The Pi­o­neer­ing Age

Fish Farmer - - The Sixties & Seventies – Introduction -

Marine Harvest was founded by Unilever in 1965. It came out of co­or­di­na­tion groups on the agri­cul­tural side of the busi­ness; the first pa­pers were drawn up in 1964 and con­struc­tion on the site at Lochailort be­gan the fol­low­ing year. Unilever has al­ways been a strate­gi­cally thought­ful com­pany, and in the 1960s it was heav­ily in­volved in fish­ing – at the time it owned the largest trawler fleet in Europe. Its de­ci­sion to in­ves­ti­gate the com­mer­cial po­ten­tial of aqua­cul­ture was driven by its ob­ser­va­tion that wild fish stocks were dwin­dling and that an al­ter­na­tive method of pro­duc­ing seafood would be needed in the fu­ture.

The driv­ing force be­hind the early de­vel­op­ment of Marine Harvest was Harry Howard, a Unilever chair­man who had made his rep­u­ta­tion in the palm oil busi­ness in Malaysia. At the time Unilever owned a num­ber of trout farms in Eng­land and, af­ter see­ing rain­bow trout be­ing grown in the sea us­ing a process for ac­cli­ma­tis­ing them from fresh to sea­wa­ter, patented by the Vik broth­ers, he be­came con­vinced that it could be done in the UK. Af­ter find­ing a suit­able site, at Lochailort, Howard be­came Marine Harvest’s first MD – a po­si­tion he held un­til 1977 – and ran the com­pany from Lon­don, mak­ing oc­ca­sional vis­its to Scot­land.

Unilever Re­search, whose head­quar­ters was in Col­worth, Bed­ford­shire, also had fa­cil­i­ties in Aberdeen and Fin­don, where they were con­duct­ing re­search mainly con­nected to freez­ing, pro­cess­ing and other fish tech­nolo­gies. They also be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with the grow­ing of marine fish and crus­taceans. The plan was to use Marine Harvest to de­velop the tech­niques to grow trout in the sea on a com­mer­cial ba­sis, with Unilever Re­search pro­vid­ing the ex­per­tise and re­search to fa­cil­i­tate this.

As with all pioneers, the staff at Lochailort were faced with new chal­lenges on an al­most ba­sis” daily

Pi­o­neer­ing spirit

With Unilever pro­vid­ing the science and re­search and Marine Harvest pro­vid­ing the prac­ti­cal farm­ing know-how, the early years at Lochailort were ded­i­cated to de­vel­op­ing and im­prov­ing the tech­niques for com­mer­cial salmon pro­duc­tion. Be­cause noth­ing like this had ever been at­tempted be­fore, there was noone to turn to for ad­vice, ev­ery chal­lenge they faced was new, and a lot of what they did was a re­sult of trial and er­ror, learn­ing from both suc­cesses and mis­takes.

There is no doubt that the early days were pi­o­neer­ing. And, as all pioneers, the staff at Lochailort were faced with new chal­lenges on an al­most daily ba­sis. In­clement weather was al­ways an is­sue, caus­ing nu­mer­ous power fail­ures and dam­age to equip­ment. As com­mu­ni­ca­tion was dif­fi­cult on the west coast of Scot­land at the time, there was a lot of re­liance on the back-up diesel gen­er­a­tors dur­ing black­outs. The early tech­nol­ogy was tem­per­a­men­tal, and there were reg­u­lar alarm calls, par­tic­u­larly in the hatch­ery, when pumps blocked, or stopped work­ing.

In 1970, such alarm calls were so fre­quent it prompted this com­ment in one alarm re­port: ‘Alarms of this na­ture (oc­cur­ring at any time of the day or night) are tax­ing the pa­tience of farm and res­i­dent site staff.’ The fol­low­ing year, it seems the is­sues were the same, as sug­gested by this com­ment af­ter a com­pres­sor had failed at twenty to six one morn­ing: ‘The starter mech­a­nism, like all mem­bers of staff at Lochailort, is worn out and weary.’ And, in 1974, af­ter the calmic fil­ter had blocked for the tenth time since be­ing in­stalled ear­lier in the year, the re­port stated that ‘staff now take it in turns to get up and deal with this dev­il­ish de­vice.’

En­gi­neer­ing at the time was also un­known ter­ri­tory, and Unilever Re­search spent a lot of time and money de­vel­op­ing ad­e­quate pens and moor­ings to with­stand the rigours of the weather. The first pens were rigid, with zinc mesh pan­els and solid me­tal bot­toms, which were re­placed in the mid-70s with wood and poly­styrene pens, with nets sus­pended from them. Unilever Re­search also ex­per­i­mented with a num­ber of dif­fer­ent au­to­mated sys­tems for feed­ing – in the early days feed was made on site, hand-balled and hand fed to the fish; there wasn’t even a scoop – pen clean­ing and other equip­ment de­signed to make life eas­ier for the farm­ers.

In terms of R&D, the main pri­or­ity in the early days was fish health and fish sur­vival. With­out sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing, or vac­cines, dis­ease was al­ways an is­sue. Nutri­tion was also cru­cial, and Unilever Re­search ex­per­i­mented with a lot of dif­fer­ent for­mu­la­tions and types of feed in the ex­per­i­men­tal pens at Lochailort.

The 1970s ended with Marine Harvest ex­hibit­ing at the Royal High­land Show for the first time, another land­mark for the com­pany, which was able to show­case its prod­uct amongst the lead­ing food pro­duc­ers in the coun­try. All of the hard work of the staff of both Unilever Re­search and Marine Harvest had paid off; they had suc­cess­fully de­vel­oped the tech­niques that had al­lowed them to pro­duce qual­ity salmon on a com­mer­cial ba­sis across a range of sites, with plans to con­tinue this ex­pan­sion into the fol­low­ing decade.

Cl­lock­wise from above: When it started in 1965, Unilever con­cen­trated on rain­bow trout; 1974 visit to Loch Ailort by Prince Philip, pic­tured with Robin Bradley; Alastair Fer­gu­son hand feed­ing at Cairidh, 1978; Loch Ailort – decagon pen, 1974

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