Feature

How Cooke Aquaculture Became a Big Fish from a Small Pond

Cooke CEO Glenn Cooke fly fishing on the Miramichi. Image: Submitted

Cooke Aquaculture started as a small salmon farm in New Brunswick’s Charlotte County.

Today, it’s an international business with a variety of different operations around the globe. Yet, the company has always been committed to being headquartered in New Brunswick.

We chatted with Cooke Aquaculture CEO Glenn Cooke about how the company went from a small-town start to accomplishing an impressive international trajectory:

Can you tell us a bit about Cooke Aquaculture’s beginnings as a company?

Like many Charlotte County families, we grew up around the fisheries. Dad was a marine mechanic, my brother worked on fishing boats and I got into seafood distribution out of high school. In 1985, my family started Kelly Cove Salmon with 5,000 fish in two cages at a farm site at L’Etete, near St. George. Salmon farming was a new opportunity, a whole new way of thinking about earning a livelihood from the ocean while so many in the fisheries were facing hard times. We really believed that if we did it right, salmon farming would be a Charlotte County and Atlantic Canada success story.

Where are the local markets Cooke Aquaculture serves?

All the salmon we grow in Atlantic Canada and the U.S. is sold fresh under the True North Seafood brand. The key markets for our fresh product are the ones close to home. We can focus our East Coast production on markets in Eastern and Central Canada and the Eastern US and we have Cooke Aquaculture Pacific in Washington State to serve Western markets.

We’ve grown up a lot over our 30 years in business. We used to sell one product – fresh, whole, gutted salmon. It was a commodity business for us back when we started.

As we developed, we started adding more value and an expanded product line so instead of just whole fish we would cut it into steaks or fillets or portions – skin-on or skinless. We added other products like portions and skewers and we added flavoured products too – like maple barbeque.

As our company has expanded, so have our products and our markets. For example, we acquired a smokehouse in Charlottetown PEI and that allowed us to start offering smoked and specialty products. That part of the business also continues to grow and evolve.

Fresh, farm-raised Atlantic salmon has been our core business but we now have a lot more to offer. We operate a seafood distribution company out of Dartmouth called AC Covert Distributors. They buy and distribute a range of seafood products – including farmed and wild-caught seafood. We also operate a retail seafood shop – North Market Seafood – in the Saint John City Market.

What about Cooke’s international markets?

We first went international when we bought into Maine in 2004 and then into Chile in 2009.

We entered an entirely new area in 2011 when we purchased the Spanish sea bass and sea bream company, Culmarex. We have made significant investments in that business since then and have become industry leaders in the farming of sea bass and sea bream.  Now we offer those products to our customers and have become heavily involved in the European markets.

Cooke is no longer just in the aquaculture business. The Cooke family has expanded into the fisheries through the Wanchese Fish Company, Cooke Uruguay formerly Fripur in Uruguay, and Icicle Seafoods, Inc. in Alaska. The Gordon Jensen is one of Icicle’s floating fish plants. Image: Submitted

In 2014 we strengthened our company in Europe with the purchase of a salmon farming operation in Scotland – now called Cooke Aquaculture Scotland. In 2015 we had another major expansion and further diversification when we established Cooke Seafood USA and purchased the Wanchese Fish Company. Based in Virginia, Wanchese operates its own scallop fishing fleet as well as a processing operation and a large-scale cold-storage facility. Wanchese offers a wide range of seafood products.

Just this past summer, Icicle Seafoods, Inc., became part of the Cooke family of companies. It includes a major wild salmon fishery and processing operation and a ground fishery in Alaska as well as Atlantic salmon farming operations in Washington State.

So in just over 30 years, we’ve grown from producing 5,000 Atlantic salmon to 275,000 tonnes of seafood with global sales approaching $2 billion.

Cooke Aquaculture has had an aggressive expansion plan from the beginning. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Growth has been part of our culture since we started and our focus has been on diversification of geography, markets and products. We started with a few thousand salmon smolts, purchased from a government hatchery. But we knew that in order to secure our source of juvenile fish – both in terms of availability and quality – we wanted to do it ourselves. Our plan was to become a fully integrated company and we started down that road by purchasing our first hatchery in Oak Bay, NB in our first few years of operation.

The integration plan drove our growth and still does. We started with farming then added hatcheries, processing, trucking, equipment manufacture and repair, feed manufacture and an R&D Department. In the past few years we started making our own boxes to pack the fish in and just in the past few months we started making our own ice gel packs.

Growth also has environmental benefits. With an adequate number of farm sites, we have greater flexibility and ability to stock our fish strategically. For example, we follow a Bay Management Area plan for stocking

One of Cooke’s automated feed delivery systems near Digby, Nova Scotia. The technology allows crews to feed salmon automatically while viewing the process through the use of underwater cameras. This ensures feed is delivered efficiently and little is wasted.
Image: Submitted

and harvesting and crop rotation that allows us to farm a single year class in one bay area. With three Bay Management Areas, we can stock one area at a time and harvest one area at a time. A third area is left fallow – just like terrestrial farmers leave fields fallow. This is good for fish health and good for the environment.

Aside from growing in order to meet our own company’s production goals, we have continued to grow and expand because it makes us stronger. The salmon farming industry and the seafood industry is truly global and we are competing with large companies and major seafood producing nations like Norway, Chile and the UK.

Our vertical integration helps us control costs and respond quickly to changes in the marketplace or in the environment while our diversification in terms of geography, markets and product offerings gives us a strong, stable foundation.

How has the company used mergers and acquisitions to expand?

From our beginning, we have reinvested into our business.  Even when we were a very small operator, we had long-term plans to build a strong, vertically integrated company. We have had some organic growth, but a big part of our growth has come through the acquisition of existing assets. We’ve done this in Atlantic Canada, the US, South America and Europe.

The companies we have acquired over the years were attractive to us because they were a good fit for us and where it was needed, we believed we could turn them around by applying the Cooke business model. We are always looking for opportunities to grow but it has to make business sense. It has to make us a better company offering better service and better products to our customers.

What have been some of the company’s biggest challenges over the years?

Farming and fishing are extremely challenging and difficult occupations and we rely on the experience and expertise from both in our farming and wild fishery operations. We’re dealing with living things and their health and well-being are ongoing priorities. We’re working in the marine environment which can pose natural challenges including weather, predators and maintaining fish health.

A sample of the bounty of the sea that Cooke companies either grow or harvest.
Image: Submitted

We overcome the challenges nature throws at us by continually innovating and improving. Our cage and netting systems have come a long way in 30-plus years and are designed and built to work in our heavy tides and strong currents and to resist predators. We invest in the latest technologies on our farms, in our hatcheries and breeding programs, in our plants and in our vessels, whether they are for the fishery or the farming operations.

Another challenge is on the business or regulatory side where aquaculture is, in many ways, still a new industry that isn’t fully understood by elected officials, investors or the public. So, for example, in Canada, we are primarily regulated by a Fisheries Act that was written long before aquaculture came into existence. We’ve been part of an industry-wide effort to ask the government to draft legislation that deals with modern aquaculture – a $2 billion industry in Canada.

In the wild fishery, which is somewhat new to us, we deal with unpredictability in terms of production or catches. We’re used to stocking fish, tracking fish, developing harvest plans well in advance, based on sales. In the wild fishery, we are totally dependent on nature. The fish are there or they aren’t and the fishing season is a very exciting time with a year’s worth of production packed into a fairly small window.

We also work closely with regional, national and international associations to tell the seafood story and show people the benefits of what we do, both in the fishery and in aquaculture – that we produce a healthy food and we are social and economic drivers in our communities.

How does being based in New Brunswick influence the company?

We’re a global company but New Brunswick is our home. I’ve said it many times.

Our head office is in Blacks Harbour. That’s important to me and my family. We’re from here. We grew up in Blacks Harbour and St. George and when we built this company, we wanted to build a successful business but we also wanted to bring prosperity to our communities.

Atlantic Canada has been hit hard by downturns in the economy including slowdowns in the fisheries, in forestry and in mining. We need to help ourselves. We can’t wait for some big industry to set up in our backyard and bring thousands of jobs to us. We need to create our own opportunities and create our own destiny.

There are very few parts of the world suitable for salmon farming and we happen to live in one of them. We produce a world-class product and we should be proud of it.

I am also proud to be part of the fishery, a sector that is deeply rooted in our marine heritage and remains vital to the social and economic fabric of our communities.

What do you see in the future for the aquaculture industry in the province?

My family has been doing this for 30 years and we plan to be here for future generations. It has never been easy and there will always be challenges but we have built an amazing team here. The advances we’ve seen over the last few decades are incredible and it’s exciting to think about what we’ll look like 30 years from now.

Globally, aquaculture will continue to be critical. We need to feed our growing population and there is limited farmland available to raise crops and livestock on land. The ocean covers three-quarters of our planet and it is underutilized as a food source. Aquaculture and wild fisheries must become a more and more important part of our global food supply and we are in a great position to be a big part of that.

Do you have plans for future expansion?

Our motto is “Refusing to go with the flow” and that just means we’re never looking to follow the crowd or take any easy roads. We’re always looking to improve, to be more competitive, to get stronger and to deliver better service or better products to our customers. We’ve been building and growing, strategically, since we started and we are always looking for new opportunities.

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Some answers have been edited for length.