Lantra Scotland and STEM Ambassadors in Scotland recently announced the winners of their aquaculture-themed competition for secondary schools, the Aquaculture in Scotland Challenge. Overall winner was Chloe Leek of Buchanan High School, Coatbridge, who put together a fantastic project related to her Young STEM Leader role, including an interview with Ewan Mackintosh, Head of Operations at Scottish Sea Farms. Thank you to both Chloe and Ewan for allowing us to post excerpts from the interview here. Chloe’s questions are in bold.
What or who has inspired you along your career path?
When I first started in the sector, I learned a huge amount about buying, selling and exporting and it was inspirational to be able to sell a Scottish product in large volumes across various countries.
There are many people I admire in our business. Our Managing Director has the drive and ability to cut through arguments for and against while under pressure to make decisions. Our Head of Processing is a very talented engineer and a fantastic people manager. I admire our Head of Sales for determination and sense of humour when the market is tough. One of the biggest things I have learned is that people are the most important part of a business.
Can you describe a typical day?
It’s a cliché but there is no such thing as a typical day – I’ll describe what I’ve been doing today as an example:
First thing, I met the Managing Director on the way into the office. He asked me for some numbers for a board meeting the next day, which I realised needed to be in a better format. I asked our Business Intelligence Developer to produce this using the programme Microsoft Power BI. I am leading the Business Intelligence (B.I.) project so it is always good to be able to show examples of how Business Intelligence can help to make quicker, more informed decisions. We have just taken over another aquaculture producer in a deal worth £164 million and are currently working to integrate the two businesses. This involves lots of planning and calculations - our projected volumes are that 12 million fish will be harvested each year.
I then had a meeting with a supplier about a wellboat they want to hire to us. Wellboats are used to bring the salmon to the processing factory but are very complex and expensive – costing between £1.5 million and £5 million annually, depending on the size. When you consider that each boat might hold 15,000 fish per trip between the west coast of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland, with constantly changing weather conditions and restrictions such as tides and narrow entrances to our processing plants, you can see how we are making constant calculations on the best use of these assets.
After that I had a meeting with the Sales and Supply Chain teams to discuss market conditions and whether we should be cutting back or increasing any harvests to meet market demand of our clients, including Marks and Spencer. We use software to estimate fish size profiles and can provide information on all our costs for the sales team, including transport and airfreight so they can see what the margins are. I then had a meeting with the marine and processing teams to make sure everyone was happy with our plan.
In the afternoon, we started to see some real weather challenges in Shetland with 50 mph winds. Our farm team managed to harvest fish but not the full amount, which meant that we had to try and reschedule a harvest due to be transported to our French customers.
In my next meeting, I spoke to a colleague about a potential scheme to remove more polystyrene from our supply chain and then discussed rates with a senior manager in a transport company. Towards the end of the day, I wrote a contract for a customer who may pack some trout with us in one of our processing plants near Oban.
What are the main skills and qualities you need for your role?
People skills, and an ability to interpret data to make quick decisions. An operational brain that makes you think about how you can improve systems to make the business more efficient as well as being creative to solve problems. The ability to work under pressure as we are in a very fast-moving environment. Oh, and a sense of humour!
What do you think about the gender gap in STEM roles?
I see no reason for it.
How do you think it could be improved?
I think technology will play a big part in it being improved. We have seen it in aquaculture. We are less reliant on brute strength and focus more and more on smart decisions.
Do you think we need to have more visibility of women in STEM (specifically aquaculture) and the types of job that women are doing now, to inspire the next generation?
Absolutely and there are more and more great examples of this. Lynne Frame is a fantastic example of someone who worked in my team and has forged an exciting career. She studied Chemistry with Environmental and Sustainable Chemistry at University, and since this article she has taken up a role with Billund Aquaculture and travels the world.
There’s also Noelia Rodriguez, another former colleague whose role made her responsible for ensuring fish health and welfare across our freshwater sites, and who now works with BioMar in Spain.
Women in Scottish Aquaculture (WiSA) helps to introduce more women into aquaculture, promoting the diverse and rewarding careers available, and supports those already working in the sector.
Can you give some examples of key challenges at local, national and international level that exist in aquaculture?
Marine conditions and biology - the climate and conditions constantly change, and farmers must adapt and change with it. This is happening all over the world - as with other sectors, we rely heavily on scientists to help solve our issues.
Last year, we had the additional commercial challenge of Brexit. We put a lot of effort into changing our computer systems and automated a lot of the new processes required.
Can you give examples of some positive and negative impacts of the aquaculture industry in Scotland?
The industry offers well paid, highly skilled jobs with transferable skills in remote communities. This enables people to stay or return to the areas they grew up and helps to sustain these local communities
There is a lot of money spent with local and national businesses, from ferry companies to accommodation providers. As a business we spend over £100 million per year with Scottish suppliers.
Scottish Sea Farms has a fund, Heart of the Community, which supports local community projects with grants for anything from playparks to supporting mental wellbeing groups. The fund has donated £1.5 million in the last 10 years.
Globally there is not enough food to support the population – arable land is already under pressure to sustain the current population. Salmon farming has the lowest carbon footprint of all protein production methods and aquaculture is able to make use of the sea which makes up approximately 70% of planet Earth.
Scottish salmon is a very healthy protein, exported to over 50 countries with a value of over £600 million. Salmon Scotland have a lot of information on the health benefits of salmon on their website: Health | Salmon Scotland
Can you describe an exciting project you have worked on?
I am currently working on the integration of the company in Shetland that we have purchased. Over the years I have been involved a lot with our making our systems more efficient, having a positive impact on our business.
Last year I was involved with Brexit transition which was challenging. We had to have multiple plans due to the uncertainty around processes and procedures being introduced.
What is the most rewarding or favourite part of your work?
Helping young people and new entrants to develop a career. Keeping our service levels very high to customers. Solving problems to help people in the business. I have been fortunate to travel on business and meet a lot of our customers with trips to the USA, France, Norway, and an annual trip to a trade show in Belgium. I enjoy working with suppliers and building relationships which are ‘win-win’.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in aquaculture?
There are lots of careers available at different entry levels and in different departments: from fish health to environment and compliance, engineering and processing, finance, logistics health & safety, even HR and IT roles.
There are also careers within the supply chain – transport companies, shipyards,feed suppliers.
There are great courses to study if you want to get into the industry, with an excellent aquaculture department in Stirling University.
Have a look on the Scottish Sea Farms website for more information: Work with Scottish Sea Farms | Salmon farming jobs
Get in touch and see if anyone will give you work experience. Maybe even call me!