The Pioneering Age
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
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