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AQT Spotlight on Joe McElwee – Being in the Right Place

Every day I get to learn something new from this industry, and to be honest the best place to learn new things is through the interviews I drive for these Spotlights. I recently got to talk with Joe McElwee. He is currently working as Farming Director for Hima Seafood. Joe started his Aquaculture path 40 years ago, and all his stories are amazing to share. Starting with curiosity about fish farming, going through a lot of international work experience and consulting, and landing where he is now. So let’s dive into his story now, shall we?

Why Aquaculture?

Before joining the industry Joe never heard of what it actually was about. He wanted to be an astronaut! But was devastated when NASA wrote him back saying at 14 years of age he was too young to join them. “For some reason, they didn’t want an Irish 14-year-old astronaut”. Then my dad, who was an accountant, had to set up a few Marketing businesses in the Aquaculture industry and he invited me to join him in one of his visits to a salmon farm. Back in the 80s, I didn’t know much about aquaculture, but I did enjoy fly fishing. So I told him -Salmon farming? you don’t know what you are talking about-“. And so he went with his dad and met people with different professional and educational backgrounds who were now building the fish farming industry, in Ireland.

One of the farm owners approached him and invited him to join them, as there just wasn’t staff available at the time. He used to go out on the weekends and assist in the hatchery, picking eggs. But soon, weekends became evenings and evenings became days off! Joe gained experience picking eggs, building cages, feeding, and designing moorings for the cages.  And that was it for him. He never looked back. Joe told me ” I was fortunate to have had a lot of opportunities in this industry. In both sea and land farming as it globally developed and expanded. And I may not have been the best guy in the world, but I was the guy in the right place as the industry developed”.

Growing Industry

Joe has been able to see the industry grow and develop in different countries throughout his experience. From the changes in the In-shore cages for salmon and trout to the management and the rise of offshore salmon aquaculture. The coming of age of the aquaculture happened as his own coming of age did. “I got to be a part of pioneering teams in Ireland and other places in the industry. Which allowed me to take part as new netting systems were being developed, new mooring systems, new harvesting methods. And all the biological and technological knowledge now being amassed and experimented with, the actual progression of the industry and its equipment supplying entities”.

“Farms that are able to implement these technologies either make it or break it. All this type of equipment can make farmers’ life easy, but only if you use it correctly. For example, back in the 90s if you mentioned RAS outside of an academic environment, you were straight out laughed at. RAS takes up a colossal amount of water and relies heavily on a technology no one had actually developed back then”. Despite there being a number of small smolt units, but no large grow-out or significant production sites. His career has been full of trials, tough times, expertise, knowledge, and experience. Hand in hand with the right equipment, enthusiastic co-workers, and global development.

Challenges in Aquaculture

Regardless of how smooth anyone’s path and journey are, we are always susceptible to find potholes in the road. Joe believes there is a lack of general knowledge about the industry, which makes the work a lot harder. The industry is often misunderstood. This is due to the incorrect or biased information put out there by selected groups. Yes, people in the industry are usually well prepared and highly skilled. But no one has made it an objective to educate the general public on what is going on within it. This not only affects the perception of consumers and potential consumers. But also influences the expectations investors build around the industry.

“We face normal business challenges. But currently, we sometimes lack experienced personnel. There is a need for experienced, skilled, and committed labor. 10-20 years ago that wasn’t a problem. But with time and technology, these skills have become more specialized. And it’s become harder to find the right talent to fill in the positions. In addition, the rapid development of the RAS industry has not allowed for these skillsets or experience to be developed! Secondly: the investment community sometimes doesn’t understand us completely. And because of this, their investments can be patchy or very selective. When you are an investor you want to see your money returned in a timely manner. But the truth and reality are that in our industry is it takes time to see a return, post-build, and production. And not many investors are prepared or ready for that long-term investment risk.

Education in Aquacullture

Thirdly, education of the masse!. Ignorance is bliss, but some things can be fixed. Governments, suppliers, the industry, we all need to come together and say what is the perceived issues about the portrayals of the overall industry. There is absolutely no point in us telling lies. Some people will receive information against the industry and just bite the bait. But at the end of the day, the aquaculture industry is producing a healthy, nutritious product that is profitable and that is satisfying for the consumer. Why would any fish farmer be in business trying to harm fish or pollute the environment? That narrative just doesn’t make sense, you know.”

Where is Joe Now?

So, since 2019 he has been involved with Hima Seafood. Hima is a Norwegian company that is putting together a project he really connects with. Joe has seen the aquaculture industry, its development, and diseases since its inception. And he is glad to pass over all of his expertise for future generations as a farming director now. “In the past, you had one person doing a lot of tasks. Now, you need 8 to 10 different disciplines and their collaboration in order to have a strong management team. The industry is now aware that we need to spread the love and skill sets that make us work”.

The RAS industry is in a good place, where teams need to be built with a lot of time in advance. So you can ensure all the needs and skills are covered. Investors in the industry are starting to see this as integral to the proper efficient operational management of these RAS facilities.

Can’t Take Human off of Human Industry

We all know how innovation and technology have become a central part of the Aquaculture industry. It is in a way, essential to its development and success. But Joe believes, despite technology, people still need to understand what the actual processes and biological needs in the fish are. The fish will always demonstrate when/if there is a problem. “They won’t act normally, It just takes being observant of the fish and the technology as well, to understand there’s a potential issue”.

People can be trained just to take care of equipment and technology. However, there are other skills the industry is now lacking and that is where the concentration for biological and experience are required. From farms, educational institutions, and internships, so at the end of the day, if the industry becomes too reliant on technology and equipment, it will never work 100% efficiently.

Inputs, Ideas and Realities

Joe is the type of person who likes to work on challenges and problems. And have his team bring their input and ideas. He believes that this is the essence of problem-solving, and not having myopic management, which never works out, certainly over the production cycle. To solve problems effectively all of the parameters in your business need to be aligned. That is Technological, Biological, Design, Management, Production, Processing, Financial, etc, and it’s this combination that has to be understood.

“The investment community is now understanding the business in a better-enlightened manner. They get that growing fish is more than data on an excel sheet! I could have millions of fish on an excel document! I only need to copy+paste the emoji a million times. They are now understanding that fish die, it’s a living entity, and not only is subject to disease or growth issues. But the advanced technology can have performance or operational problems as well, as technology is cutting edge and is not 100% definite, and things break! The best farms take into account all the potential calamities and do their best to have redundancy plans in place to prevent or allay them.

Biggest Drive

“There are plenty of times when things get frustrating. You wonder why you are here, why you are doing it! But I don’t want to be beaten! I want to see the fish grow and out the door. I would say my passion, what keeps me in the industry, are the constant challenges! These vary hourly from technological to educational to biological or logistical, it never stops and is so varied it keeps you on your toes for sure! I like the variety of challenges and being able to overcome them. I have been doing this for 40 years, But there is not a day I end without learning something new. And that something new could be wrong or right. But that is tomorrow’s challenge”.

What Would you Take?

Are you familiar with the dynamic “You are stranded on a deserted island and you could only take one thing from your modern life with you. What would you take?”? Well, I kind of revamped that question for my AQT Spotlight subjects. I asked Joe, If he had to leave the Aquaculture industry for good and he could only take one thing from the industry, what would he take? He says… Adaptability!

“Being able to think on your feet and adapt to every situation without being myopic about it. The industry gives you the ability to be adaptable to different jobs, roles, and people. Here we don’t have a complacent type of life. It is about hard work and dealing with different disciplines and challenges that you need to fix yourself”.

Advice to New Talent

“Every situation is personal and different. But they should always ask themselves if they have a genuine interest in Aquaculture. Its social and working parameters, and the huge diversity of job disciplines now becoming available. They Should consider what their objectives and goals in life are. And if they are ready to put up with the sacrifices and challenges this industry presents. This is a job where you can start at the very bottom and in a few short years be at the very top. We keep expanding, we have new species added all the time. New technologies are developed on a regular basis, as well as new markets. And overall a variety of different roles and expectations for the industry.

Aquaculture is not only about producing food. We also work with the pharmaceutical industry, as well as Effluent. In fact, many other industries, as we develop further, value products that are secondary or By-Products of the aquaculture industry itself, from guts to fish waste! Byproducts alone are a multimillion market that needs and requires a lot of talent and passion for the industry. With new funding coming in in the respective R&D areas to enable this to grow. There are a lot more other jobs and skills different from fish farming, emanating now from Aquaculture. So the potential for a diverse qualified educated workforce is consistently developing all the time.

Aquaculture is here to stay, it’s a sustainable and proud way to produce nutritious products. And we are consistently striving to make it more efficient, productive and exciting as an industry to be involved and participating in!

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