Employee Ownership, Sustainability and Ambition: Q&A with Ed Ley-Wilson, Head of Aquaculture (Part 2)

The second half of our Q&A with Ed Ley-Wilson is all about driving Aquascot forward, building talent and realising our ethical and environmental ambitions.

This is the second part of our Q&A session with Ed — Part 1 can be found HERE.

What advice would you give to a school-leaver or current student at college or university who was interested in an aquaculture career?

I would say ‘go for it’ of course. Aquaculture offers a career full of intellectual vigour, geographical adventure, cultural variety, business challenge and much more besides. You can pursue such a range of interests within the aquaculture sphere. There is husbandry of course, but within and beyond that there is biology, veterinary, engineering, environmental science, food science, people development, health and safety, planning, sales & marketing and more. The list is almost endless and the geographical opportunities, i.e. the chance to live and work anywhere in the world, are second to none. Why wouldn’t you want to work in aquaculture?

So, if you have a technical bent and/or an interest in science and/or marine biology or environmental science, then I suggest you aim for tertiary education and ideally a Master’s Degree. Your education will itself open up opportunities not just here in Scotland but globally – perhaps you’ll head off to farm tilapia in the far east or sea bass in the Mediterranean or prawns in Guatamala – but then, hopefully, you’ll return to the mother country and use your experience and new skills to take salmonid farming here in Scotland to its next level.

If tertiary education is not for you, or if you prefer to take baby steps towards it over time, then I would recommend getting stuck into a husbandry role. Here, you will build a raft of practical skills, deep knowledge of the challenges of farming and as you move on in your career, you will take that integrity with you. Don’t underestimate how important it is to understand how things work at the hard end of the business – it will help you make better decisions later on, no doubt.

If you’re still not sure, but you know that you love the outdoors, then just go for it. The Highlands of Scotland are the most beautiful places on earth (not that I’m biased or anything) and even on a coarse winter’s day when it’s blowing a hooley from the north, there’s a wonder in being out there on the hard Atlantic edge. The PPE available these days is fantastic, and a long way from the second-hand scruffy oilskins I had to wear all those years ago, so you don’t have to freeze.

After all, there is no such thing as poor weather, just poor clothing.

Can you tell us a little about the 'Feet on the Farm' approach and the standards that we uphold across our aquaculture operations?

Aquascot’s ‘feet on the farm’ describes one of the ways in which we engage with our farming partners. As mentioned earlier in this Q&A, our core client, Waitrose, run their business not only to make money but also to change the world. It sounds corny but it’s true.

The Waitrose ethos of providing food people can trust has, at its heart, a desire to do so both ethically and sustainably. Defining these latter two requires both careful thought and a collaborative effort with their myriad of farming supply businesses, of which Aquascot are one. Before you can define what is ethical or sustainable and set out any ambition for change, you must first seek to understand the current state of play – and that’s where the ‘feet on the farm’ assessment program comes in.

Our assessment is known as a REP, standing for ‘Responsible Efficient Production’. Originally conceived by Waitrose for all livestock production, the salmonid REP was designed and implemented by Aquascot on Waitrose behalf. This was a collaborative effort involving all farming partners and the end result, a 37-question assessment program, has stood the test of time.

REP supports our Waitrose Aquaculture Protocol and achieves four aims: it sets standards, promotes values, creates aspiration and ensures compliance. I will pick out one of these for further explanation. For fish welfare, for instance, we understand that fish sentience is real and that fish can feel pain. Our value system therefore starts with that recognition, and we encourage farming activities to minimise and ideally remove any activity that might compromise welfare. Our REP assessment not only gains us insight into how our farming partners are facing that challenge but also scores them from ‘unacceptable’ to ‘excellent’ on a range of welfare criteria. Our aim is to encourage continuous improvement and our hope is that farmers will seek to progress towards excellent over time. Many of them, by the way, achieve exactly that and for those that don’t, we agree action plans over set time periods and work with them to encourage progress be made.

Our REP findings inform both monthly KPI meetings, quarterly aquaculture specific meetings and our annual Waitrose Responsible Aquaculture Program – a week-long festival of aquaculture-focused meetings with the senior Waitrose team and all farming partners. In all of these, findings are shared, comparisons are made, discussions are held, ambitions are shared and actions are set. It’s an active process of understanding the challenges and triumphs of farming, placing findings in context so as to avoid knee-jerk decisions and agreeing a direction of travel going forward. Sometimes there are hard decisions to make, including occasionally temporarily removing farms from the Waitrose portfolio, but this is only done with good data and in the full glare of discussion with all parties.

"So, for me, EO provides a very strong sense of ownership and a feeling of independence which, as everyone slowly changes their mindset from employee to owner, leads all of us to act like the business is our own, take action to improve things at every turn and care that little bit more."

What does Employee Ownership mean for you as an Aquascot partner?

In my career to date, I’ve been self-employed for as long as I’ve been employed. Self-employment brings a strong sense of ownership in a different way than does traditional employment. Generally speaking, if you have vested interest, ‘skin in the game’, then you are likely to be more dedicated, more impassioned and more likely to work for the benefit of the business as a whole.

Employee Ownership (EO) does all that. At Aquascot, while we as individuals don’t have actual skin in the game, i.e. we don’t have money invested directly (shares are owned collectively by the Aquascot Trust on our behalf), we do have ownership.

That ownership comes with responsibilities and there is vested interest at every turn. There are no other owners, no distant shareholders, no one who can come to our rescue were we to be lazy or take a wrong turn. There is no one making decisions on the business on our behalf. We must step up, as owners, and make those decisions, create the direction of travel and make things happen. So, for me, EO provides a very strong sense of ownership and a feeling of independence which, as everyone slowly changes their mindset from employee to owner, leads all of us to act like the business is our own, take action to improve things at every turn and care that little bit more.

There’s an analogy here with land ownership. I’m an advocate for community land ownership across Scotland, and I have seen first-hand the mindset change that occurs when land passes from a distant land owner (often feudal in attitude) to the community that lives on it. Back in the early '90s, while salmon farming in the Highlands, we played our part in supporting the Assynt crofters purchase of the Assynt estate. The energy that was released by this seemingly simple act of transfer of ownership (and it was far from simple, by the way) was wonderful to behold, and the success of the Assynt crofters paved the way for communities all over the country to take ownership.

Land used and managed by the few was transferred to those with direct vested interest, and a different sort of decision making, e.g. for land use, community housing, services, etc., was born. Community ownership has not been plain sailing in every case of course, but it is still pursued by communities, rural and urban, and our government puts money to support that change – just as they do for employees seeking the same empowerment that is Employee Ownership.

I hope that more companies will go EO — not just in Scotland, but elsewhere too — and it’s up to us now to demonstrate that we can make it work. We’ve got to run a good business and make sure the finances stack up, but the change is that we don’t have to make money for distant shareholders whom we never meet. The money, if we make it, is ours to do with as we wish: to support personal development, to pay a partner bonus, to put money to local charities, to invest in a new plant or machinery, to innovate with research or even to invest in start-up companies such as New Wave, our seaweed farming partner business.


The Aquaculture team on a recent farm visit

You recently took part in a Salmon Scotland panel that focused on packaging and sustainability — what are the most important focuses for Aquascot in terms of environmental impact? 

It’s important for us to look two ways on our sustainability journey: internally and externally.

Internally — i.e. within Aquascot’s business premises in Alness — our Environmental & Sustainability Group are addressing the right issues — carbon, plastic, food waste, energy efficiency, water and trade effluent — and creating a more circular economy.

Of all these, carbon reduction is amongst the most challenging. However, I think we are on the right track, and having engaged with a third party to assist our thinking, we will be holding ourselves to task and backing that up by volunteering for third-party measurement on performance over time. As for food waste, already halved in the last twelve months, we have signed up to the Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP) and are rolling out new ambitions beyond Alness to selected farming partners.

There are real challenges external to Alness too, and we have started the process of engaging with that much larger challenge within the farming and especially the feed arenas. The environmental challenges here are many and varied, but follow the same general themes as those above. However, our attention goes at present to the largest carbon footprint in farming, which lies within the production of feed.

There is a lot of NGO advice on what feed ingredients are good or bad, and we need to ensure we take a suitably investigative approach before making what can be very big and potentially expensive decisions. For example, soy has issues, as does fish meal and fish oil, but the issues are not simple. Removal of one ingredient requires a replacement and assumptions are often made that the new ‘wonder ingredient’ is lighter on the environment than the original – unless you take a deep dive and perform a meaningful full lifecycle assessment (LCA), then you won’t know if those assumptions are correct.

Our focus therefore is on soy, fish meal and fish oil and on investigating alternative ingredients. Indeed, we are three years into a four-year ‘Next Gen Proteins’ project testing marine algae, insect meal and single cell protein for digestibility, health, growth and of course environmental LCA.

But sustainability and environmental footprint is not just about feed – fish health is critical too, and improving survivability is a key metric. Feeding fish for a year only to have a percentage of them die is a waste of resources at every level. Currently, we use REP and its associated reporting to promote farms with high survivability and going forward, we would like to see more research into prevention rather than cure. As part of that, Scotland’s farmers need more space available for research sites at sea. We would like to see more chances for farmers to experiment with cage technologies, vaccines and new treatments without the added cost of having to do so at commercial scale.

These opportunities already exist in Norway, while here in Scotland we need our regulators to become more than enforcers and to become enablers too. Aquascot has played our part in the Aquaculture Industry Leadership group in advocating for such ‘innovation sites’ to become a reality here in Scotland – and will continue to do so.

Any key ambitions for 2022 — personally or professionally?

What a question! There is much to do, and I’ll list some of them below.

On a professional level:

  • Continue on our journey of making Aquascot a great EO business in which to work
  • Develop a dynamic Aquaculture team of thought leaders and people who ‘do’
  • Pursue the Waitrose ethics and sustainability ambitions as articulated in their Agricultural Strategy
  • Expand our Waitrose REP to cover the full lifecycle
  • To complete the Waitrose ‘living a good life’ initiative around fish welfare with all farming partners
  • Develop a model for sustainable salmon production that is suitably nuanced and well enough researched to stand up to scrutiny
  • Continue to investigate alternative ingredients as part of that sustainability challenge
  • Continue to advocate for ‘innovation sites’ here in Scotland

On a personal level:

  • Do more sea kayaking
  • Get into the hills more often
  • Improve my yoga handstands
  • Read lots
  • Beat my 30-year-old son at arm wrestling – that one may never happen!

Follow Aquascot on LinkedIn and Facebook for the latest news, recipes and information from the Scottish seafood people in Alness.

Interviewed by: Justine Fourny (Category & Marketing Officer)

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