“Today, fish farms are a very different place to work”

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Signs of progress as number of women working in Scottish aquaculture increases.

Women have always played a critical role in the fishing industry in Scotland. Whether it was mending nets, gutting fish or baiting lines. They even carried their men out to the fishing boats on their backs to ensure that they could go to sea in dry clothing.

Statues celebrate the contribution of women to Stornoway’s fishing heritage

Despite this history, as recently as 2018, only 11 per cent of salmon farm workers in Scotland were women. And while in Norway, women make up 25 per cent of board members, in the UK, sadly, that figure is still just 12 per cent.

More recently, however, there have been signs of progress. According to figures provided by the Scottish Salmon Producers Association (SSPA), by 2019, the gender split in the Scottish salmon sector was roughly 85-15 male-female. And at the end of 2020, all members of the SSPA – including, Mowi, Cooke and Grieg amongst others – signed up to a ground-breaking new sustainability charter that included commitments to, “establish a clear sector code on diversity, equality, inclusiveness, ethics and continual personal development, with real and measurable targets”.

In March this year, The Scottish Government vowed to provide £20,000 to Women in Scottish Aquaculture (WiSA), with a further £30,000 of industry sponsorship to help increase the number of women working in Scottish aquaculture. The funding has helped to deliver a mentoring scheme to support women already working in the sector develop their careers, and a website to promote aquaculture and job opportunities to women. Announcing the funding, Scottish Government Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon said, “It cannot be right that there are so few women working in Scottish aquaculture.”

Scottish Government Rural Affairs Secretary speaks
Speaking exclusively to SalmonBusiness for this article, Gougeon elaborated: “The Scottish Government is proud to be supporting women pursuing a career in aquaculture.”

Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands

“In 2019 we announced £20,000 of funding for the Women in Scottish Aquaculture Initiative, and it is great to see that this funding has allowed the network to develop its dedicated website and launch a mentoring programme to support and encourage women working in Scottish aquaculture.”

She continued, “I’ve had the opportunity to meet with members of Women in Scottish Aquaculture and discuss their experiences in the sector. The peer-to-peer support of this network is fantastic and is helping encourage more young women with science, technology, engineering and maths related degrees to take up careers in aquaculture.

“There are many women in remote rural and island communities working at various levels across our aquaculture sector. Fish farming helps to provide a number of excellent career opportunities, particularly for young science graduates.”

The view from the ground
One such graduate is Shelley MacGillivray (27), who grew up in Fort William where her father worked on a fish farm.

Today, fish farms are a very different place to work

“I would always hang out at the site at weekends when my dad was working. At that time it was very male dominated. Me and my sister were the only females on the site. We were eight or nine years old.”

Today, she says, the fish farms are a very different place to work. “There are women working in the sites. There’s women on the boats. Women are everywhere now.”

“My team is very science based. There are 12 of us. And it’s very evenly split between males and females, which I guess maybe wasn’t always the case 10-15 years ago. There’s definitely an upward trend with women working in the industry. I’ve never felt singled out for being a woman.”

Shelley MacGillivray (27), who grew up in Fort William

In fact, reveals MacGillivray, the opposite has been the case, “I’ve felt completely supported the whole time I’ve been working with them. They’ve supported me all through university giving me all kind of placements over summertime. And I don’t feel that I’ve missed out at all, because I am a woman.

I still remember the first time I went on, walked on the pen and thought, ‘What on earth am I doing here?’
Another young graduate to enter the industry is Sarah Macdonald (24), from the Western Isles. “I started salmon farming in November 2019 – nearly two years now. I got into it because there was a big push in the Western Isles to try and get females on board. I knew the manager quite well and he asked me if I’d be interested. It all just went from there.”at

“I’ve been working in the family business and my dad, he’s a crofter, but he also takes away the mortalities from all the sites in the Western Isles. So I already knew a few fish farmers. I knew what it was about.”

“I love it. It’s a job where I can’t imagine myself not doing it anymore. I get on site at 6am. From there, I usually go out and do water samples, check the jellyfish, temperatures, oxygen levels.”

“I do a lot with the cleaner fish. So recently, I’ve been doing wrasse deliveries every day. And in between that I’m feeding the wrasse, checking the wrasse, doing all that. And then you could be doing lice counts, taking blood – sometimes there will be fresh water treatments.”

Sarah Macdonald (24), from the Western Isles.

“I still remember the first time I went on, walked on the pen and thought, ‘What on earth am I doing here?’. Every single day is a challenge. And it’s a different challenge. You’re never doing the same thing twice.”

If aquaculture is to be a forward-thinking, innovative industry, its vital that diversity should be considered an important part of that. And so it is crucial that women stay at the forefront of conversations around growth and the future of the sector. Recent improvements are still not enough but they are a start.

A survey conducted by SAIC revealed overwhelming industry support for the creation of a ‘women in aquaculture’ group.