Dougie John­son

Fa­mil­iar face bids farewell to ‘aqua­cul­ture club’ af­ter more than 40 years

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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

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