So, you want to work in a blue pasture?

Simon Doherty aquaculture vet

I was one of those vets who, from a very young age, wanted to work with farm animals. I’ve always had a fascination with food and, to this day, I love cooking. The only other thing I’d do if I could ‘do it all again’ would be to train to be a chef. Although I’ve always enjoyed eating fish and shellfish, I never imagined being a fish vet!

I qualified as a vet from the University of Glasgow in 2000, with the intention of heading into farm animal practice. After a spinal injury in 2005, I was forced to re-evaluate my career and, in 2007, I accepted a position at the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in Northern Ireland, where I became a Veterinary Research Officer in its virology branch. My role expanded into aquaculture when the vet in charge of the Fish Diseases Unit left, so I really ‘fell into’ being a fish vet at that point in my career.

Most vets who consciously plan to become a fish vet will do a Masters degree or a PhD in aquatic medicine, or an allied subject, after completing their veterinary degree. This is mainly because there simply isn’t time in the veterinary course for much more than a ‘taster’ of aquaculture work. In the UK, we are fortunate to have several universities delivering world-class training in fish and shellfish health and welfare – the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling runs an MSc in Aquatic Veterinary Studies, and the universities of PlymouthExeterBangorSt AndrewsAberdeen and the University of the Highlands and Islands, and others, run excellent postgraduate programmes that provide routes into veterinary careers in the aquaculture sector. Some fish vets undertake PhDs at one of these universities or at research institutes such as the AFBI, Moredun or Roslin.

However, because I came to the sector in a rather back-to-front manner, I built up on-the-job experience in diagnostics and study design before providing a dossier of evidence in support of my application to the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association (WAVMA) to become a Certified Aquaculture Veterinarian (CertAqV).

'There are many, many exciting opportunities in this emerging sector and veterinary surgeons are critical to the growth and sustainability of it'

Although the Atlantic salmon industry in the British Isles is largely focussed on the west coast of Ireland and the north and west of Scotland, I have also had the opportunity to travel to meetings and conferences in Norway and Canada, and have visited aquaculture enterprises in Africa, the Mediterranean, Thailand and India. And aquaculture is not all about salmon either – some of the amazing technology deployed in the salmon industry is now making a significant impact on the health, welfare and productivity of fish in other production systems, such as bass, bream, carp, tilapia, eels…and even in shellfish (mussels, oysters and scallops) and crustacean aquaculture (shrimp, crabs and lobsters), too.

There’s no such thing as a typical day or a typical week as a fish vet; sometimes you are in the lab working with a microscope to check fish for external parasites or gill damage. On other days, you might be visiting sea-tanks to inspect fish or collect samples – although it’s not a formal qualification, not getting seasick is a useful attribute for this job; it’s not always as calm on a sea loch as the day the photo above was taken!

Atlantic salmon 

An Atlantic salmon collected for examination for parasites

Sustainability is high on the agenda in aquaculture whether through reducing the environmental impact of fish farms (including engineering solutions to locate them further out in oceans), improving the health status of the fish using preventive medicine and biosecurity (measures taken to protect the health of a population) strategies (including reducing the use of antibiotics, helping to minimise risks associated with antimicrobial resistance), researching alternative protein sources (such as insect protein) to develop improved diets, utilising digital technologies (such as sensor devices in recirculating aquaculture systems) to maximise health and welfare outputs, improving genetics… The Collaborative Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture Futures (Cefas & University of Exeter) and the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre are two UK bodies leading the way on some of this work.

The bottom line is that the sector needs fantastic vets and farmers – there are many, many exciting opportunities in this emerging sector and veterinary surgeons are critical to the growth and sustainability of it… definitely a sector worth considering a career in!

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