WeAreAquaculture spoke with Andrew in these early days of the new society, to find out about the background to the organization, what it aims to achieve, and what members can expect.
“I guess the story starts in New Zealand," Andrew says. “I was working there for a year with BioMar, and I had the privilege of attending the Aquaculture New Zealand Conference. At one point a gentleman called Ben Pierce, a young guy, got on stage and announced that they were starting this young aquaculture New Zealand organisation.”
Andrew remembers feeling surprised that New Zealand, with its thriving salmon and mussel farming sector, didn’t already have such a youth organization. But then he stopped to think about the UK.
"It dawned on me that the UK has this phenomenally important aquaculture sector, that's really quite diverse, both in terms of its geography, its products, the people that it employs. We’re all aware of Young Fish from Norway. But we didn't have this kind of youth organisation in the UK.”
"I remember graduating from my undergraduate degree and being interested in aquaculture, but not having immediate pathways to go through. My friends graduating from accountancy, business, or economics all found quite easy pathways into a sector. But at the time, for me it didn't feel that easy,” Andrew says.
The Young Aquaculture Society thus emerges to fill a crucial gap in the UK: providing a network for hundreds of young professionals employed in aquaculture fields, including innovative seafood, shellfish, and finfish sectors, Andrew explains.
Of key importance is giving young aquaculture professionals the chance to develop their leadership skills, especially for those aspiring to advance in their careers, Andrew explains.
“Perhaps you're a team leader in your aquaculture company, but you think that you would be great as the assistant farm manager when that role is coming up. How can you demonstrate those additional leadership qualities or that additional drive, so that when you go into that interview, you have something tangible that you can speak about?”
One of the Society’s goals, Andrew explains, is to help its members in their professional development with relevant hands-on experiences that can give them a needed career boost.
Another significant focus for the Society, Andrew explained, is connecting individuals in rural and often isolated aquaculture communities, providing them with broader networking opportunities.
"Aquaculture is, almost by definition, largely a rural employer, which means people working in the industry live in rural areas which can be quite isolated in some cases,” he notes.
"We want to provide those young people employed in those spaces the opportunity not only to connect with others working on their farm or maybe even their company, but to tap into a thriving network outside of their company, giving opportunities to talk to others who work in the same industry.”
The Society acknowledges the challenges facing young professionals, such as rural housing and the need for clearer career pathways. “It would be interesting to see slightly more structured tracks for young people, graduates or otherwise, to get them into the space,” Andrew says.
The Young Aquaculture Society also aims to attract a diverse range of professionals, not just those traditionally associated with marine biology, Andrew says, and the Society is keen to speak to anyone specializing in the marine space, and associated sectors.
“I did marine biology at university, which is quite a classic route into aquaculture. But we want to also connect with people who do accounting, law, engineering, whatever. For people graduating from some of these disciplines, their first thought might be to work in the renewables or the oil and gas space. But if they can hear about aquaculture from young, excited people like them, they can discover how the industry could be a good place for them too.”
“There’s easily more than one thousand young people working just in the Scottish salmon sector alone. That doesn’t include PhD and postdoc researchers up and down the country that we would also be interested in communicating with. It also doesn’t necessarily include people in apprenticeships, which is an area that we would love to be able to have an influence,” Andrew says, noting the “brilliant job” that Lantra and other organisations do in bringing people into the sector.
And when he says "young", that's a flexible definition. Andrew notes that the UK salmon sector employs around 700 people in the 18-30 age range. For Norway's Young Fish organization, "young" is considered anything below the age of 40. So, there's room for manoeuvre, he suggests, particularly taking into account each individual's stage in their professional journey within aquaculture, rather than a strict age limit.
One novel feature of the Society is the 'Big Fish' concept, an advisory board drawn from the membership providing leadership opportunities beyond the traditional executive roles.
This structure aims to offer various involvement levels, accommodating members’ commitment and interest in shaping the Society’s growth and impact, Andrew explains. There’s no limit to the number of participants, and they can define the extent of their involvement, be it organising a meeting or event, or contributing to other types of projects as part of the Society.
"Having that opportunity for those young people to get involved in a more serious but structured way I think is going to be key to how the organisation grows.”
Andrew emphasised that the new Society is very much a team effort. “I’ve had enormous support from about 15 peers who have offered their help to me in setting this up, and it wouldn't be possible to do it without them.”
He also emphasises the value of learning from other established organizations focused on young professionals in aquaculture, such as Young Fish in Norway, as well as exploring collaborations with international entities in North America and beyond.
Looking ahead, the Society plans to host several networking events, including an official launch at Aquaculture UK this May, in Aviemore, Scotland. These events will aim to bring together industry leaders and young professionals, facilitating meaningful exchanges and learning opportunities.
“Salmon Scotland, which is the organisation I work for, have been really supportive,” Andrew says. Whilst not directly involved in the organisation, the trade organisation is supportive of the YAS mission and, and is collaborating in the Society’s first event, taking place after the Salmon Scotland AGM.
“We want to invite young people to be a part of the conversation with leaders of the salmon aquaculture space in Scotland,” Andrew explains.
In the meantime, YAS will use LinkedIn as its main communication and networking channel.
Looking towards the future, Andrew is optimistic about the UK aquaculture sector's prospects.
“I think aquaculture sector is well placed in the in the UK economy to continue to be an important and growing sector. I think that both the finance and the talent is there to solve the challenges that we face.”
One of the key issues he identifies lies in raising awareness of aquaculture as a source of sustainable food.
“I think people don’t always think very carefully about where their food comes from, and I think the food production industry isn’t always great at capturing excitement around what they do. It's the same thing that we say in aquaculture a lot. It's about the messaging. We need to get better at messaging and communicating our positives.”