Marine Harvest: 1972-1990
The first time Angus MacPhie had heard of Marine Harvest was when he saw a job advertised in the Herald in 1972. ‘I was living in Skye at the time’, he recalls. ‘Previous to that I had been working in Uganda for ten years as an Agricultural Officer, working with tobacco and cotton. I was interviewed by Dr Iain Anderson. At the time Marine Harvest had just broken away from Unilever Research and started farming salmon commercially.’
MacPhie’s first role was to look after the farm, which at the time comprised four pens. ‘The first harvest was in 1971, but the first harvest for commercial purposes was the following year’, he says. ‘My immediate boss at Lochailort was Robin Bradley. I took over when he left, and in 1975 I left to run the new site at Loch Leven, where I did everything, including packing the fish and consigning abroad. I was also tasked with finding new coastal sites. Marine Harvest had never done anything like that before, it was all new. But we had a great team and it was a real adventure.’
MacPhie has no doubts that what they were doing was pioneering. ‘We were working it out as we went along’, he explains. ‘There was noone to turn to; when a problem arose you just had to do something about it. I worked with a couple of great people: Bob Cumming, who was good with the pens and moorings; and Gordon Rae, who was good on fish health. Of course, we were always facing new challenges. The weather was always a real problem, and there were constant power cuts in the early days, but we just had to get used to it.’
In 1976 MacPhie was made Sea Farms Manager. ‘My job was to ensure that the fish were growing well, and managing the staff. We had a lot of people then, and that was probably the most difficult aspect of the job. When Bruce Hillcoat took over as Technical Director in the ‘80s I used to do a lot of travelling – from Loch Ewe in Wester Ross all the way down to Arran.
‘Bruce was very active, a really good guy, and we worked well together. We would go up and down the coast, negotiating with landowners. I did that until I left the company in 1990.
‘As time went by we established more and more farms’, continues MacPhie. ‘In 1978 we acquired our first farm on Skye, Cairidh, which means ‘fish trap’ in Gaelic. On the west coast the sea lochs lended themselves to being blocked off, and crofters would catch the fish when they gathered. There was such a trap at
Cairidh. In the same year we established our first freshwater loch site at Dalilea, in Loch Shiel. Until then we always produced our smolts in hatcheries, but due to a lack of tank space, we were forced to experiment with putting the fry directly into freshwater. I was in charge of that project, which proved to be successful.’
The main challenge, MacPhie explains, was keeping the fish alive, and promoting better growth. ‘It was all new, we didn’t have much to fall back on’, he says. ‘We had a lot of assistance from Unilever Research; they were constantly researching different diets. There were experimental pens at Lochailort where challenge trials were carried out. In the end, they were very successful. Stock selection was also a big thing. We selected the best fish from different rivers and bred them individually; we bred some to mature early for harvesting early and others to mature later – it was interesting to see the different characteristics of various salmon from around the country.’
In the 1980s Marine Harvest began a programme of rapid expansion, increasing both the number of sites and the numbers of fish in each site. ‘The increase in stocking density meant a lot of extra work – we weren’t mechanised at the time’, MacPhie explains. ‘We also had issues with furunculosis and sea lice. With furunculosis, the solution came with inoculation – we got a team to visit each site; it was all done by hand. Sea lice were relatively new phenomena, which was initially controlled with dichlorvos, and later on hydrogen peroxide. We tried wrasse early on, but the chemical treatment was the main method of sea lice control.’
After a few difficult years in the ‘80s, there came a breakthrough. ‘We realised that the disease problems could be alleviated if we managed the lochs correctly’, MacPhie explains. ‘So we came up with the idea of fallowing. And, alongside management agreements with other companies farming the lochs, it worked extremely well. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but it was certainly an innovation that was pioneered by Marine Harvest.’
MacPhie witnessed a number of changes during his time with Marine Harvest. One of the biggest changes was mechanisation. ‘We didn’t have any mechanical equipment in the early days’, he recalls. ‘If a twenty tonne lorry came in, we had to unload it by hand. The very first bit of equipment we got was a small pick-up. Unilever Research was always trying to develop automated systems; there were lots of scary contraptions, but that is part and parcel of a pioneering industry. I remember Graeme Gearing developing an excellent automated feeder.’
Other changes included the scale of the pens, and the method of transporting fish. ‘I had always advocated moving more fish by boat, and now the transportation, and harvesting, of fish by boat is commonplace’, says MacPhie. ‘Another big change is technology. When I started, we didn’t have computers, and they are now a huge part of the industry. There were no mobile phones either – communication was very difficult on the west coast of Scotland in the ‘70s and ‘80s.’
‘I am not a particularly proud man’, says MacPhie, when asked about his proudest moments with Marine Harvest. ‘However, I did gain a lot of satisfaction in the quality of the personnel I have recruited into the company over the years. Alistair Hutchison and I spent days and days interviewing, and we got some really good people, and I’m delighted to see that so many of them have progressed within the company. And I am still friends with a lot of these lads – many of whom are not lads anymore.’
When MacPhie left Marine Harvest in 1990, Marine Harvest helped him to purchase his own fish farm at Sconser, in Skye. ‘It was a fitting end to my time with the company’, he says. ‘I ran the farm for ten years; it was the most lucrative part of my career’, he laughs.
We realised that disease problems could be alleviated if we managed
the lochs correctly”
Clockwise from top : Atlantic salmon; Cairidh, Isle of Skye
Clockwise from above: Grilse grading by hand; size grading; harvesting at sea with an air lift pump