Familiar face bids farewell to ‘aquaculture club’ after more than 40 years
DOUGIE Johnson, who retired last month after more than 40 years in aquaculture, said he had no career path and no aspirations when he started in the industry. ‘Like most people, I kept saying once I grow up I’ll decide what I want to do. Well now that I’ve grown up, and retired, I suppose you could say it’s been a pretty impressive and all-consuming stopgap!’
The head of sales for Akva group Scotland and former long serving member of the Landcatch team is known throughout the business, not just in Scotland but in Chile, Norway and in the Mediterranean, where he has also worked.
Johnson’s immediate plans for retirement include learning Spanish fluently and more travelling, mostly to visit daughters in Canada and New Zealand, with his wife Jan, who has also recently retired.
But before setting out on their next trip he and Jan dropped into Fish Farmer’s Edinburgh office to look back on a long and rewarding, profes
sionally and socially, life in aquaculture.
Johnson admitted he was in limbo still, getting used to being at home in Newtonmore rather than heading to AKVA’s Inverness headquarters or visiting a customer on the west coast, or in Spain or Greece.
He said he was just two hours into his retirement, sitting having his breakfast, when his wife sent a picture of him to the kids saying, ‘look at him, he’s in my kitchen!’
But the industry has been a family affair, they both agreed. As happens in a lot of rural communities, everyone lives and works together and partners get involved too.
Landcatch, based in Ormsary, is 14 miles from Ardrishaig up a single track road and they often hosted parties of Chileans when Johnson was helping to build up salmon breeding programmes in the country.
‘Trying to entertain people in Argyll is difficult,’ said Jan. ‘They always wanted to reciprocate and take you out but we’d have to tell them there was nowhere to go, particularly in the winter.’
Johnson said his wife, who had her own career as a nurse and midwife, had been like a second in a boxer’s corner.
‘You come home at night beaten and bloodied and she listens to your woes and frustrations, patches you back up and sends you out for the second round.’
But, of course, it wasn’t like that at all. John
“Chance, timing and being in the right (or wrong) place played a big part”
son said he looks back at the past with rose tinted spectacles because he only remembers the good stuff. But as Jan said, ‘your working life has been pretty good’.
It began on Jura, when the opportunity came up to start a small fish farm using the warm water in the condensers from the distillery. That was in 1976.
‘I had no expectations of where it would lead,’ said Johnson. ‘Like a lot of my life, chance, timing and being in the right (or wrong) place played a big part in how I started in fish farming. ‘I never thought ahead, it was all so new and as long as I was learning and interested then that was enough.’ He said back then he and his colleagues became managers ‘by default’ but realised what they were doing was worthwhile. ‘What motivated me was the fact that not only were we producing food and taking the pressure of the dwindling stocks of wild salmon, but we were doing it in remote communities which meant bringing jobs to communities where they were struggling to prevent the urban migration.’ Looking back, he said the biggest changes he has seen are ‘technology, technology and technology’. Key developments have allowed farmers to farm in places they wouldn’t have been able to farm before, and to husband stock consistently and record behaviour ‘enabling decisions based on fact not anecdote’. ‘But all that equipment and those systems are there to assist, they’re not there to be left on their own. They are to help us husband more efficiently and sustainably.’ Johnson has seen this development from all sides and has ended up at the cutting edge of technology – ‘not a direction I would ever have seen myself taking’, he admits. The other big change came when the industry in Scotland moved away from being small time independents and crofters to serious multi-national companies. A lot of the smaller independents struggled to get that investment from British banks or locally, said Johnson. But the Norwegians were able to provide the investment required to take fish farming to the next level in the 80s and 90s. A big part of the enjoyment of his job has always been the people, he said, and the list of those who have inspired him, or just made life more fun along the way, is long. ‘I have met and learned a lot from so many interesting people,’ he said. ‘A few stand-outs for me are the people like Alastair Barge, Stuart Cannon [his first boss], Gilpin Bradley and, in Shetland, Gibby (and his boys) Johnson, who have innovated and persevered as owner operators for so many years. ‘They have adapted with different species, had lots of struggles over the years but have reinvented themselves and are still going strong.’ He also mentions longstanding colleagues such as Alan Stewart at Landcatch, and Dave
Thorburn, the late Derek Smith, Brian Knowles and Frank Byrne at AKVA in Scotland, and customers including Marine Harvest (now Mowi) former managing director Graeme Dear and business support manager Steve Bracken.
Johnson has also forged many lasting friendships with colleagues overseas, including Dionisio Ramos, who was the Landcatch representative in Chile.
‘If you get the right folk in, what a difference they make. Everywhere you see the same, at AKVA too, with our operations in Spain and Greece.’
He also admires the current crop of farm managers, particularly those on the more exposed locations.
‘While they have a lot of impressive technology, they are still operating under some tough environmental conditions and pressures from outside the industry, from regulators, and they also have to keep the flag flying in the community.’
And he thinks the farming CEOs are ‘a pretty impressive bunch’, both those who have grown up on the farms and managers who have come in from other walks of life.
‘It is a small and intimate industry and, if we’re not careful, can become a little incestuous – it’s good when we get folk coming in from other industries with huge experience and a different approach,’ he said.
Trond Williksen, Johnson’s Norwegian boss at AKVA until three years ago, was ‘probably the most impressive leader I have worked with’, he said.
After working in Norway, and for a Norwegian owned company, he said perhaps the most fundamental difference between the way the Scottish and Norwegian industries are led stems from their greater government support – although he acknowledges that Scotland has now found a political champion in Fergus Ewing.
But he also points out that Norway ‘doesn’t seem to have the same anti-salmon farming lobby that we have here’.
Johnson said – and his wife confirms it – that he has batted off much hostility towards the industry, including writing (and getting published in his local newspaper) a three-page riposte to angler, anti-salmon farming campaigner and former Labour spin doctor Charlie Whelan.
‘I have worked all my life in the Highlands and Islands and feel hugely disappointed that this Scottish industry, and the morale of those who work in it, are being continually eroded by easy and often sanctimonious, scaremongering spin,’ wrote Johnson in an open letter to Whelan.
Jan talks about being accosted at dinner parties and on trains –‘Dougie had stock answers, and offered them the five minute reply or the full reply. They usually went for the latter and then regretted it!’
He is bewildered by the fanaticism of the ‘really well organised, aggres