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Out to make a splash in the market

Saturday interview: Alastair Barge aims to have the island of Gigha made synonymous with top-quality halibut.

APPLES from Airdrie or carrots from Coatbridge might not really work. But Loch Fyne kippers and oysters, Orkney cheese and beef, Arbroath smokies even Stornoway black pudding, prove that provenance can be a powerfully positive marketing tool for food.

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So there should be no more helpful a place of origin than a stunningly beautiful if tiny island that is supposed to belong to God. The more so that it has reversed 300 years of decline with its population increasing by over 50% with 60% of islanders now below the age of 45.

Gigha's achievements since the community buy-out six years ago are dramatic and for the first time in over 40 years, the island is no longer classed as a fragile community by the development agencies. One who is determined to deploy this positive public profile to good commercial effect is Alastair Barge, managing director of Gigha Halibut. His mission is to make the fish synonymous with the island, and vice versa.

After two years in development some 700 halibut are harvested every week from the company's land-based 16 tanks at the southern end of the island.They look out to the Sound of Gigha where in 1263 King Hakon of Norway brought 200 ships en route to the Battle of Largs which was the beginning of the end of the Viking sway over Scotland.

The sort of historical morsel enjoyed by guests at the Isle of Gigha Hotel, who have already established halibut prepared in lemon and chive butter as one of the most popular dishes.

Gigha halibut has also been on display on the top shelf in 57 Marks & Spencer's stores, retailing at £9.99 for a pack of two steaks. "But with M&S offering a meal for two plus a bottle of wine, we have our work cut out there," Barge laments.

However things are looking up - sales to the US last year were worth £100,000 and will be considerably more this year.

His company now accounts for 10% of the world's production of farmed Atlantic halibut, with Norway the only other serious player.

Being land based they say they tick all of the environmentalist's boxes with the water being returned to sea pretty much as it left it. Meanwhile most of the electricity used for pumping the water originates from the community wind farm, adding to the sustainable credentials of the end product.

But the most important thing to Barge is that he has finally developed a model that allows this largest of flat fish to be commercially farmed. But it was a long and twisty road.

Originally from Rhu near Helensburgh, his grandfather in his retirement bought a hill farm at Otter Ferry on Loch Fyneside. His father inherited the concern and as early as 1968 was looking to diversify into fish farming using the river on the farm for trout production.

But an unusually dry spell did for that. In the early 1970s they got into salmon hatching but were bought out by McConnell who became Marine Harvest who then moved to the Outer Isles where they also located their hatchery. So the Barge family then developed a land-based salmon farm.

"It had to be on the land because at that time the early cages were made of wood with polystyrene floats so one force eight gale in Loch Fyne and they would all be away. By 1977 our company Otter Ferry Salmon was producing about 50 tonnes of very nice salmon a year from our tanks when the whole of the industry in Scotland was only producing 1000 tonnes. So we were responsible for a sizeable proportion."

But eventually the cages were improved and could be sited in the exposed seas. So the Barges had to adapt to Salmon egg and smolt production, providing the young fish for the new marine fish farms but that only lasted till the early 1990s when the bigger companies began to grow their own smolts.

"So we had to look at other species to grow in our tanks. We looked at turbot, lobster, cod and of course halibut which we picked because as a flat fish it could grow well in the ambient conditions in our tanks at Otter Ferry.

"With 55% of it flesh, we thought it was the right species at the right of the end the market. So we got 25 broodstock halibut caught off Iceland to start our new enterprise."

The first few years were spent on research but by 1998 they were producing "a serious amount of juvenile halibut" at what is the only halibut hatchery in the UK. Their main customer was Marine Harvest who didn't want to have to invest in a hatchery but then decided they didn't want to farm any more halibut in Scotland, it would all be done in Norway.

"So we had to decide how to carry on and had been looking at Gigha and other places to grow the business. The site at Gigha was built in 1986 by the then owner David Landale. He was a director of Pinneys smoked salmon. It was a land-based farm pumping water from the sound of Gigha into large tanks on the eastern shore."

The price of salmon fell and the process was no longer able to compete with cage-reared salmon. The farm was then used to rear turbot in the nineties but the growth rates at the ambient temperatures was not quick enough to be economic. It was too cold for the species. So the site was left empty in 2003 .

"The major obstacle was to find £3m working capital in a notoriously difficult sector on a one-crop basis to get going.

"With the help of DC Accounting, a firm of accountants from Dundee, we found investors in the form of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (40%); the former owner of Gigha, Derek Holt, (20%) who never sold the fish farms; our Otter Ferry company (20%) and some private investors as the project was eligible though the EIS scheme."

At the beginning of 2006 140,000 halibut (Gigha one) started being transferred to Gigha from Otter Ferry by lorry most weighing 100 grammes and six inches in length. They have grown and survived at the budgeted rate and sales of an average of three kilogram fish about three feet long commenced last September.

The harvesting of Gigha One will end in 2010, and the harvesting of the next crop, Gigha two, another 70,000 fish, is due to begin in 2011.

But what Barge really wants now is an investor who is in for the long haul and not just from harvest to harvest. "Such a long-term commitment would allow real investment in not only the infrastructure and securing production, but also the marketing and promotion of the brand.

"The sales strategy was low key to start with so that we could ensure the product was worthy of promotion under the Gigha name.

"I recently had our own fish, very nicely cooked in a pretty good Edinburgh restaurant but it was on the menu as baked halibut', while the lamb was Borders' Lamb'. So our challenge is to get Gigha on to the menu with the fish.

"The strategy is now to seek more discerning customers who appreciated the provenance that Gigha can offer. As a joint promotion it benefits the company, the island and the customer. The menu in the top restaurants should not just read Baked halibut' it should read Fillet of Isle of Gigha Halibut, baked with a lemon and lime butter'. That's what we are after.

"We are currently revamping our website to include a recipe section and endorsement from leading chefs who appreciate what we are trying to do."

Value added and what to do with different sizes of the fish is where more income could be created and therefore more jobs than the present three on Gigha and six at Otter Ferry.

Barge concludes: "After pretty well a lifetime of trying to get the right market for farmed fish, I am confident we have finally found it with halibut. And I have to say that a community-owned island has been a good place to locate a business. Everyone has been helpful and supportive towards the venture. It is very much a can do' culture."

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