Marine Harvest: 1977-1997
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