Imagine a child gazing with spellbound eyes at a fish tank. Now imagine that same child a few decades later, also gazing into a fish tank, just bigger and equipped with RAS. Shane A. Hunter was that child. He has studied and learned many things about fish and fish tanks over the years, but the spellbound is still exactly the same.
After a lifetime in aquaculture and 25 years at AquaBioTech, Shane continues looking to the future captivated and eager to continue learning, and, above all, wanting to share that knowledge with people who are or could be in the industry. He is committed to people. With his partners, with his colleagues, with the sector… because for him, as for us, aquaculture is a “people business”.
Your career path leaves no doubt about your interest in the industry. Why Aquaculture?
Well, it started when I was about 11 years old, and I had a friend who was keeping tropical fish in an aquarium at home. I was mesmerised by this aquarium and I thought it would be nice to have one, so I asked my parents for one as a Christmas present. And when I enjoy something, when I’m invested in it, I’m 110% into it, so obviously after some time, I ended up with 20 or 30 aquariums. That was the start of my interest in anything that’s aquatic or marine-related.
I have always loved water and the ocean, enjoyed sailing, canoeing, diving or going to the beach, but it really was the humble home aquarium that got me into this business. Obviously, when I went to university, I started to realize that the breeding of ornamental fish was just a very small part of a much larger industry, and that piqued my interest even further. Through my studies I ended up going into more of the commercial aquaculture side of things, even though I also had capture fisheries elements in my academic studies it was always the aquaculture side of things that really piqued my interest. I realised very soon that aquaculture was where I wanted to be.
In more than 25 years not only in the industry but in the same company, you have seen how AquaBioTech grew to become one of the largest independent aquaculture consulting companies. How has this growth been?
It’s been a huge professional and personal process. I only spent a few years in aquaculture working for other people and very quickly ended up getting involved in establishing AquaBioTech, almost by accident in a way.
When we created AquaBioTech, it was with this idea that we would start off being a desk-based consulting company, but recognising that the company itself would need to quickly evolve. It wouldn’t just be a consulting company, we would be involved in advisory and training, in all areas of aquatic contract research, and then ultimately in designing and building land-based and sea-based fish farms. So yes, it’s really been a huge journey that is far from being over.
It’s been incredibly rewarding to work with an amazing team of people who have all come together with a common goal. I think that’s something that has been such a personally experience to have people from all over the world, choose to leave their country, leave their homes and come and live and work with us in Malta. That’s been something quite special. And through this journey I have made lots of friends over the years, many who have chosen to stay, and others who have decided to move on, but yes, it’s been something quite special.
You work in more than 55 countries with AquaBioTech Group. What is it like to work with such different people and cultures?
Yes, but you have to see AquaBioTech in the context of where we are. Malta as a country is actually the size of a medium-sized European town, just 450,000 people. So really there was no local business, there was nothing that could really drive the business from the start. So, unlike a lot of other companies which start with a domestic business and then look for exports, we were export-orientated from day one.
That meant that you also had to go for a lot of different opportunities. So that in itself sent us everywhere, to more than 55 countries, probably more than 60 by now and it’s still growing. I think as we built the brand, built the quality recognition around what we were offering, we were able to attract a lot of people to join us.
Those people came from all over the world. So, I think that by building up the team with all those international experiences, it’s bridged that divide and it became something where we were much better than others at being able to take knowledge from one area and use it somewhere else. Sometimes people think it’s easy just to say ‘oh, well, it worked here, we’ll try it over there’, but it rarely is. Having the international team of people enabled us to do something that others were finding more complex.
But it’s also been very rewarding to travel. I feel very privileged to have been to so many countries and experienced so many cultures. I always say ‘I’ve been everywhere and seen nothing’ because you obviously don’t get to spend as much time seeing the country, but there have been a few countries that I’ve had the chance to spend a lot of time in and get to know the people and the culture.
How do you think the industry can help not just people working in it but their communities?
We need to make more effort to engage with the community and society in general. In many ways there is still a lack of understanding about what aquaculture is for many people. Aquaculture is the final frontier in the provision of food. There is no other food source where we rely on nature to provide us with our requirements. Aquaculture has a strong position in society in terms of providing very high-quality protein in a very sustainable way. There are a lot of indices out there that look at the amount of land or the amount of water various animals use in order to produce one kilo of protein and it is clear to see that fish farming is sustainable, but that’s perhaps not enough. I think engagement with communities from the start is important and you can see that there are a lot of fish farming operations now that are engaging heavily with their local community, with society, with schools, to try to educate from the start, rather than just counteracting false claims.
Even in AquaBioTech, we have a program which was initiated by the former Minister of Education [in Malta], whereby we are interacting with schools and, before COVID, we used to bring hundreds of students to our facilities, and to our offices, and show them what it is to be a marine biologist, to be an engineer, to be an aquaculture scientist, to be an aquatic veterinarian, and giving them exposure to what that job is so that students would go away and potentially think of this as a career path. Engagement with society is a part of sustainability. I think it’s a part of giving something back to the community. It’s about sharing knowledge, but also dispelling myths. As an industry, we’ve have not been good enough at that in the past. And yes, the industry has made mistakes, as have so many industries at the start, but we need to learn from that, move on and show people what it is what we’re doing, show people the efforts that we’re making, and show people that we are a very important part of society providing food and food security.
AquaBioTech’s mission statement talks much more about people than production or profits. Do you believe as we do, that people are the real core of this industry?
In AquaBioTech, we are a people company, we are selling knowledge, our experience and it has always been about people. There was a small group of us who started the company, and now we’ve grown to become twelve partners. It became twelve partners because we felt that it was always going to be a people business. It was necessary to share the company with other team members who thought the way we did, and had the same vision that we did. So, we grew from five to being twelve partners over the last 20 years.
I think in terms of the wider industry, people are its biggest strength and its greatest weakness because it is a very people-centric business. There are many things that we’ve managed to automate and there’s artificial intelligence coming into the sector, but there’s always going to be that human element required. And I think that the human involvement in fish farming will always be quite heavy, but at the same time, you also have to recognise that humans do make mistakes. It’s a bit like recirculation technology. The nuances, the specifics of each recirculation system now are still at a point where we are seriously lacking in people in our industry who understand land-based recirculation technology, and that is our weakest link at the moment. Because we want to drive it. There are people who are extremely passionate, I mean, I don’t think many people in aquaculture are in it for the money, it is the passion behind it. But, at the same time, it’s really important that we recognise we have left this huge void in the acceleration and development of our sector by not ensuring that academia and society in itself want to come and work in our sector.
We are seeing huge gaps in employment. Everyone I speak to is short of staff, and even when they do receive CVs of people, they are not with the necessary experience. So, we created an internship program in our company almost 18 years ago, and we try and take as many interns into our company and into our research facility as we can every year, just because we think it’s our part of helping provide an experience to students, to postgraduates about what aquaculture is. So often we see academia now being unable to provide practical experiences that I had 30 years ago at university. These experiences are not possible anymore because of increased regulations, and financial limitations. And we can sit there and say ‘oh, it’s a problem’, and pass the problem onto somebody else; or we can be part of the solution, so that’s the choice that we’ve made at AquaBioTech.
From your point of view, what are the biggest challenges the industry will face in the coming years? What will be AquaBioTech’s challenges? And yours?
We have our next 10 years plan that involves some very exciting developments that we’ve been gearing up for the last few years, and so we see the future is incredibly bright and full of opportunities. Finding the right people to develop those visions, develop those ideas, is going to be a challenge, but I think it is one that we can overcome.
As a sector though, we obviously have a little bit of an image problem, but, again, we talked about that, about us needing to engage more with society, with communities, to gain peoples understanding. Does everyone know where their seafood comes from? And the answer is we should, everyone should know where their food comes from and how it was grown. So, I think that there will be a lot more transparency. But that transparency will also cause some issues, just because we’re still playing catch up with regards to engaging with society.
We have also forgotten how complicated it can be to produce food and food is still undervalued. Since the Second World War, the way we produced food and the logistics that have developed around food supply-chains mean that people have historically seen food prices decreasing, and that’s put a lot of pressure on the producers to keep those prices down, which is, again, part of the process, but it gets to a tipping point where we can’t go any further.
Farmers, whether if it’s fish farmers or cattle, dairy, poultry, we all have a point where you can’t make your farm any larger. There are no more economies of scale to be achieved without incurring significantly more risk, no more technological investments that you can realistically make. So, I think it is going to be more complicated for us to produce food, seafood particularly, at a price point that is financially attractive for everyone. But thankfully, we do have a number of advantages with the recognised health benefits of seafood in a person’s diet. These are all positives for the industry, but we need to build on these and we need to ensure that whole sector is moving forward at a sustainable pace, not too fast, but at the same time at a pace that gives investors a reasonable return, which means that there is more smart money going into sectors of the business that require investment.
As we said at the beginning, Shane continues looking to the future, eager to continue developing our knowledge and push the boundaries of what is possible. His commitment and passion for this industry continues to grow over the years, and the proof is the last sentence he gives us: “There are so many opportunities which makes you want to get out of bed every day and come to work”. He talks about aquaculture, what else?
About AquaBioTech Group
AquaBioTech Group is an international consulting company that undertakes a variety of aquaculture, fisheries, and aquatic environmental projects, operating globally with clients and projects all over the world. Most of its work is related to the marine or aquatic environment, encompassing aquaculture developments, market research/intelligence, through to project feasibility assessments, finance acquisitions, project management, technology sourcing, and technical support and training. All this is from its strategic geographical location on the island of Malta, in the center of the Mediterranean.