Marine Harvest: 1971-1979
In the late ‘60s Yorkshire born Ron Stevenson, who was working as an electrician in Middlesbrough, visited Scotland to find work on a fish farm. The only problem was that, apart from Marine Harvest’s facility at Lochailort, there were no fish farms in Scotland at the time. ‘I knew then that there would be a need for fish farms’, says Stevenson. ‘My hobby had always been commercial fishing; I used to go out on the lobster boats off the Yorkshire coast, where I could see the wild catches diminishing year after year. I believed that aquaculture was the only solution to this problem, and I wanted to be a part of it.’ Stevenson visited the Scottish Marine Research Association (now SAMS) at Dunstaffnage where he was told that his journey had been a wasted one. ‘I was taken aside and told that there would never be fish farms as such in Scotland’, Stevenson recalls, ‘because they would never find enough wild fish to feed the farmed fish.
‘I returned to Teesside despondent, and went back to working as an electrician’, Stevenson explains. ‘But after about a year I packed my stuff in the van and drove to Scotland, where I knew fish farms would eventually exist.‘ In 1970 or ’71 Stevenson headed to Kinlochbervie, where a Commander Feutcher had begun cultivating lobsters in a small hatchery, but there was no work there. ‘So I found a job with a small company called Scottish Sea Farms, who were growing oysters at South Shian, near Oban. For me it was a dream come true: a scientific company producing its own algae to feed the oysters. I worked for the princely sum of £4 a day, and thoroughly enjoyed the work.’
It was whilst at South Shian that Stevenson learned about the Unilever Research salmon farm in Lochailort. ‘So I went, and managed to get an interview with Dr Robin Bradley, who was running the salmon production side of the site’, Stevenson recalls. ‘There were two companies on the site, Unilever Research and Marine Harvest. I was employed by Unilever, initially as a maintenance guy, which involved everything from feeding fish and pumping up floats, to making rafts and pontoons. Two years later I was transferred on to the farming side, where I thoroughly enjoyed life as a fish farmer.’
Stevenson laughs when he recalls how things were back then compared to now. ‘It was February when I joined Unilever Research. We were issued with a grey, roll neck woolly jumper, a balaclava hat and a white, washable nylon boiler suit which, if you walked within ten feet of a fire, would have melted on to you. There were constant power cuts, and the freshwater part of the site was regularly relying on its backup generators.
‘The work then could be anything – the job people hated the most was mixing the food, which was called Oregon, a strange mixture that was given to young smolts that were produced at Invergarry by Alistair Hutchison’, Stevenson continues. ‘We would mix 40 per cent frozen fish, which was defrosted, pickaxed into pieces and fed into a mincer, with a 60 per cent mixture of meal, which arrived in brown paper sacks marked ‘meal’, until it was the consistency of dog food.
‘This mixture was then extruded into long strings, which we broke up, rolled and fed by hand to the fish. It didn’t keep very long, so it was a constant process for about a month, after which we weaned the smolts on to hard food pellets. I actually liked the job; I had a bent for efficiency and could get all the machines running simultaneously and produce tonnes of the stuff.’ However, it quickly became clear to Unilever Research that feeding the fish was taking up too much manpower, which was better spent observing and looking after the fish.
‘The feed was handled when it was made, handled when it was put on the pick-up, handled from the pier to the boat, from the boat to the pen and then finally into the pen, which was a lot of work’, explains Stevenson. ‘So a lot of time was spent developing automatic feeders’, explains Stevenson. ‘Some were good, others were disastrous – but it was the beginning of the automatic feeding systems that are commonplace on farms today.’
Other innovations – many of which are standard in modern fish farming – were first developed by Unilever Research, with varying degrees of success. ‘As well as automated feeding systems, there was a fish pump, and an attempt to harvest the fish humanely, Stevenson recalls. ‘All of the fish were transported by train to Billingsgate, and on one occasion we tried using CO2 to kill the fish humanely, but as we were packing them in boxes they came to life again. It was a great idea, but it just didn’t work.
‘There were also a number of engineering successes, as well as some catastrophic failures’, laughs Stevenson. ‘One of these was the rising pen bottom. At that time the pens were five metres square and five metres deep, with solid bottoms, so the idea was to bring the bottom up to crowd the fish for harvesting. Floats were fitted at the bottom of the pen and inflated with air to bring the bottom up. However, it took so much pressure to get the pen bottom to break free of its shellfish bindings that, once free, it came up like a rocket. The solid bottoms were eventually replaced because they would often bounce away during storms – and you could lose fish that way.
‘One of the funniest contraptions we had was a panel cleaner, which was developed and shipped up from Unilever in Bedfordshire. The sides of the pens were made from 5ft by 3ft panels of wire mesh in metal frames. When the mussel spat arrived in June, the mesh would become clogged very quickly, and we would spend hours scrubbing them with a deck brush. The solution was this panel cleaner, which would strip the panels mechanically; unfortunately it just didn’t work very well. But that was part of what was so pioneering – Unilever would invent machines to deal with problems that arose, and we’d enjoy a day’s sport trying to get the things to work.’
By the time sea lice arrived at Lochailort, which Stevenson recalls was around 1975, he was working at the new, stand-alone Marine Harvest site at Ballachulish, Loch Leven. ‘Just prior to sea lice the real problem was furunculosis’, says Stevenson. ‘We could just about cope with one or the other, but both together it spelled trouble – endless work. It is possible that as a result Marine Harvest carried out the very first treatment of sea lice in pens.’
Stevenson also recalls something interesting that happened at Ballachulish. Back then, after a winter at sea, around 25 per cent of the smolts would mature and become grilse. ‘These fish were a burden on salmon companies, because they would have to be graded out by hand and sold
Unilever would invent machines to deal with problems that arose, and we’d enjoy a day’s
sport trying to get the things to work
quickly’, explains Stevenson. ‘Not only did this take weeks of hard, physical work that endangered the rest of the stock, but because the market knew these fish had to be sold quickly, the price crashed.
‘A lot of work was put into trying to solve this problem, and we actually discovered the solution – but didn’t realise it at the time. We had a theft of fish early on, so we had lights fitted to the pens and, the following year, there were no grilse at all, but no-one attributed this to the lights, instead it was put down to having Norwegian broodstock. The grilse problem was eventually solved eight years later, when the Norwegians began lighting their pens in winter to improve growth. Now all Scottish farms light their pens in winter – but we had the solution years before and didn’t realise it.’
Stevenson left Marine Harvest in 1978/9 and joined Scottish Sea Farms, back to where he started his fish farming adventure at South Shian, where they were now farming salmon, but remembers his Marine Harvest days with fondness. ‘Everyone had a different reason for being there – some were pure research, others furthering their careers’, he says. ‘But we all genuinely believed that we were pioneers, contributing to something that was going to be good for humanity, and that is something that I still believe in – we won’t survive otherwise.’
Above: Dr Robin Bradley