Q&A: Skuna Bay hones its ‘craft’


Steven Hedlund

Published on
November 20, 2011

If there’s a new category of farmed salmon emerging — a category of salmon that’s raised in an pristine, environmentally sound manner and processed and handled with extreme care — Skuna Bay is a chief participant.

But, according to Skuna Bay, it’s much more than that — it’s about listening to the customer and delivering the entire package, from farm to plate.

A week ago, Grieg Seafood debuted a line of premium salmon marketed as “craft raised” under the Skuna Bay brand. The Norwegian company says it has pioneered a method of farming, selecting, processing and packing fish that results in a superior product. The salmon are farmed in Nookta Bay, located near Skuna Bay off the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The fish are harvested in small batches and immediately transferred to a local, family-owned plant for processing and packing. Only six inspectors are approved to handle the fish, and just the top 6 percent of all fish harvested meet the Skuna Bay standard.

“When they’re finally belly-iced and placed in a recyclable box that’s sealed up, nobody touches that fish again until the chef opens that box in his kitchen,” said Dave Mergle, Skuna Bay’s marketing director.

The salmon is now available in the U.S. Southwest region, including greater Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix, and is being distributed exclusively by California’s Santa Monica Seafood.

Late last week, SeafoodSource caught up with Mergle and Stewart Hawthorn, Skuna Bay’s managing director, who has 25 years of salmon-farming experience, to talk about Skuna Bay’s vision and whether a new category of premium farmed salmon is emerging, raising the bar for traditionally raised salmon.

Hedlund: What sets Skuna Bay salmon apart from traditionally raised salmon? 

Hawthorn: What we’re trying to message to people is, “If you let excellent farmers farm, they produce a quality product.” And because they’re relatively small operations, we don’t need to have a whole bunch of procedures and rules from [corporate]. We do have procedures to guide farmers, but we rely on our farmers to be allowed to farm. They’re on the farm 24/7, eight days on and six days off, in effect living with their fish and their environment. And what we’re really proud of is the fact that these people are fantastic farmers. The key difference we bring to the table for the chef is that we expect our farmers take account for what’s going on around them.

Mergle: We chose these locations because they’re the best locations to raise salmon. That’s because it’s a pristine, natural ocean environment, with glacier-fed waters, great salinity and strong ocean currents. But the challenge is these [farm sites] are in isolated, hart-to-get-to areas. There’s no access to technology. There’s not a lot of access to power. And so that’s where you need rely on this experienced, passionate farmer who really cares about the fish. There’s no industrial protocol that could ever match what they do.

What do you like about the term “craft-raised?”  

Hawthorn: It reflects what we do. If you look at anything that’s done with craft, it’s about relying on judgment, knowledge and expertise. And that’s exactly what our guys do on the farm every single day.

Mergle: I’m new to this business. And as an outsider I had this perception — “Where’s the factory? Where are the tanks?” This is not an industrial operation. This is truly a farm-to-table operation. So we need to make people understand that these farmers are true professionals committed to their craft. It’s about the farmer applying his knowledge and expertise in these tough conditions and making judgments calls to raise good fish.

How’s the product resonating with chefs and retailers so far? 

Mergle: There are some great chefs who we hosted recently. We showed them our operation, and they were quite impressed. And they decided they want to advocate for us because they think it is such a great product — chefs like Celestino Drago in the Los Angeles market and Chris Mills here in our home market. [Mills] sent me an e-mail when we were first testing the product, and he said, “I was really impressed. This fish looks like it was just pulled out of the ocean. It’s one of the best fish I’ve seen.”

Is Skuna Bay charging a premium for its salmon? 

Mergle: Because we produce Skuna Bay in such a labor-intensive manner, which is more costly, we are coming to market at a higher price. We think for all the special care and attention, the unique process, the new recyclable carton and, most of all, so our farmers can see value for their hard work, we are selling this at a premium to commodity salmon because it is different.

What do you say to chefs and retailers who are only interested in wild salmon? Is there still a percentage of buyers out there who eschew farmed salmon, no matter how well the product is raised and handled? 

Hawthorn: Yes, but that’s not a problem. There’s lots of room in the ocean for different types of salmon. I think wild salmon is a fantastic product. From well-managed fisheries, we should be harvesting salmon. But I also think we should be farming salmon because it’s such a fantastic, environmentally sustainable, responsible thing to be doing in terms of producing protein. I don’t have a problem with someone saying, “I like the taste of wild fish better.” And I say, “Great. Enjoy the taste of wild fish. But if you want fresh fish year-round, and if you enjoy a milder flavor and a more succulent texture, then farm-raised Skuna Bay fish are going to be for you.”

Recently, AquaChile launched a line of “harmoniously-raised” salmon under the Verlasso brand. Is there a new category of farmed salmon emerging? 

Mergle: It’s a great question, but it’s hard to say. For us, we realized that we needed to have a better relationship with end customers and hear what’s important to them. And when they told us that they wanted to have a great dining experience with salmon, we said that lines up perfectly with what we do.

I don’t know too much about our competitor’s product. But what I do know about ours is that if you’re going to bring a farmed salmon to the marketplace, you really have to have the highest standards in the world, because there are people who aren’t sure if it matches up with wild salmon. We’re not going to be just about the feed (we’re approaching a 1:1 fish-in, fish-out ratio). We’re not going to be just about our recyclable box. Or we’re not going to be just about our farmers or our pristine environment. We’re going to be about the whole thing.

So I’m not sure if this is a new category. All I know is we realize that we had to meet a much higher standard than everybody else. And it started with hearing what our customers had to say.

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