Interview with Ronnie Soutar

©SSF CS Ronnie Soutar[9].jpg

by Ronnie Soutar

Head of Veterinary Services, Scottish Sea Farms

Ronnie is a practicing veterinary surgeon who has been involved in aquaculture for over thirty years. He is currently employed as Head of Veterinary Services for Scottish Sea Farms, one of Scotland’s largest salmon farmers. He holds an MSc in Aquatic Veterinary Studies from Stirling University and is a Past-President of the Fish Veterinary Society. He represents fish vets on the Veterinary Products Committee (which advises the regulator on veterinary medicine issues) and on the Scottish Government’s Farmed Fish Health Framework committee.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?

When I was a vet student, way back in the 1970s, I had a whisky-lubricated conversation one Hogmanay with Chris Rae, a visionary who later formed the Corrie Mhor smolt company with his brother-in-law John Kerrison. At that time, though, he’d just returned from working with trout in England to run a hatchery in Ross-shire producing smolts for the infant Scottish salmon industry. He told me that aquaculture was going to be huge and it would need vets. I just wanted to get my degree and become a traditional general-practice vet but his words stayed with me.

Years later, finding myself unfulfilled by companion-animal practice in deepest England, I decided to find out if he was right. He was!

Briefly describe your aquaculture career

Like my friend Jimmy Turnbull before me and many vets in the industry since, I did the Aquatic Veterinary Studies MSc in the Institute of Aquaculture, Stirling. In that period, the end of the 1980s, the university ran a diagnostic service for fish farms and I was lucky enough to get a job in it and, through a contract the service had, to spend some time in Donegal working on emerging diseases in Irish aquaculture. I was then asked to join Golden Sea Produce (GSP) as one of the first company vets in the Scottish industry.

That company became part of the giant Norsk Hydro corporation, so I benefitted from both shared knowledge from the Norwegian sector and an excellent corporate personal-development programme. This led to a move into management and eventually to being Production Manager for the Scottish operation, which by the end of the ‘90s included Shetland farms. For various reasons, I moved away from frontline aquaculture just before the turn of the millennium but maintained my links.

I returned to manage Aqualife Services, the innovative fish-vaccination company, in 2013, then moved into Scottish Sea Farms (SSF) as Head of Veterinary Services in 2017.  SSF developed out of Hydro Seafood GSP so in some ways I’ve come full-circle and I couldn’t be happier to be back!

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

Too many to list – this young industry is full of inspirational individuals and I’ve been lucky enough to know and work with a lot of them over the years.  I hate to mention some and risk offending others by missing them out, but Professor Randolph Richards has been both a mentor and friend through most of my career and the late Guy Mace was a huge influence on me and, indeed, on the Scottish industry. 

I’ve worked with many great female colleagues too, including Catherine McManus of Mowi Ireland, Sheena Gallie, Head of Environment here at SSF, and Fiona Campbell of GSP who is now my wife! 

In the context of Women in Aquaculture, though, one person stands out - the amazing Mary Brancker. She was one of the first fish vets, as well as being one of the very few female vets of her generation and the first woman to be President of the British Veterinary Association.  I had a memorable trip from Stirling to Ardtoe with Mary which included us being temporarily stranded in the middle of Rannoch Moor when, being engrossed in conversation rather than the road ahead, she clipped the verge and punctured two tyres!  If you don’t know about Mary, please check out this blog where you can not only read about her but hear her tell her story in her own recorded words. 

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?

You’d be better to ask my wife what it was like to start a career in what was a male-dominated industry with a very laddish culture in the early years!  As an ageing white male, working in a senior position in my native country, I realise I’m least likely to experience the negative side of inequality . 

However, I’m among those most likely to be able to do something about it and I do think that is important. I know that the current generation of talented young women in our industry don’t need or ask for special favours, any more than Fiona or her cohort did, they just need those of us in senior roles to ensure that no inequalities prevent them from achieving their potential.

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

I really worry that the constant, ill-informed negativity about salmon farming, particularly in social media, might discourage young, talented people from entering the industry. It’s one of the reasons I take every chance to speak to vet students and others about my experience of the realities of aquaculture and what we are actually doing. 

My message is that they shouldn’t believe everything they read or hear but that they should become informed about the genuine challenges that exist, then come and help us meet those challenges.  There are so many really rewarding jobs in our industry and still as many opportunities to truly make a positive difference as there were when I got involved over thirty years ago.

My advice?  Get involved and seize the opportunities that are there for you.

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

There’s a very welcome increasing focus on fish welfare.  The old adage “look after the fish and the fish will look after you” underpins everything we do. I hope and believe that we will see improvements in production come on the back of innovative approaches to the health and welfare of our fish, each and every one of which deserves to have a life worth living and a good death at the end of it.  In a changing environment, that isn’t necessarily easy but it is essential. I believe that both the will and the talent exists to make it happen. 

Innovation doesn’t have to mean high-tech: the new generation of site staff and managers, many of whom are women, are finding practical new ways to truly care for their fish and, with an equal focus on sustainability, for the environment in which they farm. That is what is going to make the real difference as we grow and develop Scotland’s aquaculture.

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