Article by Andrea Mujica Pereira & Marta Negrete.
Have you ever played Monopoly? When you start you have an idea, you’re going to buy that street and build a couple of hotels, or maybe get that station. But then, as the game goes on, things happen that take you down a different path, sometimes the path to success. That happened to Matthijs Metselaar, veterinarian and founder of Aquatic Vets Ltd. During his path through the game board, several sidesteps into industry and research appeared, but all contributed to his aquatic veterinary knowledge base.
It is not about how you get there that matters in the end, so with all those pieces, Matt ended up playing another game, that of Aquaculture, an industry in which, he says, “you’re very much looking for a puzzle to solve, and that is what keeps it interesting, you don’t stop learning from the day you start it”. What more could anyone who enjoys challenges ask for?
First of all, why Aquaculture?
I was thinking of going into shipping if I didn’t get into vet school. I thought that’d be good work on the big boats like the oil tankers and all that sort of stuff. In the Netherlands, there is literally a lottery system to get into vet school. Only 225 students a year are allowed to start, of the 1000 who apply, but I got in the second year I tried
As a child, I was allergic to dogs and other furry animals and therefore kept fish and reptiles as pets, sparking my interest in exotics. I didn’t want to become a dog and cat vet, not only because I used to be allergic, but because I wanted to do something a bit more interesting. I was planning on being an exotic vet, not even knowing I could do fish. When I started vet school, I quite quickly joined a veterinary student society for exotic animals. It was there I learned about fish medicine. We were writing an article for the magazine we provided to the students and members and found out there was a guy doing fish living next to my ex-girlfriend. I had a chat with him, and one thing led to another. Before I knew I was working with him on ornamental fish, mainly koi, the Japanese carp, but I wanted to do a bit more to expand my knowledge and that is when I moved to Stirling to do my Ph.D. It sort of unfolded after that.
You have been working in the Aquaculture Industry for over 10 years, what has this experience been like for you?
I started vet school not knowing aquatic medicine was a thing. Ever since finding out, I have been learning something new every day. Aquaculture is such a quickly developing field that remains exciting to be a part of.
Working as an independent health manager for koi for a few years I found that the techniques used had not evolved for decades. Formalin, malachite green, and other dyes were, and still are, the main medicines. There were no targeted medicines for koi. Starting in Stirling with my Ph.D. I added my share of current knowledge, however, a pure scientific career was not for me. Research still features in my subsequent and current job, but they have a very practical bias.
Peer-reviewed articles form an important source of information, where you often have to extrapolate the information that is available to new problems or species. I have been lucky enough to be involved in many aspects of the field such as ornamental fish, koi, experimental fish medicine, and, of course, the added challenge you get when you advise on health for food-producing fish. Working as a vet in Aquaculture is working with teams of highly skilled people which keeps you on your toes at all times.
You say that you realized that you didn’t want a purely scientific career, but you also say that you would like to transfer your knowledge to the next generation? How do you like to do it?
I do teach at a few universities, but I would like to expand that. Theoretical knowledge and practical experience need to go hand in hand. Most of the practical experience is gained after the study, and of course, this will always be the case but when coming out of University vets know a lot, know where to find information but not always how to apply it. I think there is scope for improvement.
I recently got board-certified, and part of the ethos is that “you, the people that are within the college, try to pass that knowledge on to expand that knowledge base”. Because what we’re trying to do is, not only to expand but also to professionalize Aquaculture medicine.
That’s a good thing about Aquaculture as well. Whereas in other species, dogs, cats, cattle, pigs, poultry, the vets say “oh, well this is our domain, you can’t touch it”, in Aquaculture, there’s a lot more interaction between non-vets and vets in the health part of it. So, it makes for a very interesting day job because you being a vet is not enough for being a good health manager within this industry. There is a much more holistic approach to problem-solving.
What led you to start your own fish vet practice?
I had been contemplating starting my own practice for a few years now. A few things fell in place at the end of 2020 and the practice had its first clients at the beginning of 2021. I enjoy the interaction with the people looking after the animals and my practice is aimed at assisting at the forefront of aquatic health. Offering this worldwide allows me to use my problem-solving skills trying to not only remotely diagnose in some cases but also trying to find a solution at distance.
In which place do you locate the human factor when prospering in this Aquaculture industry and developing your career?
This is very important. Aquaculture is a very small community for the size of its production. There is a lot of interaction both locally and internationally. I am interacting with people all over the globe and on every continent. I set up my company 1.5 years ago. Most of my clients I have known for years. Word of mouth is my main source of new clients. I have not come round yet to get my website up and running, I will soon, but I don’t think it would have made a great difference in these first few years.
You work all over the world, with different people, different regulations… How do you manage this part?
This is best managed by working with local people. You can’t know it all and it would be very hard to keep up with all the changes. I’m licensed only in the UK and the Netherlands, but outside that, I don’t have any authority to prescribe medication. I solve that by working with local vets who can prescribe if medication is needed. I have a strong relationship with my board-certified histopathologist, Dr. Jorge Del Pozo, who is UK based. He is often a crucial part of the diagnosis, and it is a skill not as easily found worldwide. With modern technology you can now also scan histology slides, avoiding the need to get import and export approval for diagnostic samples. I also work with third-party suppliers, I advise my client to go with the one that’s best suited for their needs. Most of the communication is ttechnology-based but sometimes it is still better to meet face to face to solve problems and avoid misinterpretation.
But as with everything, for every problem, there’s a solution. That’s what the whole game is about and what keeps making me get up in the morning, to solve more problems and to come to a solution that works. It’s quite funny too, to be in contact with somebody in Africa or Brazil and you know the solution, but they don’t have whatever you need to solve the problem, so you have to make do with whatever is available. It is very rewarding when you then solve it in the end.
From your point of view, what are the biggest challenges the industry will face in the coming years? And what about you and your company, what is in the future for Matt and Aquatic Vets?
Challenges are a funny thing, I like the problems they throw up, however, the farmer of course is not so keen. Disease will remain a big challenge, to give you one biased view from a vet. May it be sea lice in salmon or bacterial infections in tilapia. There are solutions for most, but it is important to make sure these are used correctly. In sea lice, resistance is increasing. Only a few novel treatments have come to market, and most have major regulatory hurdles to cross, making it not only more expensive but there is also less incentive to come up with new treatments. Tilapia will have to find a way to shift from conditions in which they survive to those that they can actually thrive in.
Regarding Aquatic Vets, I hope to build a team of board-certified specialists and expand the practice to offer health management advice worldwide. Having just qualified for the European College of Aquatic Animal health I am hoping to initiate another boost of my knowledge over the coming years. As such I see lots of opportunities for knowledge transfer in the years ahead. I hope to transfer that knowledge to the next generation of fish veterinarians either through the practice or at university or conference lectures.
New knowledge, new problems, new challenges, Matt is convinced that is exactly what this Aquaculture game is all about. We are also convinced of one thing: he has a lot of games left to play. As he says, “there’s a lot of things that weren’t there before”, so, let’s have fun!
About Aquatic Vets
Aquatic Vets is a UK based veterinary practice that provides cost-effective disease management consultancy to the aquaculture industry globally, ranging from preventive medicine, biosecurity, and named vets, to consultancy on managing health cost.