From its inception, Marine Harvest has always been a company with a strong focus on research and development. Research was the driving force behind the first site at Lochailort – which has always had a dedicated R&D facility – with the team Unilever Research working alongside Marine Harvest, experimenting with, amongst other things, pen designs and holding facilities, automated systems, feed and fish health. This research focus has continued and, in 2007 a new feed trials unit was built at Ardnish (Lochailort).
In the late-80s the twin problems of furunculosis and sea lice forced Marine Harvest to channel more of its resources into pro-active fish health man- agement, which combined inspection, treatments, improvement in feed and R&D. This also included building up its health team, and in 1989 Jim Treasurer was recruited as a Health Manager, one of five new appointments that year. ‘We were involved essentially in testing vaccines’, explains Treasurer. ‘These trials were largely based at Lochailort.
‘This was a particularly exciting time in R&D terms’, he continues. ‘As part of an overall health plan – which included fallowing and single loch management agreements – we also began developing wrasse as a technique to control sea lice. We were stocking wrasse in large numbers, although we also tried growing them ourselves. The wrasse had
mixed results, but on some sites data showed a significant reduction in lice. The wrasse project was wound up in the late-‘90s, mainly because of the ISA outbreak, when we couldn’t keep wildcaught fish in the same pens as our salmon.’
The company’s interest in wrasse was rekindled in 2010, when a large collaborative project with Scottish Sea Farms and Stirling University began at the hatchery at Machrihanish. ‘The project is looking at farming ballan wrasse – the first broodstock were brought into Machrihanish in 2010’, explains Ronnie Hawkins, Cleaner Fish Coordinator. ‘We are also involved in a similar project at Otter Ferry with The Scottish Salmon Company, Stirling University, BioMar and the SAIC.’
In 2012 Marine Harvest made the decision to trial wrasse in all of the pens at the farm at Loch Leven. ‘Until then we had only used wrasse in a few pens’, says Hawkins. The results were incredible – 100 per cent success and, on the back of that, wrasse were used in all of the three sites in Loch Sunart during the last cycle. ‘They had 85 per cent success, which is some achievement’, says Hawkins. ‘The plan is to be using cleaner fish in all of our sites by the end of 2015 – initially using caught fish until the farm project can produce enough stock.’
These cleaner fish include lumpsuckers, which Marine Harvest began trialling in autumn 2014, with equally impressive results. ‘There is no difference between wrasse and lumpsuckers in terms of efficacy’, explains Hawkins. ‘Some of our sites will contain wrasse, some will contain lumpsuckers and others will have a combination of the two.’
Lochailort R&D facility
Dougie Hunter has been with Marine Harvest since 1996, and worked in freshwater and broodstock and then sea water before moving to the R&D facility at Lochailort, in 1999. ‘It was called a challenge test facility, where we’d test a number of different vaccines, and novel materials that could be used for health effects on fish’, he explains. ‘Prior to the advent of vaccines, disease was combated using antibiotics, which are not great. Vac- cination signalled a sea change in the whole industry, beginning in the late ‘80s. In the early days, the carrier of the vaccine could often cause as much damage as the diseases; so much of the R&D in the ‘90s was about refining them, which is the stage we were at when I came in.
‘We met with a lot of success, improving the efficacy of vaccines – from 40 to 60 per cent in the ‘80s up to 90 per cent’, he continues. ‘We also managed to reduce the side effects, which included poor growth and adhesions, making them more acceptable in terms of welfare. Furunculosis, for example, which was the biggest problem in the ‘80s, now has around five vaccines (not all used in Scotland), all of which have no side effects, which has led to an almost complete elimination of antibiotics. Vaccine testing is now done by other companies, and the Holy Grail is a sea lice vaccine, as well as one for AGD.’
From vaccine testing, Hunter moved to a harvesting and production development role, where he was involved in the transition to pneumatic stunners. ‘Previously, we used to kill fish by hitting them over the head with wooden, and then polypropylene, sticks, called priests’, he explains. ‘The problem with this was that the fish moved and could be hit in the wrong place,
which affected quality. It was my predecessor who physically developed the pneumatic stunners, which killed automatically and with more precision than by hand. This was around 2000/2001 and was a big change in R&D; it provided standardisation. This was before well boats and the harvest station at Mallaig, so the harvesting was done by mobile teams who would travel to each farm and harvest on site.’
After the implementation of pneumatic stunners, Hunter moved to the technical and feed side of R&D. ‘Historically, our fish were fed a marine-only diet: fish meal and fish oil’, he says. ‘Gradually, through the ‘90s and 2000s, we’ve replaced fish meal with vegetable protein. This work started as an economic issue but it has now also become one of sustainability.
‘In the mid-2000s we turned our attention to fish oil replacement. Marine Harvest (Scotland) Ltd and the Scottish industry was always marine oil only’, continues Hunter. ‘We were the first company in Scotland to introduce vegetable oil – rapeseed – into our diets, in 2006. That allowed us to use less fish oil and also helped us to develop high energy diets – it was very pioneering. We have managed so far to reduce the marine content of our diets from 80 to 30 per cent.’
The R&D in fish feed is now carried out at the Feed Trials Unit at Ardnish, which opened in 2007. ‘We do a lot of testing on raw materials there’, says Hunter, ‘such as soya, sunflower meals, various vegetable oils, palm and rapeseed. Some work better than others. On the technical side, we have a number of feed contracts that include certain specifications, which has also driven R&D. We are researching things such as fatty acid profiles, and retailers are particularly interested in omega-3, which can be provided by algae, for example. If we think a certain ingredient has the qualities we’re after, we’ll suggest it to the feed manufacturers who, in turn, will make their own suggestions; it’s a partnership really.’
When Hunter arrived at Ardnish, it also had a halibut unit – as well as halibut farms in Loch Sunart and West Loch Roag – which they ran for a further seven years before it went to Norway when Nutreco bought Marine Harvest. ‘It was a real shame that it did’, he says, ‘because it was very successful. Working out how to grow them was really pioneering. We developed flat-bottomed pens, which we refined by adding shelves, in order to increase the stock. The biggest problem was getting a big enough supply of juveniles, which we got from Otter Ferry, and a hatchery in the Isle of Man – that certainly held the industry back.’
Ardnish Feed Trials Unit
The facility at Ardnish employs ten staff and is divided into three units, explains Assistant Manager, Dr Ken MacDonald. ‘Feed Trial Unit (FT) 1 comprises 44 pens, five metres squared and five metres deep’, he says. ‘These are used to trial feed recovery systems and most of our performance trials. We collect the waste from the bottom so we can work out exactly how much food the fish have consumed. FT 2 comprises 24 pens (the same size as FT 1), which are essentially used for performance trials, although they employ a different feed system. FT 3 comprises twelve 16 metre pens, nine metres deep, used for benchmark trials. Feeding is done by hand but the cages contain cameras to observe the fish feeding.
‘The majority of trials carried out here are performance trials, either in-house or on behalf of various feed companies’, he continues. ‘We also run our own benchmark trials to statistically compare the diets from the main feed companies. We are also involved in a large collaborative project, Beans4Feeds, funded by Innovate UK and involving several partners, including two fish feed companies, two universities, a pig company, a poultry company and the James Hutton Institute.’
The project aims to develop air-classification technology for faba beans to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of UK food production and food security. Faba beans may be grown throughout the UK and are highly nutritious. Currently used for bovine feed, they have not yet been developed for pig, poultry or fish production. The Beans4Feed project aims to establish air classification as a means by which flour milled from UK-grown faba beans may be separated into two fractions: protein and carbohydrate – the former for use in feeding trials of Atlantic salmon.
The nature of this, and many other initiatives that Marine Harvest (Scotland) Ltd is involved in, further highlights the collaborative approach to R&D in order to find solutions to common issues that is becoming a feature of the modern salmon industry.
We were the first company in Scotland to introduce vegetable oil into our diets”
Above: Jim Treasurer Left: Dougie Hunter Below: The Lochailort recirculation hatchery
Clockwise from top left: Ronnie Hawkins at Loch Leven, 1996; salmon eggs; Dougie Hunter at the trials unit; lumpsucker; Dave McEwan at Inchmore Hatchery; ballan wrasse; vaccination