Researching my August post on www.Orkney.com gave me the chance to catch up on the latest developments in salmon farming in Orkney. The choice of subject was inspired by Scottish Sea Farms, the dedicated supplier of salmon to M&S, winning the retailer's Producer of the Year 2018 Award for the work they are doing with salmon here in the Islands. I have long been involved with, and a supporter of, aquaculture and so I relished the opportunity to get up to date when I met with Richard Darbyshire, Regional Production Manager for Scottish Sea Farms.
Richard is full of confidence that Orkney's waters can support further growth in aquaculture. In the past 10 years their company has grown from 11 to 51 staff, with associated growth for other local businesses including Leask Marine who help with many on-site tasks. In terms of importance to the Orkney economy Richard reckons they are probably second only to Highland Park - salmon and whisky, the UK's two biggest food and drink exports mirrored in terms of production importance here on Orkney. And they are two of my favourite things - it's no wonder that we moved here!
As I have mentioned on Orkney.com, the waters here are ideal for aquaculture as this is where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, creating oceanic currents that ensure the salmon swim hard, developing lean, firm flesh. Richard is emphatic that Orkney is the best place in the UK for salmon farming, if not in the whole of Europe with only the deep fjords of Norway having similar conditions.
Producer of the Year 2018 is not the first accolade that Scottish Sea Farms has won from M&S: being Global Champion of Champions 2014 for Farming for the Future was, as Richard explained, The Big One. Maybe that was the gauntlet being thrown down to keep on top of innovation in sustainable aquaculture which inspired the work that has won them their most recent award?
The company's farm at Wyre, established in 2015, is where the exciting developments have been happening. This site is the nursery for rearing salmon to smolts, the stage at which they are ready to go into the sea from fresh water tanks. However, to ensure viability of the fish in even stronger tides than those flowing through the sea pens at Wyre, the site grows some smolts on to a viable 500g weight to go into the pens off Eday where the strong spring tides can be like a river in spate with a flow of 1m/sec. Traditionally sized smolts for transfer into pens would struggle to survive in such tides but this ensures really viable fish which will grow to maturity.
When I first visited Orkney to look at aquaculture I visited a bar with my hosts to meet members of the team and hear about how the industry was helping to sustain and create jobs in the local economy. This is very much part of the continuing challenge and Scottish Sea Farms created 6 new jobs on Eday and are also making opportunities on Rousay. Some jobs go to people moving up to work in the sector and the challenges of island life are not for everyone who comes (when we moved here our removers told us that they reckoned to move one in two people back to the south: we intend to stay). The Islands do provide a great environment for family life and bringing people to the outer islands can be a big boost to the smaller communities.
Everyone loves to spot a seal in Orkney's waters - apart from the fish farm managers. These soulful mammals have been a challenge to fish farmers for years as a damaged pen or one stocked more densely than is the practice in Orkney following the strictest welfare protocols is an invitation to a fast food restaurant for a seal. High frequency sonar deterrents are not allowed and no-one wants to shoot seals. Scottish Sea Farms have developed an outer netting for their pens with a mesh reinforced with steel which the seals cannot bite through. There is also no anti-foulant needed on the nets due to the materials used in their manufacture and they are cleaned weekly with high pressure seawater from the inside of the pens, a great way of maintaining the health of the seabed. In addition, the company are working on a low frequency deterrent system with St Andrew's University that will be outside the normal hearing range of the cetaceans that we all hope to see in Orkney's waters. This project was also part of the package which won the company their latest award from M&S.
I have always been impressed by the level of innovation in aquaculture. I would describe salmon as sweet, succulent, versatile and delicious. Those in the industry might also add that it is the most resource efficient protein - hardly a mouth-watering descriptor - as its environmental footprint including feed to protein conversion ratio is the best/most efficient when compared to other widely eaten proteins such as beef and chicken. The current growth in veganism is undoubtably linked to environmental awareness and modern aquaculture provides great quality protein for those of us carnivores trying to balance our diet with environmentalism.
If you would like more information about Scottish salmon farming practice across the industry look out for the booklet Reported Versus Reality: a pocket guide to Scottish Salmon Farming. Also take a look at my blog on Orkney.com and there are a selection of my favourite salmon recipes here on My Orkney Larder.