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Meet the trawlerman turned mussels man tending his ropes on the Shetland seas

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As the sun rises over the still waters at Scalloway harbour, Kenny Pottinger and his teenage son Craig are setting sail.

Their mussel boat chugs gently into the Atlantic Ocean, buffeted by Shetland’s bitter winds.

Softly-spoken Kenny, 47, is a pioneer of the island’s booming shellfish industry. He quit life as a trawlerman when Craig was a baby and 17 years later, he is proudly showing him the ropes.

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny Pottinger is a trawlerman turned mussel producer in Shetland (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Mussel fishermen leave home around 6am to set sail (Picture: Nigel Millard )

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny’s boat is called Celtic Queen (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Shetland’s subarctic position guarantees an abundance of fish – but also unforgiving weather.

Decked out in his protective oilskins, Kenny – a born and bred islander – says: ‘We are up around 6am and out in all weathers.

‘We harvest about 6.5 tonnes of mussels on a normal day, that’s probably around 400,000 mussels.

‘On a beautiful day, there’s no place I’d rather be than out on the water. I tried an office job once but it really wasn’t for me.

‘On a cold day though, with the rain, wind and snow it get as low as -3C. But the wind chill will blow right to your bones.

‘So I keep warm by working hard. The weather really gets you if you stand still.’

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Mussels start off as spat (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The spat attaches itself to ropes in the water (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Shetland’s position on both the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea allow the mussels to grow large (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Shetland’s mussel trade began to establish itself in the late 1990s when EU quota negotiations saw the decline in the white fish industry and trawlermen had to find alternative employment.

For Kenny, it provided the opportunity to be with wife Shryleen and help raise their four children, now aged six to 17.

It took three years to get his first mussel harvest and he supplemented his income with salmon farming.

He recalled: ‘After I left school, I went to work on the trawlers and we would be away for two or three weeks at a time.

‘That’s a really great life when you are young, free and single but once I had a family I knew I wanted to be at home every night.’

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The ropes are raised from the waters using a winch (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The mussels clump together for warmth (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny’s son Craig works to remove the seaweed from the ropes (Picture: Nigel Millard)

A Shetland mussel will take between two-and-a-half and three years to grow, attached to rope in pristine waters rented from The Crown Estate.

Once harvested, it will be on a dinner plate anywhere in the UK within three days.

In late spring, mussels naturally begin spawning as the water temperatures rise.

Kenny will place dropper ropes into the water and the larvae, known as spat, will settle on it.

After about a year, he will move his mussels to growing sites around Shetland – where the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean tides will provide them with plenty of nutrients and plankton to grow.

They are then left alone to grow in a ‘completely natural and sustainable process.’

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny took up mussel farming so he could be home each night for his young family (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The Pottinger family are out in all weathers harvesting mussels (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Craig left school a few months ago and is working full-time with his father Kenny (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Kenny added: ‘I call the spat my babies. You just have to hope for the best.

‘Once the lines are in the water, we don’t touch them for a few years until it’s time to harvest.

‘Nature just sustains itself. You are hoping for a nice, clean shell and good meat.

‘You want the inside to be as full as possible.’

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Mussels will take about two-and-a-half to three years to grow (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The dropper rope full of mussels is removed (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The line is fed through a de-clumping machine (Picture: Nigel Millard)

After a cup of tea and a bowl of porridge, Kenny’s commute is just a four-minute drive through the village of Scalloway, on the eastern-tip of Shetland’s main island.

His boat, Celtic Queen, will take 30 minutes from the pier to his current harvesting site in Stream Sound.

The surrounding rugged hills are dotted with the ruins of crofters’ cottages, between which sheep and Shetland ponies graze.

The only sound is the gentle hum of his boat’s motor, occasionally punctuated by the squawk of a swooping seagull.

The mussel line is raised out of the water using a winch and Craig’s first job is to chip away at the curtain of green and purple seaweed that has formed over the last two years.

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The only noise is the gentle hum of the boat’s motor (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny Pottinger’s mussel boat in the Atlantic Ocean (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny and Craig hard at work (Picture: Nigel Millard)

The mussels huddle together for warmth and they are fed through a de-clumping machine to separate them.

They are graded for size and the smaller ones are reattached to a new rope and put back in the water to grow for another year.

Those that are large enough are put into large holdalls and, after several hours, the Pottinger men will head back to shore with their catch.

Kenny’s younger brother Michael helps offload the mussels before taking them to the main town of Lerwick on a refrigerated lorry.

They will go on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen to be cleaned, packed and distributed to restaurants and supermarkets around the UK.

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The mussels go through a machine to space them out (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The mussels are graded for size using a machine (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The smaller mussels are put back on the ropes to go back into the sea for another year to grow (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Kenny continued: ‘It is a very simple process.

‘Mussels are hardy creatures and they can survive for days out of the water.

‘Craig has been working with me for about three years in his school holidays and weekends.

‘We get on well. We never argue on the boat, he always does what he’s told and he’s a good worker.

‘I really enjoy passing on what I know to him.’

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny has been teaching Craig everything he knows about the mussel industry (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The mussels are moved around the boat by crane (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Aquaculture and fishing is the biggest industry in Shetland (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Kenny is one of 97 Shetlanders employed in the mussel industry, which produces 6,000 tonnes per year and is worth an annual £5.8 million to the island’s economy.

Only a handful of people are out at sea and most made the switch when EU regulations hit at the turn of the century.

Chief Executive of Seafood Shetland, Ruth Henderson, explained: ‘We had boats decommissioned, quotas reduced and the whole fishing sector was on its knees.

‘It wasn’t just Scotland, it was the whole of the EU but it hit Shetland badly.

‘Initially for many people, mussels were a sideline.

‘But the fishermen adapted their skills and started producing mussels or went into salmon farming.

‘Now there is a real optimism in the sector and it gives employment to people in the really remote areas of Shetland.’

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The boat comes back to Scalloway harbour mid-afternoon (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The Pottinger family will harvest roughly 400,000 mussels each day (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

The bags of mussels are offloaded and put onto a refrigerated truck which then catches the overnight ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Today fishing and aquaculture is Shetland’s main industry, employing around a quarter of the archipelago’s 23,000-strong population.

All 23 of Shetland’s mussel businesses are accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which has strict standards on sustainable fishing.

Ms Henderson added: ‘The sea influences how we are as Shetlanders.

‘It shapes us and we depend on it for our livelihoods, so we know we have to take care of it and give thanks for the bounty it provides.’

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Ruth Henderson, Chief Executive of Seafood Shetland said the mussel industry gives jobs to people living in remote parts of Shetland (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

After a hard day’s work, Kenny and Craig return to the shed where they keep their oilskins (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny debeards and cleans the mussels before steaming them (Picture: Nigel Millard)

With the mussels now on the lorry, Kenny hangs up his oilskins in a small shed at Scalloway harbour, which is overlooked by the stone ruins of a 17th century castle.

‘My wife won’t let me keep them in the house,’ he quips as he walks through his front door and down the hallway adorned with family photos.

Youngest daughter Miley is the first to greet her father but she is less than impressed to learn he’s cooking mussels for supper.

Older sisters Kayla Marie and Shana are happy enough and Kenny jokes they will soon have to start working on the boat to earn their keep.

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny’s cooked mussels ready for an evening meal for his family (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny’s mussels will be on your plate in three days (Picture: Nigel Millard)

Mussel fishing Shetland Picture: Nigel Millard

Kenny with his family – son Craig, daughters Kayla Marie, Miley and Shana and wife Shryleen (Picture: Nigel Millard)

He added: ‘The bairns actually enjoy being out on the water more than I do but I can’t ever imagine tiring of fishing.

‘I wouldn’t want to be anywhere other than Shetland. Although mussel producing in the Bahamas might be good.’

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