By Hamish Macdonell, Director of Strategic Engagement, Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation

IT is not easy to get on to the barge controlling the salmon farm off Colonsay. Even in benign conditions, the swell out there on the edge of the Atlantic is so strong visitors have to time their jumps from the boat to the barge’s steel ladder to perfection.

This is the situation a television crew from Spain found themselves in a few days ago: leaping from boat to barge while laden down with cameras, microphones and recording equipment.

They all made it safely on board and were able to film the piece they wanted on the role of salmon farming in keeping Scottish island communities alive.

They interviewed Liam McNeill, a technician on the Colonsay farm, who was having to contemplate the move so many of his friends had made, to Glasgow or Edinburgh, in search of work.

But the decision of the people of Colonsay to vote in a local referendum for the salmon farm five years ago changed everything for Liam. Suddenly he was able to stay at home, with his family on the island and secure a well-paid job at the same time. “I’ve got generations of family history on the island,” he said. “As I was thinking I would have to leave, this opportunity came up. It has kept me on the island. It’s been great.”

Liam’s farm manager is Alistair Geddes, who hails from Jura, the island which looms over the south east of the Colonsay farm. He is also now working within sight of his childhood home.

The Colonsay salmon farm is part of a new generation of aquaculture operations. These big, oceanic farms are not designed to be sited along the shores of inland sea lochs but instead cope with the formidable tides and the currents out here on the edge of the Inner Hebrides, forces which disperse any organic fish waste swiftly. They are not on the routes taken by wild salmon up estuaries and into rivers so no-one – rightly or wrongly – can accuse these fish farmers of having any negative impact on wild fish.

This is part of the modern face of salmon farming in Scotland: a sector which uses new materials to build flexible but strong structures able to cope with 10-metre waves and howling gales, with pens tough enough to resist seal attacks and huge overhanging nets to keep out the birds.

But this isn’t just a story about Colonsay. Similar state-of-the-art farms – also backed by the island communities in local votes – have been constructed off Muck and Rum.

These have not only created jobs on these islands but provided the numbers needed to keep schools open and spark mini housing booms.

Last week’s announcement by Mowi, Scotland’s biggest salmon producer, that it intends to relocate two, smaller, inshore sites as soon as it gets permission to open bigger farms offshore, is likely to be the start of a trend.

Not all the salmon companies will want to – or indeed will need to – move operations further offshore. Farm sites that are performing well under today’s regulatory regime will continue to thrive.

But, for the bigger companies able to afford the large investment it takes to operate offshore, the future is likely to mean more Colonsays, more Mucks and more Rums, all of which will provide huge benefits to local communities.

Thanks to the efforts of that one determined TV crew, Spanish television audiences will soon know exactly what the aquaculture sector does to keep our island communities alive. How long before we all realise it too?