Marine Harvest: 1977-1995
Because it was summer the smolts were ready to be put to
sea in six months”
After working as a driving instructor and an estate worker on the Glenmoidart Estate, Fortune joined Marine Harvest as a Seawater Assistant in 1977. ‘I worked at Lochailort for three years and then became a Freshwater Manager’, he explains. ‘At that time we had the hatchery at Inchmore and freshwater sites at Dalilea and Glenfinnan on either end of Loch Shiel.’ The main challenges on the freshwater side of things, Fortune explains, were mainly disease and various technical challenges. ‘Disease was an issue, but we would always carry out weekly disease checks’, he recalls. ‘What we pioneered was putting first feeders directly into pens in freshwater lochs. Before that they had always been grown on in tanks in the hatcheries but we were producing more and more fish and we were running out of tank space – we were forced to innovate. We experimented with mesh size, and ended up using a 2mm mesh. The problem was that they blocked up very quickly so we had to change them regularly.
‘It was all pioneering stuff, tying to come up with different ideas to grow fish in a better way’, Fortune continues. ‘We were doing something that hadn’t been done before and, personally, I felt like I was part of something important, and I think most people who worked for Marine Harvest at the time felt the same. Every day brought a new challenge, and it was exciting. And, of course, we were always trying to keep ahead of the Norwegians’, he laughs.
Fortune’s proudest moment with Marine Harvest was in 1987, when he helped set up the company’s operation in Chile. ‘I was chosen to go out ahead to set up the hatchery and receive the first batch of eggs’, he explains. ‘It really was a race against time to get the water on and set up the trays for the eggs; the water had only been on a couple of days before the first box of eggs arrived. The conditions were extremely difficult; it was February, which is summer in Chile, and the temperatures were very high. We had to cool the water in the hatchery with bags of ice to allow the eggs to acclimatise.’
Over a million eggs were sent out, all of which were put on trays. ‘I really enjoyed the challenge of Chile’, says Fortune. ‘And, because it was summer the smolts were ready to be put to sea in six months; it was the first time I can remember that ever being done before. Ralph (Baillie) came out with his family a couple of months later, and although we were
continuously facing new challenges – such as the nets, which had a 2mm mesh and kept being blocked by native fish spawning in the lake – but we managed, and it was a great success. I was there for about six months, returning briefly in December to help Ralph transport the smolts to sea. It was all very exciting stuff.’
When Fortune arrived back from Chile, he was made Freshwater Divisional Manager, under Bruce Hillcoat. ‘My responsibilities were looking after the hatchery at Morar, the Lochailort smolt unit and the Loch Shiel sites.’ Fortune remained in this role until he left the company, in 1995.
There were a number of changes that Fortune witnessed during his eighteen years with Marine Harvest. ‘One of the main changes was when we started doing better FCRs, instead of just feeding the fish’, he explains. ‘This started in about 1980; Unilever Research worked really hard on it – they put cameras into the pens watching the fish feeding, and looked carefully at FCR tables – it really was quite a significant development.
‘Another big change was the processing plant at Blar Mhor, in 1987’, he adds. ‘Before that, all of our fish were processed at Lochailort – it was very basic; we’d pack the fish in boxes of ice, nail the lids on and put them in a couple of lorries to Aberdeen for the fish train. Blar Mhor was a huge step forward for the company. Also, I always saw the future of fish farming being out to sea, but we didn’t have the pen technology, and we needed sheltered lochs. Now, however, Marine Harvest has some open sea sites and I can only see these being the first of many.’
Fortune is not surprised at how successful Marine Harvest has become. ‘I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them; it was a very interesting job to do and I felt the company would get bigger’, he says. ‘When I started the Forestry Commission was the largest employer in the west of Scotland, and that has now been outstripped by aquaculture. Marine Harvest is a great employer; it has provided steady jobs for a lot of people, which is great for families.’
Clockwise from top: Transferring the first smolts into the sea pen in Chile, 1987 – the wood and polystyrene pen was typical of those used during the ‘70s and ‘80s; first hatching trays in Chile, 1987; (l-r) Pablo Achurra; Manuel Barros; Ralph Baillie; and Willie Fortune at Puerto Montt, 1987
Top: Willie Fortune hand feeding in the ‘70s Middle: Fortune leaning against one of the first hatchery tanks in Chile, 1987 Bottom: The first smolt transport from the hatchery to the sea site in Chile, 1987