In Shetland, you’re never more than three miles from the sea. While there’s a certain bleak beauty to the islands’ rolling, windswept interior, the sea is always the star, and it shapes everything: like the ovoid, marbled pebbles on beaches across the islands; or the Tolkien-esque stacks of Dore Holm, hewn by the fierce swells that crash in towards Eshaness, sending great white waves up beyond the top of the lonely lighthouse.
The sea has shaped Shetland culture, too, since long before the Vikings arrived from Norway towards the end of the ninth century. Today, more fish is landed in Shetland than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Fishing and aquaculture are worth more than GBP300 million to the islands’ economy, more than the North Sea oil whose funds have helped build smooth roads and shiny leisure centres in remote island communities. Shetland’s fishing fleet includes everything from from individuals with tiny boats and lobster creels, right up to the monster pelagic trawlers based on the island of Whalsay, with their onboard gyms and cutting-edge technology, which haul in close to 100,000 tonnes of mackerel and herring each year.
“When you grow up here, the sea’s in your blood,” says Beth Mouat, the Joint Head of Marine Science and Technology at the NAFC Marine Centre, a modern two-storey building on the waterfront at Scalloway, Shetland’s former capital. “It runs through just about every aspect of our culture, and it’s always there somehow.”
The NAFC Marine Centre has been the brains of the fishing and aquaculture industries since it was established back in 1994. The idea back then was to be able to train fishermen so that they wouldn’t have to leave the islands; and to provide more training for workers in the relatively new aquaculture industry, especially salmon and mussel farms. Today, it does pioneering, industry-led research into fishing and aquaculture, and runs more than 140 courses, from aquaculture apprenticeships to introductory fishing courses and skipper’s tickets.
We meet Beth in the marine hatchery on the second floor of the centre. The research department’s latest project is developing hatchery techniques for the mussel aquaculture industry. Part of this is an experiment to find out which algae cultures are best for feeding mussel larvae—so we’re surrounded by pipes of bubbling, pee-coloured water. Mussels are just one of the industries that have boomed in the past few decades: fed by clean, powerful tides, Shetland now produces 90 per cent of the UK’s mussels. These morsels are considered the best in Europe, if not the world, and the industry is now worth close to GBP8 million. If you order mussels in a London seafood restaurant, the chances are that they might be the plump Shetland variety.
“All the seafood we produce is of a very high quality,” says Beth. “It’s partly to do with the clean environment, and partly to do with how the fishermen look after their catch, and how closely monitored the industry is.
Beth’s job, essentially, is to manage the background research to support sustainable seafood industries. Her team might go out with fishermen to measure their catch, and to gather data on fish stocks; they might work with a salmon farming company to explore the use of cleaner fish; or they might respond to issues reported by people in industry, whether that’s gear trials to reduce unwanted bycatch,or mussel farmers wanting to be more efficient. One PhD student is looking at the carbon footprint of the pelagic fishing industry. “We’re really connected with the industry,” says Beth. “We’re speaking to the guys on the boats or the fish farms all the time, and responding to their needs.”
Beth grew up wanting to be a marine biologist. “It was sailing, it was watching nature documentaries, but most of all it was just literally being surrounded by the sea,” she says. So she set off to study marine biology in Aberdeen, and stayed for a Masters in fisheries, before moving to Glasgow for a PhD in shellfish. Later, she worked with Scottish Natural Heritage, working on inshore fisheries.
But homesickness had started to kick in. “The calls home were getting harder,” she says. “I always felt like I was missing out, and I just missed it all: the community, the environment, the wildlife, the long summer days…” So, when a job came up at the NAFC 14 years ago, she jumped at it, and has never looked back.
While Beth works in research rather than teaching, she is passionate about the increasing opportunities to study in Shetland. “Students here get a chance to really work closely with industries, and to deliver actual outcomes,” she says. “If you do an aquaculture apprenticeship with us, for example, you’ll do a lot of your learning with employers out on boats. Not much of it is just sitting in a classroom learning theory.”
There’s an extra incentive, too, in that there tend to be jobs available in fishing and aquaculture once you finish your studies. Both industries are in rude health, with plans in motion for a new GBP7.6 million white fish market in Lerwick, and a GBP5.6 million fish market in Scalloway, both of which are due to be open by 2020. As Chris Thomason, a mussel farmer in the northern village of Cullivoe puts it: “We’re always looking for people to come here and work. The work is here, and new people will be welcomed with open arms.”
Beth is also keen to talk up the benefits of life in Shetland. She lives in a beautiful old crofthouse in Levenwick, south of Lerwick, with her partner and two daughters, aged eight and nine. The view from the house looks out to sea past the semicircular polycrub tunnel where she grows her own vegetables. “I think life in Shetland sells itself,” she says. “There’s very little crime, the education’s amazing, and you’ve got orcas and otters on your doorstep. And it’s just so beautiful, whether it’s a howling gale and the waves are crashing in, or a summer’s evening on an empty beach.”
The big misconception, she says, is that Shetland’s backward, and there isn’t much to do. “I guess people look at a small rock in the middle of the North Sea and think we’re quite rural, and not very sophisticated,” she says. “But there are great sports facilities, fabulous music venues, and a lot going on, from wool week to the folk festival. It’s not a few crofters eking out an existence on a rock; it’s an innovative modern society that’s always looked outwards to the world. It’s a really vibrant place to be.”
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