Formed in 1996 with the privatization and merger of New Zealand’s two largest salmon companies, New Zealand King Salmon is a vertically integrated salmon farming, processing and marketing firm with an annual turnover of NZD 115 million (EUR 71.1 million, USD 93.6 million). It is the world’s leading producer of king salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and currently owns seven sea farm sites — all located in the remote waters of the Marlborough Sounds. It also owns three hatcheries for smolt rearing and four purpose-built processing facilities in Nelson.
Fresh off announcing that the company has inked a deal with two of Japan’s largest retail centralized buying organizations, which will allow it to triple its market share in the world’s No. 1 seafood market, NZ King Salmon CEO Grant Rosewarne (pictured, on right) checks in with SeafoodSource. In an exclusive interview, Rosewarne revealed that NZ King Salmon has designs on the European fine-dining and premium retail markets. It will also soon be launching a premium brand of king salmon, which he bills as “the best of breed.”
Holland: With an annual output of 9,000 metric tons, NZ King Salmon is the world’s No. 1 producer of king salmon, with 55 percent of the global market. How great is demand for farmed king salmon, and from which regions do you anticipate most of your growth originating?
Rosewarne: We are certainly in a growth phase. Our strategy has been to focus at the quality end of the market, particularly in foodservice. And, of course, we are fortunate in that we farm king salmon, which has so many benefits for both consumers and professional chefs. For example, it has twice the level of long–chain omega-3s of Atlantic salmon, and chefs prefer king salmon for its truly delicate flavor and superb cooking. Currently our strongest export markets are Australia, Asia, Japan and the United States. But awareness in Europe is growing, especially among professional chefs, a number of whom have been to New Zealand and sampled our king salmon. Importantly, king salmon raised in New Zealand is now being served in some of the world’s leading restaurants, and that represents huge profile for our products in global markets.
NZ King Salmon’s fish will be showcased at the European Seafood Exposition in Brussels. How important is the European market to your business?
Europe is a new horizon for us, but we think it will grow to be very important. It is a sophisticated market with very high standards and where there is wide appreciation of first-class culinary products coupled with the global trend toward food provenance and healthy eating.
While Europe is also a demanding market, we know our premium brand of salmon can live up to the expectations of consumers and professionals alike. The market is used to Atlantic salmon, but we are bringing something new and dare we say, superior.
While it’s early days in our market investigations, feedback from all quarters has been extremely positive. This year’s European Seafood Exposition is an ideal forum to connect with key distributors and to introduce our premium brand.
Europe offers some great new opportunities to introduce the king salmon in fine dining and premium retail. There are myriad fine-dining opportunities across many culinary styles and that’s an ideal match for our product, which has been developed for the best chefs around the world.
We are also building on our leadership position by shortly launching a new premium brand that is all about a unique fish grown in a unique environment with expert care at every step. It is called “?ra King” and it will be available only from selected premium distributors.
When they think of salmon, most Europeans think immediately of farmed Atlantics. How receptive has the market been to the message that what you have is a premium, high-value product and completely different from the fish in their shopping basket?
Very receptive. As you say, king is way different to Atlantic, and ?ra King is a step above that. We would argue that king is already a superior dining experience to Atlantic. High-end European chefs seem to think so. Those who have cooked with it have commented on the appealing appearance of the fish, the obvious quality of the product and the distinctive taste and flavor of the fish.
Now it is up to us to further educate the market, particularly fine dining chefs. We are offering them a totally new experience in the salmon category which will reinvigorate their view of salmon as a must-have premium ingredient on the menu. ?ra King is to salmon what Wagyu is to beef — it is the best of breed.
The king salmon species is not a substitute for local Atlantics. It’s like comparing skimmed milk to double cream — it serves a totally different culinary spectrum. To start with, king salmon is from the Pacific salmon species with different characteristics. Visually it looks different from the Atlantic (flesh color and body shape — shorter and rounder, rather than longer and torpedo). Also in a culinary sense, Pacific has a distinctive taste and flavor.
Of course, king salmon has many health benefits, too — it has the highest omega content across all salmon. Long-chain omega-3s are acknowledged globally as a key element in healthy diets. What is perhaps less well known is they also contribute to an optimal culinary result.
European customers may know the Pacific salmon species as a result of a tradition of wild Alaskan salmon imports, but the farmed product is an altogether different proposition. We sell our fish to the North American market where the king salmon species is well known, and we often achieve a price in excess of the wild product. Our offer is considered a trusted and consistent premium choice for fine dining and premium retail.
In what ways has the company tailored its products to suit different export markets?
We are a vertically integrated company, managing every aspect from egg to value-added products. We, of course, do the basic things such as supplying specific sizes and grades to suit local markets. But we also supply fillets to individual specification and a large number of hot and cold smoked products using different woods and recipes to suit local palettes. We work hard to know our customer’s preferences and adjust product to suit, while retaining the key characteristics that make our king salmon unique.
For example, we have developed a premium frozen fillet that delivers on texture and flavor, while also being a sustainable and convenient solution to the fine dining chef in Europe. We know the European market has a strong, premium frozen product opportunity and we want to tap into that, so we are planning for a premium frozen fillet program not really seen in other markets.
The company has applied to New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to commission nine new salmon farms in the Marlborough Sounds. How important to the company’s long-term growth plans is it that you get the go-ahead on these farms?
Demand for king salmon is strong and we have active marketing programs in our various markets so we do need to expand production in the long-term. Getting the go-ahead on the Marlborough Sounds farms is a key platform for that growth. If we are successful across all applications, we believe we can double production in three to five years to around 15,000 metric tons.
The EPA process is designed to streamline the application process for NZ projects that have national significance. But it’s also a vigorous process that is more like a commission of inquiry that requires a high level of evidence and where applicants can be closely examined. We have assembled a strong scientific and environmental case and have the support of the people of Marlborough on a ratio of more than four to one.
We operate a sustainable farming business that works in balance with the environment. Our salmon live a good life, and because we are far removed from the issues affecting Northern Hemisphere-farmed Atlantic salmon, we have an excellent market advantage. So we are confident of a bright future for our king salmon products.
Because of the company’s success, there are more commercial aquaculture operations looking to farm king salmon. Are you concerned by this competition and the effects that more output could have on the market and prices?
First, king salmon is a delicate fish and is a notoriously difficult species to farm. During 25 years of farming in New Zealand, we have developed significant intellectual property that gives us a huge head start over any other farmers who might be considering entering the king salmon market. We are aware that others have tried and given up.
That is not to say we are not prepared for competition. But we do have other huge advantages over producers, those in the northern hemisphere in particular. One is our country’s isolation. We are well removed from many of the health and water quality issues faced by other producers. New Zealand really is a clean, green country and has a rightful global reputation for being so. That in itself represents a marketing advantage.
Also we have developed the ?ra King brand based on a unique breed of king salmon that we have classically bred for seven generations for culinary excellence. We have something unique, a different king salmon that represents the best of breed. Others may well produce good king salmon but no matter what they do, they will never have what ?ra King represents.