From farms to fisheries

Marie-Clare Russell, Managing Director of FAI Aquaculture, discusses her move from mixed practice to aquaculture

26 November 2018, at 8:47am

Marie-Clare began her career as a livestock vet in a mixed practice in the Highlands. Her role was “as close to a James Herriot type practice as you could get”, and she loved it. In the mid ’80s, however, she found herself moving into the world of aquaculture and has stayed there ever since.

What inspired you to move into aquaculture from being a livestock vet?

I met my husband [John Russell], who at that time was a farm manager for Marine Harvest, and although I tried to continue practising as a livestock vet, the logistics of where we lived made it nearly impossible. At that point, Marine Harvest were advertising for their first vet. They had previously been using the practice I was in for prescriptions and wanted to bring this in-house. I applied and got the job. In 2014 I started with Benchmark working in a consultancy role for three months, but the challenge and aims of Benchmark kept me there, and in 2016 I took over as Managing Director of FAI Aquaculture

How does a day in the life of a fish vet vary from a day in mixed practice?

I very much enjoyed the one-to-one interaction with my livestock patients – something I miss as a fish vet. However, the principles of caring for health, welfare and husbandry are the same and there are great challenges to be overcome, even now, particularly within salmon farming. I love a challenge!

When I started with Marine Harvest, the fish health team knew far more than me. As much as I was employed to dispense prescription-only medicines, they soon realised that I wanted to see everything and be involved in it all. The industry has changed now – the company vet is at the centre of healthcare and involved in health decisions at all levels – but that was a new concept back when I started. I loved learning something new.

My daily routine in my present role, on the other hand, is focused on problem solving. Cleanerfish [species such as wrasse and lumpfish that are deployed in fish farms to pick parasitic sea lice from the skin of salmon] are part of the sea lice solution and I love that Benchmark wants to offer a holistic approach. My role as MD of FAI Aquaculture allows me to help with that.

What is the most interesting experience you’ve had in aquaculture?

The people I meet or work with on a daily basis. We are a varied bunch but the one thing in common is the enthusiasm and knowledge and quest to improve that each person has. Anyone speaking with passion is interesting. I work with one member of staff who has worked at Ardtoe for 45 years and is still trying new things and modestly passing on to others all that he has learned over the years.

What is the most unusual experience you’ve had?

When I was first married and living on a salmon farm we made a lobsterpot and caught lobsters and crabs. We were trying to be frugal and lived off lobster most nights until I couldn’t think of another way to cook it and became sick of it – much to the horror of my city friends who were paying a fortune for it! My two most vivid memories of the farm in Alisary are of constant lobster dinners and “romantic” evenings spent hand feeding salmon.

Have you faced any particular challenges as a woman in aquaculture?

I have to say that I haven’t really. The only challenges I can think of involved dealing with a dyed-in-the-wool, old-style crofter who also happened to be one of our contractors and who clearly preferred talking to a man! Also, when visiting Stofnfiskur in Iceland I did face the challenge of wearing an all-weather suit designed for a six-foot man when I am a five-foot woman – more of a height issue than a gender one!

On a more serious note, I don’t believe in quotas for women. I believe that it should always be the best person for the job. However, I do think that we should encourage women to put themselves forward more and to progress in their chosen field. It is also important to actively support those returning to work having raised their family and to ensure that they are not disadvantaged in the workplace by doing so.