Interview with Isla Monaghan

Isla Monaghan is an MSc by Research scholarship student at Swansea University, researching the use of machine-vision and behavioural indicators to monitor cleaner fish health and welfare in aquaculture. After completing her undergraduate degree in Applied Bioscience and Zoology, she worked for The Scottish Salmon Company (now Bakkafrost Scotland) as a biology assistant and then biologist.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?

I think visiting a salmon farm for the first time was what really inspired me to seriously look into aquaculture as a career possibility. It was a bit of a fluke for Scotland in February – beautiful sunny day and calm waters. It was so incredible to see, first hand, the scale of the sea cages and the operations. Everyone on site was so welcoming, friendly and keen to share knowledge/advice. I remember thinking “Wow, imagine getting to work here every day”.

Briefly describe your aquaculture career

My undergraduate degree was in Zoology, so I didn’t learn much about aquaculture, but I did end up doing an aquaculture-based honours research project. My project involved testing a handheld point-of-care-system to see if it could be used to detect anaemia in farmed Atlantic Salmon. After I graduated in 2019, I started working for The Scottish Salmon Company (now Bakkafrost Scotland) as a Biology Assistant. The job was a perfect way to learn more about the industry and it’s inner workings. I was promoted to Biologist in 2021, which gave me a lot more responsibility (but also fun). I travelled around the West Coast of Scotland, visiting marine and freshwater sites and meeting amazing people. It was a challenging but very rewarding job and despite the often-awful weather, I loved every minute. In 2022, I decided to look into going back to University to do a masters. So, when I got offered a scholarship to do an MSc by Research at Swansea University, I jumped at the chance. My current project is on using machine-vision and behavioural indicators to monitor cleaner fish welfare in aquaculture. Once I finish my masters, I will be staying at Swansea University to work as a Research Assistant, continuing with current and exciting new aquaculture projects.

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

Ashleigh Currie (Business Development Manager/Fish Welfare at FiiZK UK) has been an inspiration to me since I started my undergraduate honors project, as well as a great friend. She helped me through my project and kept me grounded. She also encouraged me to apply for my first aquaculture job after I graduated and has always offered me advice and support. She has done amazing things in her career, and I truly hope to be as accomplished as her one day!

The biology team at The Scottish Salmon Company have always inspired me too. They supported me from the start of my career and have taught me so much over the years.

How important has networking been to your career?

I believe that networking is important for most careers. I’ve met a lot of really amazing and interesting people at conferences and events. It’s great to share knowledge and best practice with people from all areas of the industry. It’s also good to make friends and catch up with old colleagues.

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?

I have always been really impressed with the industry, however, there is an obvious need to encourage more women to work in this sector. I think a big reason for this is a lack of knowledge or education about aquaculture. There is a misconception that working in fish farming is hard physical labour in a male-dominated environment. While it definitely is hard work, I believe anyone can thrive in this industry if they are determined.

To address this issue, there should be more educational outreach aimed at teenagers/young adults about the industry and job options. The Fisheries School, run by the University of Akureyri, municipalities and fisheries companies in Iceland is a great example – they run a summer school for 14 year-olds to learn about aquaculture and they take them on visits to local farms, hatcheries and processing plants.

What is your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date?

My proudest achievement was working on the development and implementation of The Scottish Salmon Company’s internal welfare standards. Under the guidance of Bob Waller (Partners in Welfare) and Leigh Grant (Leigh Grant Consulting), I learned so much about animal welfare across the British farming industry. This experience allowed me to audit and train sites to improve their welfare knowledge and practice. Bob and Leigh also taught me to take pride in the little things and to enjoy my work!

It’s also really rewarding to see a cycle of fish through from smolts to harvest size. Especially when there have been minimal health challenges and the final product is large, healthy fish. The staff on site work so hard to look after the fish every day, in all weathers, so it’s also amazing to see how proud they are of their fish at harvest time.

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

Do it! You may not be able to get the dream job straight away but if you work hard, you will get there. If you are new to the industry and looking to work in biology/health/welfare, apply for jobs on sites or in factories just to get your foot in the door. You will learn a lot and meet a great deal of people from different sides of the business.

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

AI and machine-vision are definitely going to be a hot topic in the aquaculture industry in the coming years. There is huge demand for less invasive forms of monitoring fish health and welfare and AI/machine-vision is the perfect way to do that. Swansea University and VisiFish for example, are carrying out a lot of research and development in this.


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