At 6pm on an average Tuesday evening I’m usually to be found on the 17.55 Piccadilly-Wilmslow train, standing room only, cheek by jowl with my fellow commuters.
Not descending into Sumburgh airport on a small 20-seater aircraft, in glorious late-evening sunshine with the whole of the Shetland Islands splaying out under me.
I’m part of a five-strong party made up of myself, PR and Media Manager for Co-op Food, Aisla Jones, Co-op Fish Sustainability Manager and Brad Hart, Co-op Technical Manager. We’re guests of Farne Salmon and Trout Ltd – Co-op’s long-time fish processing partner who packages and supplies the many tonnes of fresh fish we sell every year from its large site on the Scottish border.
Led by Dale Hill, Head of Aquaculture and Technology and Fiona Gregory, Head of Technical, we’re in good hands to learn more about the Shetland’s “other” industry (after oil and gas) – salmon farming.
So where does Co-op come into this? From a retailer perspective, our sales of salmon have never been better. Which is why we’re here to learn more about the supply chain, our responsible sourcing strategy and get ready for the launch of our new salmon farming group later this year.
Seafood. As a whole, it’s worth £300m a year to the local economy in Shetland, employing around 300 people directly and a further 1,000 in support roles.
If you didn’t know, all Co-op fresh salmon is 100% Scottish. It’s Greig Seafood Shetland (GSFSH) – the island’s largest salmon farmer and supplier of all Irresistible salmon – that’ll be taking us under their wing over the next three days.
GSFSH produces around 22,000 tonnes of farmed Atlantic salmon every year employing 166 people, and manages the entire farm to fork process – from hatchery to open sea pens, right through to processing.
Into the blue
It’s time to see the farms first hand and so on Wednesday morning we find ourselves standing on a remote dock side where a fishing boat will take us out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Ahead of me are four or five enormous circular pens covered by nets and I can see fish leaping out of the water apparently expressing their delight at our visit, or more probably, taking advantage of the food that’s being fed to them via an enormous rotating arm.
These salmon are mature – they’ll be harvested in the coming months at Grieg’s factory back on the island and sent off to retailer’s shelves.
Visiting the ‘salmon maternity hospital’
The next day we’re taken to Grieg’s multi-million pound hatchery – this is where the salmon are conceived and grow into young fish. Visitors aren’t normally allowed in because the bio-hazard dangers are so high.
If we were to bring in outside infection we could risk the entire yield which would be totally disastrous for Grieg. All in one suits and wellies, and foot baths full of disinfectant, are the order of the day and we take a step into what is essentially a large-scale salmon maternity hospital. It’s fascinating to see the start of the cycle.
After 12 or so weeks, the salmon will make their way out to the open water pens that we saw yesterday. Grant, Grieg’s MD, tells us that working at the hatchery is one of the most stressful jobs in salmon fishing – it must be monitored 24 hours a day and the teamwork in round-the-clock shifts to make sure the success of the fledglings.
No visit would be complete without a look around the factory where, once the salmon have been harvested, they’re gutted and sent along a packaging production line where around ten days later, they will be appearing on our store shelves.
A new respect for the fishing industry
As I land back on home soil, I reflect on a truly extraordinary three days: We’ve met people from Russia, Portugal, Italy and Madeira – brought together on a tiny island by an industry that demands world-class expertise.
We’ve visited our most northerly Co-op at Brae and our large store at Lerwick and seen first-hand how these bustling busy Co-ops are integral cogs in the island’s busy infrastructure.
And we’ve witnessed first-hand the warmth and wit of Shetland folk, who through harsh winters and geographical isolation, take the meaning of community to a whole new level.
One things for sure – as I walk into my local Co-op and pick up a packet of our 10 day oak-smoked Co-op Irresistible salmon, I look upon it with fresh insight, knowledge and a whole new level of respect for the industry that put it there.
PR and Media Manager, Co-op Food