THE NEW man in charge of Grieg Seafood’s Shetland operation is quietly confident that the company has turned a corner after implementing some major changes in the way it produces farmed salmon.
Grant Cumming takes over responsibility for one of Shetland’s largest private employers when he replaces Sigurd Pettersen later this week. Brought up in Orkney, Cumming holds a BSc (hons) in zoology (marine and fisheries biology) from Aberdeen University and an MSc in mariculture.
The 45-year old started his fish farming career in Shetland as a lecturer at the NAFC Marine Centre back in 2000, a post he left after five years to join Hjaltland Seafood, the company that later became Grieg Seafood Hjaltland.
Previously in charge of the company’s salmon growing sites, he is understandably chuffed to have been given the opportunity to lead the business: “It is great that the organisation has placed its trust in me and that they feel they can promote from within”, but he also knows that there are high expectations for him to deliver.
The company has been in the headlines for some time after its Norwegian owners, Grieg Seafood ASA, considered selling its Shetland operation in the wake of poor production results and continued high mortality rates due to sea lice and algae bloom.
Grieg Seafood Hjaltland produces and primary processes around 20,000 tonnes of farmed salmon every year.
Brexit throws up ‘threats and opportunities’
A “turnaround plan”, designed and implemented by Pettersen, seems to be delivering results. However, June’s vote to leave the EU has also thrown up a whole raft of new uncertainties – making a complex situation even more unpredictable.
Foremost, there is considerable worry as to what might happen to the company’s 80 employees from EU member states should the UK negotiate a so-called “hard Brexit”.
“There are threats and opportunities from Brexit,” said Cumming. “We may well find that the pound is weaker against the euro which will help us in terms of sales value for our fish.
“However, on the other side of that equation, we are buying in our feed in dollars, so we are expecting the price for salmon feed, which are about 50 to 60 per cent of our production cost, to go up.
“The biggest threat is in terms of our employees. In the factory about 60 per cent of our staff come from the EU, and we would really struggle without them.
“In the hatchery we have also a lot of EU workers as well, who are very valuable to us. These are specialist jobs.
“This is a big risk I see for Grieg Seafood if we did have a hard Brexit, and I can see it being a big risk for number of other companies.”
There is also the worry that salmon produced by its parent company – Norway is a member of the European Economic Area – could get free access to the European market, while its salmon produced in the UK may be hit by trade tariffs of up to 18 per cent.
Shortening the production cycle
Despite all that Cummings radiates his usual calm confidence and he is adamant that the business is “moving in the right direction”.
Central to the new strategy is the £16 million Millbrook hatchery, at Girlsta, which Grieg Seafood opened in June last year.
The state-of-the-art facility enables the company to better plan its smolt (baby fish) production and, crucially, grow them larger in tanks onshore before transferring them into sea cages.
The company is in the process of reducing the length of its salmon production cycle, thereby shortening the time fish is exposed to the very real risks coming from jellyfish, plankton bloom, sea lice infestation or seals.
“We want to move from 24 to 18 months. In order to do that we need to start with a bigger smolt,” Cumming said.
“Traditionally we had smolts weighing 60-70 grams, now we are producing 150 grams smolt, and we need to bring that up to 200 grams.
“So we got less exposure and less risk; that’s the real reason why we invested so much money in the hatchery.”
Nevertheless sea lice continue to be a big problem for salmon farming generally. The company is working on a number of novel solutions to minimise its impact.
Deploying a fine meshed plankton skirt around cages seems to prevent salmon lice from settling at least for the first few months, while a thermolicer (a new device currently tested by the industry with the help of European grant funding) is said to remove up to 95 per cent of sea lice from healthy salmon by exposing the fish to a 30-second long 20 degree temperature shock.
Finding a long-term solution to sea lice
Grieg Seafood is also leading a research project into the cultivation of lumpsucker, a native fish increasingly used in aquaculture to graze sea lice off salmon, at the NAFC.
However, this environmentally-friendly alternative to chemical treatment is still in its infancy and Cumming is the first to admit that, despite its initial success, a lot of learning has still to be done.
“There is a lot of research and development still to be done for us to get really good at it,” he said.
“It is a brand new species, they got their own diseases, so we need to develop their own vaccines, but equally we need to learn more about their health and nutrition.
“There is still a lot to learn, but I think this is a long-term solution to sea lice.”
The company is also reducing the number of sites it has in Shetland, as well as in Skye.
Currently it operates six sites in the Scalloway area, two in St Magnus Bay, four at Lunna Ness and one in Whalsay. The sites at Wadbister are coming to an end, but will be used as a nursery site in the future.
In Skye, Grieg Seafood has three sea sites in Loch Dunvegan and is currently also setting up one in Loch Snizort.
“Because we now have a shorter cycle we can take the same harvest biomass off fewer sites, and we want to concentrate on the sites that are most reliable for us in terms of good survival and good growth rates,” Cumming said.
Paying tribute to his mentor and predecessor Cumming added: “Sigurd Pettersen has been with us for three years; I have learnt a tremendous amount from him and he has been a very good mentor to me.
“He has put the 18-month plan in place, which is the way the industry is going now. Longer term, I think, we will probably be looking at a 12-month cycle.”
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