Marine Harvest: 1995-2004
TAfter a degree in microbiology and a PhD in fish diseases at Heriot Watt University, in 1987 Dear got a job at the government’s marine laboratory in Aberdeen as a fish health inspector, which he did for a couple of years before joining McConnell Salmon as Technical Director.
‘At this point salmon farming was really beginning to take off ’, he explains, ‘although there were only around 10,000 tonnes being produced annually in Scotland – I know this because I did the survey. The industry was moving from an artisanal approach and ramping up production, and disease was beginning to take its toll. And, because salmon was a relatively minor species, there were no experi- enced vets and no vaccines, this all had to be developed.
‘Just prior to leaving the civil service, by coincidence I visited a couple of McConnell Salmon sites as part of my fish inspection duties’, he continues, ‘and after seeing the state they were in, I remember telling my wife that I may have made a mistake. So I spoke to the General Manager, David Windmill, and told him that unless they were prepared to change the way they farmed, there was nothing I could do for them. He said: “You tell us what to do and I’ll give you my commitment that we will change accordingly.”’
The first thing that meant was moving from multi-class farms to all out single-year class farms, something that Marine Harvest had already begun to do’, continues Dear. ‘We needed to go further, however, which is when we spoke to Marine Harvest about an experiment to fallow Loch Sunart, in which McConnell Salmon, Marine Harvest and a couple of smaller guys had farms. Whatever one farm had, they gave to all of the farms. I got to know Gordon Rae and Ralph Baillie very well and we made the world’s first management agreement.
‘On February 14 1990 we fallowed the whole loch, and were not allowed to restock for six weeks. We also had agreements on the quality of the smolts put into the loch, and the tests that had to be done. The results were incredible. For the next two cycles survival increased from 50 per cent to around 93 per cent and fish size doubled. That was the beginning of the principle of working collaboratively, and McConnell Salmon and Marine Harvest extended their agreements into other lochs where we shared sites. It was a huge turning point for the industry, and stood us in good stead when ISA appeared – for me, it’s still almost the best model for salmon farming that we have today.’
There were still some fundamental challenges, Dear explains. ‘Of course it mattered that you put quality smolts in, and that you put in single-year classes, and fallowed, but it didn’t stop furunculosis, for which there still weren’t any effective controls – there was a lot of antibiotic use’, he says. ‘We did a lot of work through the Scottish Salmon Growers Association, and there was a lot of collaborative work amongst the industry, Stirling University and vaccine manufacturers, and eventually effective vaccines for furunculosis were produced.’
Whilst the late ‘80s had witnessed the arrival of sea lice, on the whole it was an issue that was fairly manageable at the time, explains Dear. ‘Although prior to furunculosis vaccines, the combination of that and sea lice was horrific. I remember being invited as a government observer to Marine Harvest at Loch Sunart, where they were trialling sea lice treatments, to try and get them licensed for use’, he says. ‘We were doing bath treatments, but government legislation meant we had to do them with the pen fully enclosed, whereas the Norwegians were able to use a skirt without a base. It was so time consuming and incredibly frustrating – but it was the law.
‘The first sea lice treatment we used was Dichlorvos, and when that was banned we switched to hydrogen peroxide’, he continues. ‘Eventually infeed treatments were developed, which was a godsend. This, combined with furunculosis vaccination, made a huge difference. I can honestly say that between 2000 and 2004, when I left, Marine Harvest used zero antibiotics.’
By the mid-‘90s things were going so well that Booker decided to buy Marine Harvest, which at the time was owned by the venture capitalists, Hanson plc. ‘I did all the due diligence for Booker on the farms in Scotland and Chile’, Dear explains. ‘And, during this whole period, I learnt a lot about mergers and acquisitions, and how to manage people. The cultures of Unilever and Booker were very different; the fact that Marine Harvest had offices at Craigcrook Castle and McConnell Salmon had theirs above an ASDA in Clydebank highlights this. We moved to Craigcrook and spent a long time trying to merge the two cultures, and did the best we could.’
In 1999 Booker sold Marine Harvest to the Norwegian company, Nutreco. ‘This was a strategic decision by Nutreco’, says Dear. ‘By then
Marine Harvest had offices at Craigcrook Castle and McConnell Salmon had theirs above an ASDA in Clydebank”
it was the world’s largest salmon feed company, with interests in chicken breeding and processing. In the late ‘90s I spent a lot of time in Chile, working closely with Andy Jackson, which was a really interesting experience. In 2000, David Windmill went out to run Marine Harvest Chile, and I took over as MD in Scotland. In 2003 they brought in a guy from the poultry industry, who wanted to fundamentally change the way salmon was sold within the company.
‘He wanted a single sales point, so the sales team moved to Norway and a single order point was set up in Holland. However, I didn’t believe in it, because we could sell Scottish salmon at a premium. So, in 2004 I left the company to work at Skretting. I was very sad to leave Marine Harvest, I left a lot of very good friends – including John Lister, who is now sadly departed – but you have to believe in what you are doing, so I felt it was time for me to move on.’
In 2007 Dear was made redundant, so he set up his own consultancy and worked on a number of aquaculture projects for a year or so, before joining his current employer, Aviagen, in 2008. ‘I am still involved in salmon farming as a non-executive director of Glenarm Organic Salmon’, he explains. ‘And the company I work for, EW Group, has bought Aqua Gen. The belief in the importance of breeding has been a part of the poultry industry for years, the salmon industry still requires some convincing – but it will come.’
Reflecting on his las t six years at Marine Harvest, Dear sees th e introduction of more technology and equipment as an important period for the company. ‘In that time we brought in the feed barges, automatic feeding systems, fish stunners (which was very much an Andy Jackson project and for which we were awarded an animal welfare award), the Mallaig Harvest Station and well boat delivery of live fish’, he says. ‘I think all of that helped to move the business forward in efficiency and technological terms.’
Dear has many proud moments during his time with Marine Harvest. ‘ The management agreements are obviously a highlight’, he says, ‘particularly when the workers on the ground acknowledge the importance of what you are trying to do. I remember when I first told the guys on Loch Sunart that we were going to fallow the loch, all they thought was, “no fish, no job.” I explained that the fallow period was a time when you could clean the nets, check the moorings and pens and, four years later, after the second cycle, one of the guys came up to me and said: ‘You saved this company’. I went away that day a little wet in the eye.
‘Before I left the company, I went around all of the farms and got photographs of myself with the crews. I have some fantastic memories and I made some lasting friendships – it was a fantastic time in my life, and it’s the people I miss the most..
Above: Loch Sunart, where Marine Harvest and McConnell Salmon made the world’s first management agreement, in 1990 Right: Graeme Dear
Above: (l-r) Iain Campbell, Andy Jackson, Graeme Dear and John Lister at Craigcrook Castle Left: The MHM directors: left to right: Graeme Dear (production), John Lister (finance), Angus Morgan (marketing), David Windmill (managing)