Ron Steven­son

Marine Harvest: 1971-1979

Fish Farmer - - Contents -

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

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