Interview with Kimberley McKinnell, winner of the WiSA ‘Role model of the year’ award, 2024

Kimberley graduated in Marine Biology at Aberdeen University before moving to South Africa to research Great White sharks and marine animals. When she returned to the UK, she worked on a farm briefly before securing a job with Marine Scotland Fish Health Inspectorate. Kimberley now works for Bakkafrost Scotland as Head of Health, having begun as Senior Biologist when she joined in 2016. She is a key member of the biology department, covering health across all production phases and areas. She has developed ‘Welfare Awareness’ sessions for colleagues, an initiative designed to share knowledge about fish health, biological challenges, ways of monitoring and the importance of identifying trends.

What does winning the WiSA Award 2024 mean to you? 
I am humbled to be even considered to be a role model, never mind Role model of the year!  

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?  
I sort of just fell into aquaculture; after a spell working abroad and looking for work, I spotted a job advert for a Fish Health Inspector and thought it sounded interesting. We didn’t have much material on aquaculture when I was at university, so I had no idea what to expect. The first time I set foot on a fish farm, I was hooked!  

Briefly describe your aquaculture career  
I worked for 3 years as a Fish Health Inspector, visiting salmon, trout & shellfish farms, and even the odd research facility. In 2016 an opportunity came up with The Scottish Salmon Company as Senior Biologist in the South farming region, and even though I felt very under-qualified for the role, I applied and was successful. In this new role I took on responsibility for routine surveillance of our stock, planning treatments, writing reports, interpreting diagnostic results and much more. Every year has been slightly different, with challenges evolving, which means we have to be adaptive in our day-to-day roles. In late 2022 I was promoted to Head of Health within Bakkafrost Scotland for all of marine and freshwater, which involves a bit more strategising and planning, coming up with novel plans for an ever-changing farming landscape.  

Which individuals or organisations in aquaculture have you found particularly inspirational?  
Honestly, there are so many! This industry is like one giant family and we all constantly learn from each other. My very first line manager at FHI, Andrea Warwick, was a wealth of information when I first came into aquaculture and her enthusiasm for the industry was contagious. Then Abby Irish at TSSC was just an amazing mentor and I miss working with her a lot! Abby knew how to stand her ground, and fight for the right things. Harry Tziouvas was my rock during some difficult times, and even though we don’t directly work together anymore, he has progressed in aquaculture, and I am very proud of him. 

I really find our FW and Marine production staff truly inspiring though – out in all weathers and at all hours, doing what is best for their fish. They are committed and engaged in what they are doing, and always looking for ways to improve. 

How important has networking been to your career?  
I am quite introverted and can find big social gatherings quite daunting. In the early part of my career, it was important to get to know others in the same field, especially other health professionals or providers, so we could discuss ideas and issues we faced.   

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?  
No, I don’t think so. I recruit in my role, and I think every candidate for work is assessed fairly. I strongly believe that the right person should be employed for the role, not a person based on a particular characteristic.  

What is your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date?  
In 2021, myself and Joel Ellis (Senior Biologist at the time) created the Welfare Awareness campaign, which was designed to get staff engaged in welfare and refresh training around basic welfare practices, following a year of limited contact with people during COVID. We spent over 200 hours training our staff in welfare, gill health, sea lice ID, water quality monitoring & much more. So many people outwith production were interested in the content, that we held additional sessions to include planners, processing and anyone else that was keen to learn – turns out that biology content is really popular!  

In 2023, I picked up the Welfare Awareness campaign trail again, this time utilising it to spread positive messaging around our welfare strategy and rolled out a new jellyfish training programme. I held 22 in-person sessions over 10 weeks, with 117 staff in attendance, and then on top of that had 546 individuals attend online training courses through 2023. As you can imagine, I was a bit hoarse after all that talking, and I’m pretty sure my marine staff don’t ever want to hear me say ‘jellyfish’ ever again! 

In all seriousness though, the implementation of these new procedures has helped us to gather data on jellyfish impact, make mitigation strategies and make some small improvements in survivability during 2023. Training our staff is so important, and making sure they are up to date with current practices is key. Regular CPD keeps them fresh, and I always learn new things when building these programmes. So, Welfare Awareness is here to stay, and is my biggest achievement so far. 

What advice would you give to someone (man or woman) looking to start a career in the aquaculture sector, or progress their existing career?  
Make yourself aware of what aquaculture is about, and if possible, try and get some work experience. When I recruit, I am usually more interested in experience than qualifications (depending on the role being applied for!). Explore all options within the industry – obviously I am heavily involved in the farming side, but there are many support roles in environmental, finance, nutrition, HR, etc.  

Be prepared to start in a role that maybe isn’t your final destination – as I mentioned above, having experience can be a huge benefit, so working on a farm for a while can give you some really good insights into the industry, and help you to hone in on where you want to be. Ask lots of questions – you will usually find that fish farmers really like to talk about what they do, and you will find that their reality is very different from what you hear in the news or in lectures. 

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people within industry. I know that WiSA do a great mentoring programme, and at Bakkafrost we do lots of work experience and placements so people can get a sense of what we are about, so get in touch. We are all busy, but happy to help people get a foot in the door! 

What do you think will be the key drivers/areas for innovation for Scottish aquaculture in the next decade?  
Survivability is a huge one. With changing environmental conditions, there are changes to the challenges faced by our fish. In particular, water-borne insults is a huge talking point and is something we currently don’t have a lot of control over. So, a lot of innovation will be born out of trying to understand risks, predict and forecast, and of course, mitigate these issues. These challenges evolve very quickly, so while harmful zooplankton is the driver right now, something new is bound to come along, but we also adapt in light of these issues. 

There are a lot of new technological advances in diagnostics that are interesting – NGS, eDNA and machine learning I think are going to be used to drive rapid advances in early warning systems for health and environmental problems, and predictive modelling. Once we can get a handle on the data outputs from some of these tools, and benchmark versus our current understanding, I think these will be powerful for constant monitoring with minimal handling. 

Read more interviews from the WiSA Award winners