Women in aquaculture: Vedrana Tomljanovic

Can you briefly describe your career in aquaculture?

I started working in aquaculture 12 years ago. For the first eight years of my career, I worked in Croatia on a site with three fish ponds, covering 6,000 hectares. I worked on the breeding of carp, grass carp, bighead carp, tench, catfish, pike and zander.

Tomljanovic produces zander and perch for FTN AquaArt AG

My main task was spawning control and fry rearing, but I was also involved in the rearing of commercial sized fish. During my last two years in Croatia, my company also started with RAS production of sturgeon (huso huso) and zander.

At the end of 2018, my family and I decided to leave Croatia and I started working for my current CEO in the Czech Republic as a main aquaculturist – producing zander, perch, catfish, largemouth bass and whitefish (Coregonus). In mid-2020, we moved production to Switzerland.

What inspired you to pursue a career in aquaculture?

My father and my grandfather. Before 1990, my father and my grandfather had small fishponds in Croatia where I spent a lot of time when I was a child. When I was seven years old, I started competing in sport fishing and later became a state fishing judge. Fish and fishing are in my blood.

Can you give some details on the philosophy of FTN, the production systems and the species produced?

woman doing health assessment on sedated fish
Tomljanovic works all year round in artificial cold rooms, which allows him to produce larvae for the next agricultural cycle

FTN AquaArt SA is a pioneer in indoor aquaculture and fish farming in Switzerland. We are committed to taking a more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable approach to food production. Our mission is to develop industrial farming solutions for edible fish that are as natural as possible, in order to make the most of natural resources and contribute to global food security. We have innovative technical solutions, in-depth knowledge of fish farming and a strong commitment to better environmental, societal and economic results.

We currently produce Zander and Perch and also aim to diversify into Catfish. We produce all year round with artificial cold rooms that allow us to produce our own larvae every two months.

Describe a typical day in your current role

Every day is different depending on whether it is the spawning period, brine shrimp and rotifer feeding, larval production, fry production or broodstock management. I’m usually at the farm at 7am. Then I did a quick check of all the systems, fish and water parameters. Some days involve broodstock egg control, broodstock management, some with larvae control, some in fry/fish sorting, some in the office organizing a planning schedule, production or protocols.

two people catching fish from a blue container
Tomljanovic’s daily tasks vary depending on the production cycle

Data is crucial in fish farming. If an error appears, the data is your only way out. Everything you do in fish farming should be triple checked (check, double check and double check) because even a small mistake can lead to disaster. We are always looking for ways to increase efficiency. On the days when we have mastered fish spawning, working around the clock for a few days in a row is normal, which would not be possible without family support and a quality team. As a production manager, I never close the door or go home – it’s a 24/7 job and it’s part of my lifestyle. I am lucky that my husband, who has a master’s degree in hydrogeology, also fell in love with aquaculture and started working with me three years ago, which allowed him to understand and support me fully. Working as a production manager is a very dynamic job, no two days are the same. It’s full of adrenaline and adventure.

Are there any people or organizations in the field of aquaculture that you have found particularly inspiring?

In the scientific world, I have a lot of respect for D. Zarski and his research on Percidae fish. There are many scientific papers from him which are very helpful in production.

I also support organizations that help and encourage innovations in aquaculture – like fish feed that includes insect protein. I think this is the starting point from quality to sustainability.

Have you encountered (or heard of) any gender-related challenges as a woman in aquaculture?

Woman standing near a recirculation tank filled with fry
“Keep going, if you love what you do, nothing can stop you.”

At first it was a bit difficult for me – for example, when I was working in Croatia, I was the first woman to work in production management since the fish farm was founded in 1902 and I was leading a team of 45 men. It took some time before they accepted a woman as their superior.

What advice would you give to women wishing to start a career or a business in the sector?

My advice is to keep going, if you love what you are doing, nothing can stop you. Be there, say what you have to say, and say it loud so everyone can hear it. Just work on it and it will happen.

What would be your dream role in aquaculture, and do you think it is realistic to achieve it?

I have to admit it’s my dream role. I love aquaculture and all the challenges in it, I love working with fish, every larva makes me happy, every breeding fish is like a pet, I love managing production, making plans and make production more efficient.

What are the main hurdles that aquaculture must overcome before it can realize its potential to feed the growing world population?

I think aquaculture needs to be more sustainable and the marketing of farmed products needs to be stronger. People are not very familiar with the methods of preparing fish. In most of Europe, the consumption of freshwater fish is lower than the consumption of sea fish, and the tradition of eating fish in inland areas is not so high. Many people also believe that wild fish are healthier and perform better than fish from ponds or RAS farms.

In Croatia, for example, most inland people eat fish only at Christmas and Easter. Marketing and teaching people about the benefits of eating fish needs to be more active. We should introduce fish to schools once a week, so that the children get used to it.

It is also important that countries support and invest more in aquaculture development. RAS are still in the pioneering stage and still need to be developed. There is also a lack of educated and trained farmers.

Rob Flecher

Editor-in-Chief at The Fish Site

Rob Fletcher has been writing about aquaculture since 2007, as editor of fish farmer, Fish farming specialist and The fish website. He holds an MA in History from the University of Edinburgh and an MA in Sustainable Aquaculture from the University of St Andrews. He currently lives and works in Scotland.

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