Ralph Bail­lie

Marine Harvest: 1979-1998

Fish Farmer - - Contents -

Bail­lie joined Marine Harvest on 21 June 1979 as a grad­u­ate trainee site man­ager at Leven, Bal­lahul­ish. ‘My first job was re­plac­ing brack­ets on the wooden pens’, he re­calls. ‘The weather was beau­ti­ful, and it felt more like a hol­i­day than a job – it was fan­tas­tic.’ Back then there were only four em­ploy­ees work­ing on the farm, which had three groups of 12 pens, and most of the tasks had to be done by hand – in­clud­ing balling the fish feed, and feed­ing the fish.

In 1981 Bail­lie be­came man­ager at the newly opened site at Loch Duich, which had around 110,000 smolts, and ran to brood­stock. In 1983 he moved to the farm at Port­na­long, in Skye. ‘I loved it, so much so that I’ve built a house near there’, says Bail­lie. ‘I still keep in touch with many of the peo­ple I worked with, and I was even in­vited to their 25th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion.’

Bail­lie was only in Skye for a year when he was made Area Man­ager for the north of Scot­land and then, in 1985, he was of­fered the po­si­tion of fresh­wa­ter man­ager, ‘which I found strange at the time, be­cause un­til then I only worked on the sea wa­ter side’, says Ralph. ‘How­ever, it was a great man­age­rial ex­pe­ri­ence for me, and dur­ing my time we in­creased the amount of smolts we pro­duced from two mil­lion to four mil­lion.’

What Bail­lie didn’t know was that he was be­ing primed for a po­si­tion in the new Unilever ven­ture in Chile; they wanted him to be its first tech­ni­cal man­ager, a chal­lenge that Bail­lie

Im­age: Ralph Bail­lie and Su Cox with Her Majesty The Queen at a Marine Harvest ex­hi­bi­tion in Fort Wil­liam, 1991

found ‘very ex­cit­ing’. Of course it wasn’t as sim­ple as that: he had a wife and two young chil­dren, ‘but my wife loved the idea’, says Bail­lie, ‘and I fig­ured that even if I learn noth­ing more than another lan­guage, I would be happy.’

Unilever did not just hand Bail­lie a ticket to Chile and wave him on his way. In March 1987 Bail­lie and his fam­ily were moved to Lon­don, where they spent a month on an in­ten­sive pro­gramme that nor­mally took six months to com­plete. ‘We were given a flat in Put­ney, and a tu­tor would come and teach my wife Span­ish while I at­tended Lin­gu­rama in Pi­cadilly– we were even pro­vided with a nanny to look af­ter the kids,’ Bail­lie re­calls. ‘The hard­est thing I’ve ever had to do in my pro­fes­sional life was learn Span­ish at thirty.’ They also at­tended cour­ses on Chilean cul­ture and pol­i­tics.

Bail­lie’s last three months in Scot­land were spent, as he re­calls, ‘fill­ing two 42-foot con­tain­ers with ev­ery­thing we needed to build a fish farm in Chile’. The first job was to build a hatch­ery for the half a mil­lion eggs that had been flown over, and which had ar­rived be­fore the hatch­ery had been com­pleted. The hatch­ery and the sea pens were con­structed by Bail­lie, along with Wil­lie For­tune, and Ian Armstrong. ‘There were two wooden pens in the con­tain­ers’, Bail­lie re­calls, ‘but we had no way to moor them.

‘We ended up hav­ing to make the con­crete blocks up on the beach, us­ing bar­rels and steel rods, and build the rafts, which we also used to trans­port the blocks into the lake to sink them’, he adds. ‘At this time there was no ma­chin­ery in Chile, so with £56,000 of my bud­get I brought the very first JCB tele­scopic fork­lift into the coun­try. But over­com­ing all of these ob­sta­cles was part of the chal­lenge of the job that I rel­ished – it was re­ally pi­o­neer­ing.’

The suc­cess of Marine Harvest’s Chilean op­er­a­tion also de­pended on the will­ing­ness of the lo­cal work­force and, as Bail­lie ex­plains, Chile al­ready had a num­ber of ex­cel­lent aqua­cul­ture col­leges, aqua­cul­ture grad­u­ates and keen en­trepreneurs, ‘wait­ing for some­thing to hap­pen.’ As such, Bail­lie had no prob­lem find­ing em­ploy­ees for the farm, ‘although I did strug­gle to find vets to start with’, he re­calls. And, apart from the lan­guage bar­rier, and a num­ber of cul­tural dif­fer­ences, Bail­lie found the Chileans ex­tremely good to work with. ‘The Lever Chile se­nior man­agers, and the engi­neers, also had very good English, which helped a lot.’

When Bail­lie ar­rived there was al­ready At­lantic salmon in the south of Chile, and some of the lo­cals were al­ready at­tempt­ing to farm them, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess. ‘They would try and pick my brains’, Bail­lie re­calls. ‘One lo­cal farmer asked me to look at his salmon to ad­vise whether or not they had smolted. I looked at his three to four pound fish and I said, “yes, your fish have smolted”’, he laughs.

Bail­lie also re­calls the time Wil­lie For­tune phoned him to say that they had a prob­lem with the pens in the lake. ‘The nets had been cov­ered in eggs from a small na­tive fish (peledilla), which was stop­ping wa­ter flow­ing through them’, he says. ‘The nets were im­pos­si­ble to clean – power wash­ing wouldn’t work – so we laid the nets on the rafts to dry out in the sun. A few hours later we saw that the nets had been ripped to shreds, by coypu – a type of large ro­dent – which had swum out to eat the eggs, rip­ping the nets to pieces in the process. I re­mem­ber say­ing to Wil­lie: “We should just go home now.”’

Bail­lie did re­turn home, af­ter three years in Chile. ‘Our orig­i­nal bud­get was $5 mil­lion, and we had been asked to pro­duce 2,500 tonnes of salmon’, says Bail­lie. ‘When I left, we had built three hatch­eries, four fresh­wa­ter land sites, twelve sea sites, we had 450 em­ploy­ees, and we were pro­duc­ing 4,500 tonnes.’ This suc­cess was wel­comed and in­deed en­cour­aged by the Gov­ern­ment; Bail­lie even met Gen­eral Pinochet, when the Chilean leader at­tended the open­ing of a new fish feed fac­tory – he had cer­tainly done a lot more than just learn Span­ish.

On his re­turn from Chile, Bail­lie was made Farms Man­ager for Scot­land, ‘tasked with deal­ing with triple re­sis­tant fu­run­cu­lo­sis and dichlor­vos re­sis­tant sea lice’, he says. Bail­lie was also re­spon­si­ble for over­see­ing the build­ing of the new re­cir­cu­la­tion fa­cil­ity at Lochailort, in 1995. He left Marine Harvest in 1998 to start the Salmon Man­age­ment Com­pany. A few years later he was ap­pointed Chair­man of the Code of Good Prac­tice Work­ing Group by the SQS. ‘This was a ma­jor chal­lenge’, he re­calls. ‘The orig­i­nal tar­get was a year, but it took us over two years to com­plete. How­ever, it was cru­cial that we got it right and pro­duced some­thing the whole in­dus­try could get be­hind.’ The strength of the Scot­tish in­dus­try to­day cer­tainly shows that it was well worth wait­ing for.

The hard­est thing I’ve had to do in my pro­fes­sional life was learn Span­ish at thirty”

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