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January 7th 2020

Flying into Kirkwall's tiny airport you would be hard pressed to imagine anywhere else in the UK where a population of only 26,000, spread across 16 or so inhabited islands, could deliver such an incredible breadth of fine quality food and drink.

The islands' produce ranges from renowned whiskies, gins, cheeses and meats to, chocolate and seafood, including farmed salmon that is among the best in the world.

I hosted a group of six social media food Influencers (Instagram and other social media users who have an established credibility and audience) and photographers on a three day trip to Orkney, hoping to harness their social reach to engage with new audiences, debunk some of the myths about Scottish salmon farming and offer consumers an insight into how the number one fish of choice for UK shoppers is actually grown.

Food influencers Nell Nelson, Cate Devine and Claire Jessiman tuck into a Skara Brae salmon picnic

Key to achieving this was allowing the unpaid Influencers, and in turn their followers, to make up their own minds about the sector, see for themselves almost every stage of production and processing, the communities and environments in which salmon is farmed, and to speak freely with those tasked with growing and caring for the fish.

Social media offers trade bodies such as the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) the opportunity to engage in new ways with opinion formers, decision makers and consumers. The primary focus of our Orcadian trip was to provide the food experts with a greater understanding of salmon farming.

Just like growing healthy salmon, the key is in ensuring the right raw ingredients - in this case transparency and credibility - are in people's social media feeds, packaged and delivered in the right formats, on the right platforms and, crucially by the right people for the audiences they are aimed at.

The sector's commitment to transparency was evidenced during the day we spent with Cooke Aquaculture and its Orkney Area Manager, Robert Peterson.

Claire Jessiman, Cate Devine, Nathan Tyler, Nell Nelson, Rosemary Moon (L to R)

We set off from Stromness aboard a repurposed trawler dressed in dayglo oilskins, life-vests and matching wellies. Our first stop, after 45 minutes of rain-drenched sailing, was a long-established farm site just off the island of Hoy.

The group negotiated the slippery jump down from the boat to the pens and holding tight to the rails, watched as the fish were fed, before climbing onto a feed barge to observe the process via the underwater cameras.

The monitors provided my guests with a perspective rarely seen by the public but one that the SSPO hopes to make available to everyone with the launch of a new website featuring live feeds from Scottish salmon pens.

While standing on the shifting sea pen and clutching her mobile, Claire Jessiman, one of the Influencers, took the opportunity to open her Instagram Stories up as an "ask them anything" to her 21,000 followers.

Food writer and blogger Claire Jessiman on the side of a salmon pen

This allowed people from across the UK to directly ask and get immediate answers to their questions, with many taking the opportunity to engage with queries about the sector's record on pollution and plastic, the use of medicines including antibiotics, impacts of wild fish populations, the number of fish held in pens and the health benefits of eating salmon.

I judged this as one of the critical successes of the trip - where the producers could directly respond to the public's questions with fact and reason.

We then visited a shore site to meet Akva who are helping Cooke build the next generation of salmon pens. Seeing the structures being constructed on land before being towed out to sea allowed the group to better appreciate the significant size of the pens - necessary to enable the fish to display their natural behaviours including shoaling.

It also provided an insight into the skill, innovation and technology that goes into creating modern salmon farms that provide valuable employment for remote communities.

Edinburgh Food Safari founder Nell Nelson with Cooke's Robert Peterson

The final stop on our tour was a newly installed site off the island of Cava where the Cooke farm team answered questions about approaches to predator management including the use of seal-proof netting and acoustic deterrent devices.

Cooke then provided an insightful factory floor tour of its Kirkwall primary processing facility. Guided by plant's manager, we saw thousands of salmon being delivered by tanker before being gutted, iced and boxed ready for export only hours after harvesting.

I encouraged the group to ask questions of all the Cooke representatives they met throughout the tour and they were given unrestricted access to the site workers and the sites themselves. Stocking densities, health and welfare issues, survivability and harvesting were all discussed in depth - not with slick PR teams but with farm workers, managers and processors.

Touring Cooke Aquaculture Scotland's Kirkwall processing facility

Giving the people working in salmon farming the opportunity to respond to these enquiries helps provide a strong counter-narrative to the one currently being pushed in some areas of the media.

Throughout my visit to Orkney, the passion and professionalism of all those working in the salmon sector, in the supply chain, the service industry and in the communities in which they live was evident. They are rightly proud of the high quality products Orkney produces while sustaining its unique, fragile environment.

Orkney's global reputation as an archaeological destination is complemented by its growing credentials as a 'must visit' island for food and drink lovers and I, for one, will be back.

And as for the food Influencers, their social media posts have already reached tens of thousands of people who might not normally interact or engage with the salmon farming sector and the level of positive social media engagement is unprecedented.Whether some of those who may have been critical in the past, will change their minds about salmon farming remains to be seen but they have been given an honest and credible insight into the sector. The SSPO will proactively continue to counter disinformation about Scottish salmon farming with substance and transparency.

Nathan Tyler is the SSPO's Head of Digital and Communications