We talk to an aquaculture pioneer, Stuart Cannon from Kames Fish Farming, about why the clear deep Scottish waters are so good and what has changed in the sector during the past 48 years.

Stuart Cannon grew up living on a mixed arable farm in Lincolnshire and he was expected to take on the family farm but was quite keen to have his own venture.

It was an article in the Farmers Weekly that got him hooked on fish as opposed to normal agriculture.

He then enrolled himself on the first ever fish disease course at Stirling University in 1972, where he met two people, Eddie Gully and Tony Dalton, who were integral to him moving to Scotland.

He describes his first experience of Argyll from that time,

“It was a beautiful cold February day with absolutely stunning views. I came down Lochgilphead from Ardfern and it was crystal clear and you looked out to Jura and Islay and Scarba.”

His initial thoughts: “absolutely breathtaking it was just wonderful, and it still makes my heart skip a beat.”

The trio then decided to take a leap of faith and together they founded Kames Fish Farming: he said, “it was a huge learning curve, back then the infrastructure here was rudimentary.”

Stuart added: “we felt like pioneers: I had to design the cages that were going into the sea, all those sort of things.

“Marine Harvest (owned by Unilever at the time) were pioneering with salmon but I thought why can’t we do it with trout?”

They decided to farm Steelheads or Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is a salmonid fish native to the west coast of California.

They spawn in freshwater but naturally around 40% go to live at sea and become Steelhead trout, while the ones that stay in freshwater are the same fish but just called freshwater rainbow trout.

Breaking the mould?

Stuart said: “certainly, when it came to putting our fish into a freshwater loch everybody thought I was crazy.”

They hatched the first lot of fish in tanks in an old seaweed shed next to the pier, Mr Cannon said, “maybe around 100 000 fish in total, but we didn’t put them all in in one go that’s for sure!”

“We were the first to culture fresh water trout in cages certainly in Europe, and we were amazed when they all survived.”

Now the the company has grown and operates over five sites in total which include three hatcheries where they can grow young fish to around 150 grams in size before they put them in cages in the sea to be harvested when they reach maturity, at around 4 kilos in weight.

Stuart explains that the whole industry has changed massively.

Steelhead trout

Steelhead trout

In the early days they didn’t vaccinate against common illnesses, like furunculosis, which is a highly contagious fish disease.

He said: “back then we used a lot of antibiotics to control it, but since vaccination began we haven’t used any antibiotics for over 10 years.”

The diet for the fish has also changed: initially they were fed on other fish products and wheat but now the percentage of fish meal is negligible, and the energy comes from linseed oil and a lot of land grown proteins.

The result is the industry is now a net producer of fish.

Negatives

During storm Eileen last year, they lost their newest landing craft the Tiffany of Melfort when it broke free from its moorings.

Stuart added, “we have had our fair share of issues with gales over the years so it was pretty traumatic, but I’ll admit it is just one of the many perils of fish farming, but by and large we have escaped a lot of things.”

At Kames Fish Farm they do not overstock the nets to avoid fish disease, as Stuart explains: ”as my grandfather and father used to tell me that you farm for tomorrow, you will have a future, so we don’t push the limits here and we just generally look after them well.”

Steelheads are less prone to sealice because trout naturally has more mucus and small tighter scales.

However, they are treated the same way as in the salmon industry, with fresh water and hydrolisers, but they are unable to use wrasse fish/lumpfish that would naturally eat the lice.

Stuart said: “but that is something in the future we would like to have as part of our toolbox to be more sustainable and make it easier to control lice.

People wrongly look down on trout as poorer fish in comparison to salmon, and Stuart is keen to alter that opinion and said: “our Steelheads are exceptional fish.”

To ensure the quality is perfect, he said, “we harvest in the morning and it is gutted,washed, graded then packed into trays or polystyrene boxes to be further processed wherever our customers are.

“If you want a protein source with the lowest carbon footprint then that is farmed fish. They have all the right goodies for your health, your heart and your immune system as well as being extremely tasty.”

Local hero

Kames Fish Farming has grown from producing 20 tonnes in the early 70’s to now about 2500 tonnes, and employs around 55 people.

Stuart said: “we have a very good team, and a lot of them are locals, again, if they weren’t local initially they have since married and settled down up here.

“A mixture of experienced workers but also quite a lot of young people from school.”

Stuart met his wife Shelagh when she had a summer job at the Loch Melfort Hotel.

He said: “we fell in love: she had family in Ireland and so she didn’t mind the west coast you see, so she knew what wet and wind was going to be like here.”

Their son Andrew also went to the local primary school at Kilninver before going to Gordonstoun.

Founder, Eddie Gully, is still very much around as Chairman and his son Jim Gully is now one of the directors and they still farm locally on the island of Shuna.

Stuart’s son Andrew is one of the directors too, “so we hope that we have got some succession for the future.”

L to R: Cate Cannon with her father in law, Stuart Cannon, beside his son, Andrew who is with his mother Shelagh.

Stuart explains the “new generation have upgraded me for branding and social media, and all the things I’m not really up to speed with.”

He feels the biggest issue at the moment is the market which has been directly affected by the pandemic, as the service industry has all but disappeared, but on an optimistic note he adds “hopefully the vaccine will allow that to slowly come back in 2021 and 2022.”

Stuart said they would like to expand the fishery, “we believe our Steelhead trout have got a great future.

“They are a bit different to salmon, and have a firmer texture and a delicate taste and we believe there is a growing demand for them out there.”

However he completely understands people’s concerns for the environment,“so we are happy to abide by the regulators findings. They have a job to do and as long as they are pragmatic about it and it isn’t always a blanket no.”

He adds “we can farm sustainably and environmentally in less enclosed areas but we do need to be able to do that, now I feel some of the regulation is getting unbelievably tight.”

The world is your oyster

Another unexpected bonus to being involved in aquaculture is that he has also travelled all over the world, including the Middle and Far East and Europe as an expert in his field.

Looking back at his long career in aquaculture he said “I never thought it would be on the scale it now is. I think it is very important that we look after the environment, we have been in Kames bay for 48 years and the flora and fauna has not changed dramatically.”

He added: “If I really thought we were affecting the seabed and the environment, I would first of all reduce what we are doing, then if it came to that I would have to stop or find another area that could take those volumes. I would be appalled if we were harming it.”

The business have measured the effects of climate change and global warming as the sea temperature has increased by about 2.5 degrees in the 48 years that they have been in operation.

Although in the past, he has pondered the possibility of lobster farming, Stuart said, “I’ll leave that to somebody else. I’ve done enough pioneering I think.”

Pandemic blues

Covid has been an issue he said, “but the only levelling factor is that it is a global pandemic so everybody is in the same boat.”

Luckily at Kames fish farm they have a spread of markets with 60 per cent going to major retailers.

“Thank goodness we had that business when covid broke out because the other 40 per cent was food service. The smaller independent smokers that we usually sell to, had their business just sort of dry up.”

In spring they are hoping to partner with Waitrose and feature some recipes as Stuart thinks that: “we need to be better at getting people to cook with our fish.”

They provide Steelhead trout to supermarkets including; Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and some smoked products to Morrison’s and Lidl.

Stuart has this piece of advice: “so if you’ve got a Lidl by you, you should go and buy it because it is a bloody good product.”

 

Kames Fish farming

Kilmelford,
by Oban
Argyll
PA34 4XA

01852 200 286

 

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About The Author

Catriona Thomson

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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