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SFC’s Robin Lee on his visit to Scottish Sea Farms, and how innovation in Scottish aquaculture is bring industry together and creating jobs.

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When I joined SFC I never expected to find myself a) holding a massive fish, b) wearing a beard net. However, that was the position I found myself in when I visited Scottish Sea Farms’ facility at South Shian in Oban last month, with Chief Vet for Scotland Shiela Voas, Julie Fitzpatrick, Chief Executive of the Moredun Institute, and David Gregory, Chair of the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC). The day had been arranged by Heather Jones, SAIC’s Chief Executive, as an opportunity to see the day to day life of a fish farm.

Robin LeeFor those of you who aren’t familiar with SAIC, it’s one of SFC’s eight Innovation Centres and was launched in 2014 with £11.1 million funding from us. Like the other Innovation Centres, SAICs aim is to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship across Scotland’s key economic sectors, create jobs and grow the economy.

Hosted by Jim Gallagher, Scottish Sea Farms’ Managing Director, our day began with a tour of the boat used to bring the fish from the farm into shore. The weather on the west coast had taken a turn for the worse that day so we couldn’t get out to the fish farm itself.

A very pleasant Norwegian ship captain patiently explained all the technology packed into the boat to ensure that they could monitor the health of the fish throughout this process including pH monitors (an indicator of stress), oxygen level sensors and multiple cameras. Another feature included a ‘swim to shore’ pipe which encouraged the fish to swim into the processing facility, again seeking to reduce stress for both fish welfare purposes and maintain the quality of product.

As our tour moved into the processing facility it brought into sharp focus the sheer scale (pun intended) of the aquaculture industry. The volume of fish that pass through is huge, each one worth roughly equivalent to a barrel of oil. The facility itself seems small but this is because the processed fish go straight on to trucks, bound for M&S and Waitrose in the UK and locations across the world such as Dubai, USA and China. Exports of Scottish salmon reached £600 million in the last year.

Our host Jim was particularly keen to point out on the production line the health of the fish and the lack of sea lice on them. Sea lice have become a significant challenge for the industry in recent years putting them under increased scrutiny by both activists and government concerned about the impact on fish welfare and the effect on the wider marine environment. It is here that organisations such as SAIC can have a real impact on the sector.

Through SAIC, the industry has been brought together to act on key issues such as sea lice and gill health. This has led to a number of funded projects with titles such as ‘Scaling up production and implementation of farmed cleaner fish in the Scottish Salmon industry’ and ‘Securing a sustainable supply and the optimal deployment of lumpsucker fish for sea lice control in the Scottish salmon industry.’

Visit to Scottish Sea FarmsThese projects utilise the academic expertise that exists in our universities to solve the challenges that industry face with the outcomes including a healthier environment, lower fish mortality due to illness and ultimately an increase in turnover for companies operating in Scotland.

The final part of our day, and one outfit change later, was a tour of the new £47 million hatchery facility currently under construction at Balcardine. Once complete it will use cutting edge technology to more than double the company’s smolt production (young salmon) from 5 million up to 11 million annually, whilst creating 25 new jobs for the area.

Of course these are just a few examples of the benefits SAIC is working to achieve, alongside the other Innovation Centres in their respective sectors. What they highlight is the importance of having that connection, which enables both our world-leading researchers and local innovators to thrive.