Obituary: Professor James Muir, aquaculture expert and international development adviser

James Muir
James Muir
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Born: 7 March, 1951, in Lincolnshire. Died: 1 May, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 62

James Muir was an inter­nationally renowned aqua­culture expert whose affinity with the sea stemmed from his family roots on Scotland’s west coast.

Though he graduated with a chemical engineering degree and once had a foothold in the fledgling oil industry, it was his boyhood experiences on his family’s fishing boats and in their salmon-netting business that ultimately provided the inspiration for an alternative ­career.

Immune to the lure of black gold’s big bucks, he switched fairly rapidly from oil to fish and the wider aquatic sector in a move that saw him share his knowledge around the world, working for the United Nations and other organisations in more than 40 countries.

His areas of expertise embraced international and sustainable development, the impact of climate change on fishing, environmental economics and policy, plus food security, among others. As an educator, he developed postgraduate programmes, advised universities as far away as Australia and India and authored and edited more than 200 papers, journals and books.

The eldest of four children born to RAF pilot Fraser Muir and his wife Muriel, as a youngster James experienced the itinerant lifestyle of a family moving from air force base to air force base, around the UK and to the United States. By the time he finished his primary education, he had been a pupil at six schools.

When his father left the RAF the family settled in his native Achiltibuie, where they had regularly holidayed. But home for young James became a hostel in Dingwall where he stayed while attending secondary school in the town. There he effortlessly gained an impressive array of A-grade Highers and went on to study at Edinburgh University in 1968.

Just as at school, at university he displayed an academic ability that required little in the way of study to pass exams. During term time he worked part-time for an Irish stone mason and still managed to graduate with first-class BSc degree.

The North Sea energy industry was then in its infancy and he took a job with an Aberdeen-based oil company. There were excellent prospects of a long and lucrative career in the burgeoning sector but he was not motivated by money and climbing the corporate ladder. Realising he could contribute and achieve more in another sphere, he moved into the realm of business governed by biology.

After completing a doctorate on biological filtration systems, he took up a post at Stirling University’s Unit of Aquatic Pathobiology. He was instrumental in developing the unit into the world-renowned Institute of Aquaculture, following work with colleagues on the freshwater fish, the tilapia, in the late 1970s.

Muir, who was appointed professor there, worked for the Institute of Aquaculture for 30 years. His background was in environmental engineering and economics, with specific expertise in the aquatic sector, including resilient production systems, energy and resources, trade, market, investment and development policy; climate-change mitigation and adaptation, research and education planning and management. But his experience crossed the academic, commercial and public sectors.

He had an extensive international record in strategic sectoral planning, research management, programme design, management and evaluation, for which his skills were highly valued by international agencies.

He was hugely respected 
by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United 
Nations (FAO) in Rome, where he had worked in the fisheries and aquaculture department for three years, and in its regional offices around the globe.

“He was a real leader in the field of aquaculture to whom we turned for guidance, advice and inspiration,” said Arni Mathiesen, assistant director general, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture.

“He also had a powerful mind which we drew on to develop some of our strategies and 
visions, whether related to 
climate change, food security or simply the future. He challenged our thinking and our discussions with his relevant insights and enlightening ideas.”

On retiring from Stirling in 2009 he became a professor emeritus and continued his work as an international development and research adviser and evaluator. He was a lead expert adviser for the UK government Foresight programme on the Future of Food and Farming and, at various times, a staff member of the FAO, fisheries adviser to Department for International Development and an adviser to CGIAR, the global partnership formerly known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Sir John Beddington, former UK Chief Scientist said: “The loss of James Muir to the science of aquaculture, and indeed the science of freshwater fisheries generally, is a major one. James was enormously able and was instrumental in developing so many new ideas in this field that it is hard to believe that a single person had done so.”

Latterly, despite deteriorating health, he continued to travel and work as normal, visiting Norway, India, Ireland Rome and Achiltibuie.

“We have lost a decent steadfast and charming friend,” said Emeritus Professor Ron Roberts, a former director of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, “and science and the developing world has lost an intellect of Rolls-Royce calibre.”

Muir, whose wife Susan died suddenly in 2000, is survived by their daughters Anna and Beth, his partner Tullia, his father ­Fraser, sister Susan and brothers Iain and Andrew.