Maryke Musson, Matorka's new Chief Operating Officer and self-described "fish nerd", has only been in the job a couple of weeks – but she has certainly hit the ground running.
"It's been a really busy two weeks," she says, talking to WeAreAquaculture from her new office in Iceland. "I literally touched down at the airport, was picked up and then went straight to a university event, then I went to Norway for a big feed workshop, and we've just had our sales agents here from Europe and North America for a couple of days."
Matorka, the Icelandic company producing Arctic Char at its land-based facility in Grindavik, Iceland, brought in Maryke to head up its operations as it expands, with a focus on quality, sustainability, and fish welfare.
"Iceland is beautiful. It's a country that revolves around fish. I'm staying here in Grindavik, a small town near the farm and where our headquarter office is based right next to the harbour. So, I can see and smell the sea all the time. Early in the mornings I go for a run in the cold and the rain. I have been here before, so I knew what I was letting myself in for!" she laughs. "The other night I was working until late, and I just opened the back door, and the Northern Lights were flashing everywhere. This place is magical."
Maryke brings a long and varied professional background in marine biology, conservation and aquaculture to her new role at Matorka. Dynamic, adaptable and adventurous, her enthusiasm and positive outlook shine through in everything she does. In her almost 30-year career, Maryke has worked in leadership positions for both high-profile aquariums and commercial aquaculture operations in South Africa and Europe – as well as finding the time for academic research, Antarctic expeditions, and marine conservation projects.
Having recently completed postgraduate studies at Cambridge University in sustainability and circularity, Maryke is now also embarking on an MBA – "I love business," she says. It's an unusual profile, and one that has given Maryke a unique perspective on welfare and husbandry for a wide variety of marine species and in a wide array of contexts.
So, how did Matorka's new COO get started in the world of aquaculture and fish husbandry?
"I didn't grow up near the sea, but always loved the ocean, and that led me to study marine biology at the University of Cape Town on the coast," she explains. When she heard the Two Oceans Aquarium was being set up in the South African city, she couldn't wait to get involved.
"Before the doors even opened, I just went there. The building was half-built, and I said, I'm going to help to build this aquarium. I started volunteering and just arrived at work every day. After a couple of months, they said, OK, we best start paying her," she recalls, laughing. "I was a poor student, and I still had to waitress at night to survive, but it was an amazing experience. We were under pressure all the time, but I loved every minute."
That experience, as much as her academic studies, set the foundations for her later career, she explains.
"What I learned at the aquarium was really how to look after fish. You're creating these beautiful displays, that must tell stories and inspire people. So, the fish really have to be perfect. It's all about husbandry and care and welfare."
Once the aquarium was up and running, Maryke looked for her next challenge, which she found in the marine research space working with seahorses and related species. Those "mystical little animals", as she calls them, are what led her into aquaculture.
"What I learned at the aquarium was really how to look after fish. You're creating these beautiful displays, that must tell stories and inspire people. So, the fish really have to be perfect."
"I started just playing around with the larval rearing of what we call Dusky Kob in South Africa. It's the same as Mulloway (Argyrosomus japonicus), and very similar to Red Drum that you find in the States. We developed the hatchery technology and built a successful a pilot hatchery, and then we set up a small commercial RAS facility in the middle of the country near Johannesburg International Airport."
"What was lovely is that it was all driven by sustainability," Maryke says. "While I was doing research, I found an investor who said they wanted to invest in something that's meaningful and that would contribute to ocean conservation. And if that means we need to build an aquaculture facility to grow fish that's under threat in the ocean, then that's what we've got to do. And at the time, Dusky Kob or Mulloway was at less than 2% of pristine stock along our coastline, so it was very much a threatened species. That's why we focused on the Kob."
Maryke explains that her background in aquarium management and husbandry was invaluable in setting up the aquaculture project.
"Aquariums are sort of like a big research system. We just intensified it," she says, noting that fish health and welfare remained paramount. "I loved working on hatchery technology and feed, so I worked a lot on developing and improving larval quality and feed".
"Being in South Africa you feel quite isolated, but when I went to Europe, I realised that we were actually doing a jolly good job. In the hatcheries I went to visit, I felt so at home. I worked with all the big feed companies, Skretting, Biomar, Coppens, you name it, and they were incredibly supportive. That drove me into being very focused on nutrition in aquaculture and how important that is in broodstock management and egg quality and of course grow-out."
"We had to be really innovative. Living and working in South Africa is quite different to anywhere else in the world, and it forces you to be quite creative."
Setting up two commercial facilities was a challenge, especially the production facility inland, but one that Maryke relished, approaching the project with her characteristic positive energy. "We made our own sea water," she recalls. "We had to be really innovative. Living and working in South Africa is quite different to anywhere else in the world, and it forces you to be quite creative."
Power cuts were common, Maryke explains, so the team decided to introduce its own fail-safe solution by creating its own supply of biodiesel. "We collected all the used oil from our restaurant customers, and we created our own biodiesel to run our generators."
Sustainability was also built into other aspects of the operation. "Our production facility was off the freshwater grid as we had amazing rainwater capturing tanks and we utilised our waste in biodigesters so we could run all our protein skimmers off that."
Maryke spent 17 years in aquaculture, where she was involved with almost every aspect of the business, from design and construction to research and development, broodstock management, hatchery production, sustainability certification, and marketing.
However, her love of marine conservation drew her back to the world of aquarium science, as Two Oceans Aquarium general curator, and then CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation – a non-profit foundation that she helped to create.
"In aquariums the purpose is really to educate. At the Two Oceans Aquarium, we did a lot of work within environmental education and conservation. We set had very impactful education programmes, and a sea turtle rescue and rehab programme, which was so much fun. We had thousands of children, particularly from the rural areas, come through our classrooms. We also had a van fitted with solar panels and small aquatic life support systems, and we'd take tanks with sea stars and anemones to go and show these kids who've never seen the ocean, just to inspire them and create a bit of awareness around not just the ocean but the environment. We wanted to introduce children to the magic of the ocean and how they could contribute to a healthy planet."
"It was a wonderful experience, running the aquarium, diving, doing all the fun stuff. It's really important to have fun while you work. I also love the business side of things – putting in processes and really good standards and making sure there's quality and environmental management systems in place."
In 2021, she was invited to join The Kingfish Company as General Manager, spending a year working at the Netherlands-based company's facilities in Zeeland.
"It was taking a company from start up to scale up and settling down into the commercial phase. That was a fantastic experience, looking at our sustainability, measuring and reporting it, while also having a very good focus on production and animal welfare and giving the fish the absolute best. I had a really good time there – it's an amazing team, and a beautiful product."
"The aquarium in Durban is a huge facility with a lot of staff. I was involved in all operations, from animal husbandry to exhibit design, facilities maintenance, conservation and communications and everything in between. I had a great veterinary team, and a very successful turtle conservation program, so I got to rescue and play with turtles again, which was fantastic."
"I have a lot of hope for the ocean impact space – people do care. Never before have we had this level of awareness of our impacts on the environment and what we need to do for positive outcomes."
Over the course of her career, Maryke Musson has also become something of a go-to expert on marine biology and the blue economy in South Africa.
"Anything ocean-related, people tend to phone me or contact me, for interviews, radio programs or whatever. I love sharing knowledge and experiences while inspiring ocean care and awareness."
"I have a lot of hope for the ocean impact space – people do care. Never before have we had this level of awareness of our impacts on the environment and what we need to do for positive outcomes," she says. She also supports African blue economy and ocean economy startups through an acceleration program run by Ocean Hub Africa.
Her expertise was called on again by The Kingfish Company, who wanted Maryke's input as they continued to develop their sustainability metrics and reporting. "I popped back over to help The Kingfish Company earlier this year with their integrated sustainability and annual report and it was fantastic to see the team and progress. It reminded me how much I love aquaculture and the direction many companies are taking towards truly sustainable seafood".
In March this year Maryke headed up to Iceland "to go and see what the aquaculture buzz was about". A swim in the ocean at Reykjavik was definitely a trigger for wanting to spend more time in the country, but at the time she did not realise that a permanent move was on the cards.
"I started assisting Matorka with a sustainability plan, and of course it is impossible for me to have a conversation without talking about fish, which eventually led to an offer to come and head up operations here at Matorka in beautiful Iceland," she says, smiling.
Iceland hooked Maryke from the start. "The country has so much on offer, and there's also really great awareness around aquaculture," she notes.
"I was very attracted to the uniqueness of Iceland, and of course the fact that Matorka runs on geothermal energy. We don't have to heat the water. We don't have to chill the water. For sustainability, it's just ticking all the boxes, it has great potential."
"I've been working insane hours to just find my feet and get a good understanding of production and of course the expansion plans. It's been an incredible two weeks onsite."
"Quality is super important – not just the quality of the product, but the quality of how we do our work, the quality of everything we do."
"I'm so looking forward to being part of the growth and development of this company, and I feel very proud to be here and to continue to optimize how we do things, so that when we state we're sustainable, it is measurable, it is accurate and it is real."
"I believe in the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, that you can always do better. We want to make the systems even better, so it's supporting the teams on the ground to work smarter, and to make sure our fish perform even better, that we are giving them everything they need. Every individual fish counts," she says.
"Quality is super important – not just the quality of the product, but the quality of how we do our work, the quality of everything we do. I'm so looking forward to being part of the growth and development of this company".
"There's a lot of plans because it's such an amazing location, but the proof is in the product. I don't blame people for looking at Iceland because there's fantastic water supply, and we have incredible geothermal renewable energy. That's such an advantage. And the freight channels are well established, because we we're sort of in the middle between Europe and the US. But we've still got to manage how we send our fish out so that we can manage our carbon emissions."
"There's also very good legislation and permit conditions – it involves a lot of planning and collaborating with government and the municipalities and working with the Ocean Cluster."
Iceland's focus on circularity and sustainability through initiatives such as the Iceland Ocean Cluster also make it an attractive location, Maryke says, noting that Matorka is working with the cluster, as well as with Icelandic university researchers, on sustainability.
"I love the concept of 100% fish. I think wherever you are in the world, if you don't consider circularity, you're going to end up wasting money because in the medium and longer term it is saving money."
"I feel that Iceland offers good opportunities to incorporate circularity. Not just in waste management, but in the whole design of the facilities, whether it's full RAS or hybrid."
"In Matorka, we're lucky as we have a hybrid system because of the incredible water quality. I mean, I go to the fish tanks, and I just stand there and look at it, and think this water was filtered through lava rock." In South Africa, Maryke says, she was used to screen, sand and biofilters. "Here it's naturally filtered water. It's just beautiful," she says.
"Everything we do, we look at the potential for circularity, whether it's repurposing or reusing, or how we design the systems. We have a very energy efficient design because it pumps water only once and then we use gravity for the flow."
"I'm very hard to please, I always say we can do better! So, we will continue to improve. We're tracking our carbon emissions, and we will seek new targets and commit to improving on it year on year and as we expand. Ideally, we want to be carbon neutral," she says, noting that Matorka has been offsetting its scope 1 and 2 emissions since 2014.
"By using geothermal energy and having a low carbon impact, Matorka has already been working on that. It also does local offsetting by supporting local tree planting initiatives. I love that approach – let's start local and then we'll branch out and see where else we can make a difference."
"Part of the strategy was get somebody in to fully focus on the sustainability and quality," she says, and Matorka has now appointed its new Chief Sustainability Officer, Cees-Jan Bastiaansen. "We know each other well – we've worked together in the past. I'm going to be very much supporting that role because it's such a passion of mine and we work together really well. I was definitely part of inspiring him to grow his skills and interest and experience in this field. It is very exciting."
So, what's next on her busy agenda?
"At Matorka, we're not a huge team but we're an international team, and all of us have a great appreciation and respect for the Icelandic way of doing things."
"Farming arctic char is a new industry compared to salmon farming, and that makes it really exciting and very unique."
"I haven't been here for long, but I really want to learn more about the culture, and I would love to learn the language, which will not be easy because it's a complicated one. I have been bouncing around a bit over the last few years which was adventurous and exciting, but I am committed to stay here long term so that I can contribute to achieving our targets. I love the sun, but I find the ice amazing so I'm looking forward to the winter. I want to make the most of this incredible country. Being here is like a big adventure. I want to paddle around Iceland, which is about 5,000 kilometres of coastline, so it's going to take a while to do! Iceland has about 104 lighthouses and I want to visit every single one of them," she laughs.
"We're going to be super busy. Farming arctic char is a new industry compared to salmon farming, and that makes it really exciting and very unique. So, there's a lot of potential for improvements and research and development. I really enjoy that part, and I love collaboration, so I'm looking forward to getting a good grip on this modern industry. And in the feed space, I want to contribute to testing and developing alternative protein sources. So, I'm not going to be bored!"