u­larly sat­is­fy­ing, whilst help­ing sort out the hy­giene is­sues at Blar Mhor was also a great per­sonal achieve­ment.’

Armstrong has gained skills and in­valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in Scot­land, Nor­way, Chile, Canada, Ice­land, New Zealand and Tas­ma­nia. ‘The most im­por­tant les­son I’ve learnt’, he says, ‘is to know, and be un­afraid of, your own lim­i­ta­tions. Learn what you are good at and then trust your judge­ment to go out and find the right peo­ple to lis­ten to, to learn from, to work with, and to guide you. It is this team­work that re­mains the ul­ti­mate com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage. And if you all look af­ter the fish prop­erly, they’ll al­ways look af­ter you.’

Above: Feed­ing smolts in Chile with im­ported diet in early 1988 Top Right: Hy­dro­gen perox­ide treat­ments at MH Canada. Right: Ian Armstrong (right) with David McCarthy in 1993

Top: Con­trac­tor pro­cess­ing an early harvest at Puerto Montt Above: The first harvest at Marine Harvest Chile

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