My former colleagues in Grub Street were ready with the quips and the gags when I announced I was leaving newspapers after nearly 30 years to join the salmon industry.
“From poacher to poacher,” was how one wag with a culinary bent described my change of career. “Keep up with the splashes (but not the front-page variety),” was another while several commented that they had always thought my copy was a bit fishy.
There was one journalist, however, who wished me well but said she never ate salmon having read – and believed – a particularly grisly scare story in her own newspaper a few months before.
I told her I would set it as a personal challenge to get her to eat salmon once again and while I am determined to do that, I did take on board the more serious tenor of her remarks. How had we got to the stage where normally intelligent, balanced and inquisitive individuals were turning their backs on one of the healthiest and tastiest forms of protein we produce?
How had we arrived at the point where farmed salmon was clearly one of Scotland’s greatest economic success stories yet was being talked down at almost every opportunity?
I have come into this sector at the tail end of two parliamentary inquiries to be faced with criticism from anti-aquaculture campaigners and a simmering dispute with some wild salmon interest groups which seems more about myths and unfounded claims than proper scientific evidence.
Farmed salmon is the UK’s top food export. It should be the jewel in the crown of the country’s food production sector yet some of our MSPs view it with such suspicion it sits above only RBS, Abellio and the nuclear energy industry in their estimation.
That does seem a particularly Scottish trait - to pick away at success. There are some parliamentarians who champion the industry but there are others who will seem to want to chip away at it constantly.
My job – as the new Director of Strategic Engagement at the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation - is to help shift attitudes and change perceptions.
I want to debunk the myths which have been allowed to take root, I want to challenge the misconceptions and rubbish the unfounded claims made by some of the more lurid of the industry’s opponents.
In fact, the better I get to know this sector, the more times I am reminded of the old line about “the lie being halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on”.
Putting it bluntly: getting our boots on quicker and chasing down those misconceptions is going to be a large part of my job and while that will be a challenge, I have also been tremendously encouraged by so much that is inventive and forward-looking in this industry.
I have only been involved for a few weeks but already I can see this is a sector which delights in innovation.
Yes, there are issues but the farmed salmon sector doesn’t seem phased by them. Not only that, but it then revels in the process of finding new and imaginative ways of solving these problems.
That is the story I want to tell: of sea lice being defeated by cleaner fish and of cleaner fish then being farmed to protect wild stocks, of farm waste being turned into energy and of better and more sophisticated equipment being adopted to protect salmon from everything from the waves to seals.
In the few weeks I have been in post, I have been to fish farms everywhere from Scourie to Skye. In doing so, I have met some of the most enthusiastic, determined and compassionate farmers in the country.
If I could get all of the sector’s critics out to those farms to do what I’ve done and see what I’ve seen, many of those negative voices would fall away, I’m sure of it. That’s not going to be possible so I’ll have to resort to other methods of turning them round, but it is going to take time.
In the modern world of public relations there are hundreds of awful management-speak terms, the most overused of which seems to be ‘changing the narrative’.
While I understand where that phrase comes from, I tend to favour a more old-fashioned term, honed over years in the now fading world of ink and paper and deadlines: just tell the story.
All of you in the farmed fish sector have a great story to tell: I just believe it is time it was heard.
This article by the SSPO's Hamish Macdonell first appeared in the January 2019 edition of Fish Farmer magazine.