Interview with Helen Conlon

After achieving a degree in Marine Zoology and an MSc in Marine Management, Helen began her career as a Farm Technician with MOWI Scotland. She became the Cleaner Fish Technician for the south while completing her Masters degree and then joined Nordic Cover as Division Manager Scotland, progressing to Head of Product Development before joining Loch Duart as Quality Manager. Helen was the winner of the 2022 Rising Star WiSA Award.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?

Trips to the West Coast of Scotland sparked my interest in marine biology from a young age, leading to a degree in Marine Zoology at Newcastle University. Dissertation contacts in the slightly warmer Caribbean led to 1.5 years of technician and research roles on invasive lionfish and my first insight into flow through controlled tank systems. The addition of the practical engineering element in combination with marine biology really interested me. I find it very satisfying being involved in these large-scale aquaculture engineering systems at sea, where you see eggs in a hatchery as well as 20kg broodstock at site. It is a diverse and innovative industry which is exciting to be a part of.

Briefly describe your aquaculture career

I first started salmon farming in January 2017 as a farm technician at Shuna in Croabh Haven with the then Marine Harvest (now MOWI). After 8 months I went to Iceland to study my Masters in Marine Management, as well as working on a trout farm some weekends. Being involved in an ‘old school’ trout harvest was quite an experience. I then returned to Scotland, and to Marine Harvest, at first as a farm technician, on 2/2 off shifts which allowed me to carry out my cleaner fish habitat dissertation research at Otter Ferry Seafish in my 2 weeks ‘off’. Shortly after my return I joined the cleaner fish team and was the technician for the lower south area, as well as keeping up farm tech jobs where I could to keep up to date with the farm practices. After 2 years on the cleaner fish team, I was approached by a Norwegian company making cleaner fish habitats and offered a job as their Scottish sales manager, which I took. This role was quite different to my previous jobs but was great for networking and gave me insight to another side of the industry. I however missed being on the farms, and when a management job came up at Loch Duart I went for it and was fortunate to get it!

Which individuals or organisations in aquaculture have you found particularly inspirational?

There have been so many since I started, you realise the industry is quite small and you always bump into people. Managers I worked with at MOWI in Croabh Haven were excellent and built up my onsite salmon farming basics. Duane Coetzer has always been a mentor since hiring me back in 2017 and inspired some of my career decisions. I find Connie Pattillo particularly inspiring; after previously working with her in the cleaner fish team, there is no surprise she is excelling in the industry and I am looking forward to seeing the positive impact she will have in the future.

How important has networking been to your career?

I really enjoy getting to know people in the industry and try to keep up relationships as I genuinely find it interesting to see what people are up to. I’m not sure it has particularly helped my career, but it can be really helpful if you’re trying to overcome an issue and know an expert in the field. Networking has also led to making some great friends along the way, which is the best bit.

During your career, have you noticed inequalities in the sector, be it in policies or culture? If yes, what actions do you think would best address those issues?

100%! There are still unfortunately inequalities and preconceptions. There has been a slight change since I joined the industry, but there is still a long way to go. Organisations like WiSA are great initiatives which are making a big impact.

What is your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date?

Receiving the Rising Star award from WiSA was a great moment. I am still early on in my career so hopefully there will be more achievements in the future.

What advice would you give to someone (man or woman) looking to start a career in the aquaculture sector, or progress their existing career?

Follow what you are most enthusiastic about as that will make the job easier, and more fun. Always ask questions, and don’t let negative people hold you back.

What do you think will be the key drivers/areas for innovation for Scottish aquaculture in the next decade?

The increased use of AI is really exciting and has huge potential in the industry in every area. From improving feeding, lice detection, biomass predictions, and current projects involving plankton and jellyfish detection. If it is cost effective, AI seems to have endless potential.

The industry has been hit with environmental and genetic hurdles this year, so there will undoubtably be focus on these areas going forward. We may see more offshore sites, semi-closed systems, and larger smolts going to sea.

A drive to improve site locations and expand could see a change to improve the licensing process.

An increase in seal populations is putting pressure on the industry to develop innovative methods to deter seals, through better net systems and a drive to develop accepted acoustic systems.

We may see more novel alternatives to proteins and starch in feed, as companies switch to more sustainable and innovative ingredients to reduce their FIFO ratio.

Read the WiSA interview series