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From Farming to Assessing: Q&A with Joel Ellis, Farming Assessment Manager
Joel is Aquaculture’s newest recruit, bringing a wealth of marine biology expertise to his challenging new job of Farming Assessment Manager.
27-year-old Joel loves a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, and strongly believes in the power of partnership and teamwork. Before joining Aquascot, he worked in the Western Isles — a location one might find remote, but where he found purpose looking after the Native Hebridean salmon. Joel is also a keen giver, having donated bone marrow stem cells to save someone’s life.
Where are you from?
Originally, I’m from High Wycombe, just north of London. I studied Marine Biology at Bangor University, in North Wales, and from there I moved to Stornoway for a couple years for salmon farming. I was a Biologist for The Scottish Salmon Company (TSSC), then moved to Lochcarron on the West Coast for 2.5 years as Senior Biologist, with TSSC again, and finally ended up in Inverness with Aquascot this year. I’m not Scottish – the first time I came to Scotland was for an interview in the middle of December to join TSSC – it’s been four and a half years since then, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it!
What made you want to apply for Aquascot?
I think it was probably their reputation in the industry. When Aquascot brings their ideas to the table, everyone listens. I think it’s quite unique for other companies to be like that – they would normally have to be salmon farming companies, veterinary & health support companies, etc. – but Aquascot is unique in that it’s a fish processing company and yet it holds a lot of influence and is held in high regard by farming partners.
Seeing an opening for the Farming Assessment Manager position, which has overview of the industry and can help create that direction of change and improvement, was attractive to me. I was keen to bring my experience from fish health & production to Aquascot, having had hands on experience with the salmon and cleaner fish; but also, to be able to work within Aquascot looking at the industry, understanding what they were doing, and inputting Aquascot/Waitrose ambitions out to the salmon and trout farming community. It just seemed like an incredible opportunity.
"Aquascot is unique in that it’s a fish processing company and yet it holds a lot of influence and is held in high regard."
What is your role at Aquascot?
I’ve joined the Aquaculture team and taken on the REP Assessment programme, so that’s the 'Responsible Efficient Production' Assessment, which reaches out across all our farming partners for salmon and trout in the industry. There’s 37 points that we assess farms on, and we’re essentially looking for continuous improvement in everything they do – cleaner fish, salmon welfare, treatments, mortalities, workers’ rights, workers’ training, environmental compliance, sustainability… At present, I’ve been very focused on getting up to speed with the REP, working with each of our farming partners, trying to get out on site, have a look at what they’re doing, and understand how they are driving improvements.
As I get more settled into my role, I’ll begin to take on the Responsible Harvest Assessments (RHA) looking at our farming partners' harvest units. In essence, making sure the fish are living a good life and experiencing a humane and dignified death. Working with the rest of the Aquaculture team within Aquascot, the REP and RHA feeds into the Waitrose Agricultural Plan with regards to responsible farming. I’m hoping that with Ed (Ley-Wilson), Andrew (Davie) and Emily (Purvis) we can expand the REP across the entire lifestyle, from hatch to harvest; so we’ll be looking at the freshwater side of things, the transport of fish, etc.
The rest of the team are working well with the REP data. You can see how farmers are innovating, adapting, and improving. It’s amazing the level of insight the team and the company have into salmon and trout farming in Scotland.
What are you most excited about working at Aquascot?
I think it’s a mixture really – there’s a few people I have spoken to, who have previously worked with Aquascot, and they hold it in high regard as a good employee-owned company. Everyone here is friendly and engaged and want the company to do well and want each other to do well. There’s a sense that everyone’s got ownership of their actions and their roles, all working together towards the same common goal.
More role specific, I’m excited to be working across Scotland, working with farming partners, seeing what sort of innovation and change can be brought about within the industry… Ed, Andrew and Emily have some fantastic ideas that we’re trying to implement, working with Waitrose, other companies’, and our farming partners – I’m just excited to see what future change we might bring to Scottish Aquaculture.
"There’s a sense that everyone’s got ownership of their actions and their roles, all working together towards the same common goal."
Have you had to the chance to interact with other departments within the company?
I’ve had few meetings – I’ve met with the Procurement, Technical and Raw Material Quality Assessment (RMQA) teams. I think when COVID restrictions ease in the factory, we’re very keen to get inside – because we feel, as the Aquaculture Team, that we’re responsible for the quality of the fish that make it into the factory. We’re excited to recommence working with Technical and RMQA teams to understand the quality of the fish, potential downgrades, and act on that by working with farming partners to continually improve our products.
What will your schedule look like?
Each day is going to be very different, to be honest. In general, I’ll probably be spending at least 2-3 days a week out on the farms undertaking the REP assessments, and then a couple days a week either in the office, factory or working from home on various reports and projects. But the role will take me where I need to go I guess – farms could be anywhere from Shetland to Argyll, and anywhere in between. There’ll be a lot of travelling, but that’s the most important part, getting on the farms and looking at the fish, interacting with the farm teams, and understanding how the Farms are managed.
What is your favourite Aquascot product?
Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to taste the products we make through Aquascot; but back down in High Wycombe, my Mum often buys from Waitrose, so before I started in the role, I had tasted Waitrose salmon. However, the Native Hebridean salmon is always close to my heart because I used to grow them when working at TSSC!
"I certainly feel Aquascot has got that teamwork and camaraderie, so share your problems, don’t worry about them and work together to get through the hard times."
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
That’s a good question. In my previous set of wellies at TSSC, one of the staff in the hatcheries used to always say, ‘Don’t stress about it, we’ll get through it together’, and that’s always stuck with me – don’t sweat the small things. If you’ve got a problem, speak to your team about it, we’re here as a team – and I certainly feel Aquascot has got that teamwork and camaraderie… So share your problems, don’t worry about them and work together to get through the hard times. Certainly, throughout the last year that’s one that’s stuck with me. Keep your mates close, and you’ll be able to get through everything!
How is it, working on the farms during COVID?
It’s good in the sense that the salmon and trout farms still need to be REP assessed, so I’m still able to get out on farm, but it is less social than before COVID because we must keep our distance. I think that’s a big part of salmon and trout farming: whenever you’re on farm, you usually have a cup of tea, talk to staff about the fish – it’s a very social industry to work in.
What would you consider as your greatest achievement?
The thing I’m most proud of – back in university, at a Freshers’ fair, I signed up to the Anthony Nolan stem cell register (for bone marrow donation). In 2018, I got a phone call from Anthony Nolan saying I was a match with someone that needed a stem cell donation. I flew down to London, had lots of blood tests, confirmed I was indeed a match, and I donated bone marrow to a person requiring lifesaving stem cells. I got a message from the recipient earlier this year saying, ‘I’m well, back to playing golf, I’m with my family – thank you!’ and it was just a really nice and proud moment there, thinking I had saved someone’s live without even knowing them. I’d encourage anyone to join the stem cell register – it’s so easy to do!
If you were going on to a desert island, what would be your last meal?
I’ll be honest, I’m addicted to smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels… it’s my go-to comfort food. It probably sounds really cliché as we work for a salmon and trout processing company, but a nice New York style bagel with Philadelphia cream cheese and smoked salmon on top, I don’t think you can beat that!
If you could make a law that anyone must abide by, what would it be?
Put your phones down at the dinner table. There’s nothing worse than not being able to chat face-to-face, with everyone playing on their phones. It’s important that you can communicate with friends and family distantly, but live in the moment, put your phone down, speak to the people that you live with sometimes!
Follow Aquascot on LinkedIn 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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