Glenn Cooke: “It’s time for suppliers and producers to totally cut Russia off”
Glenn Cooke is the CEO of Cooke Inc., a vertically integrated family of seafood companies based in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, Canada. He spoke to SeafoodSource on Tuesday, 15 March, at the 2022 Seafood Expo North America/Seafood Processing North America in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
SeafoodSource: What have been Cooke’s big moves over the past few months?
Cooke: We're always investing in our operations globally and we just launched a vessel for Argentine red shrimp fishery with the capability to do frozen-at-sea product, which is quite exciting, as we’ll be in this year's fishery there. It's a state-of-the-art vessel. We're in the process of finalizing a new USD 45 million (EUR 40.5 million) plant in St. George, New Brunswick for salmon added-value processing that will be very robotized, automatic, and cut down our labor costs, which we have do because of a shortage of [workers]. The facility that’s there will be replaced by a brand-new facility and the one that’s there will be redone into a secondary value-added processing center. And we have a new smolt unit almost ready to be finalized as well in New Brunswick. Around the world, we are expanding our operations – we're always investing heavily globally and we’ll continue to do that.
SeafoodSource: Why did you choose to invest in the Argentine red shrimp fishery?
Cooke: I think is one of the most interesting fisheries today in the world. The biomass is in good shape. It's an incredible product. A lot of North American consumers, even European consumers, still need to try the Argentine red shrimp because they’re very good. To the North American mind, it’s like a small lobster in its texture and taste. Taking it to the frozen-at-sea format locks that quality in. A lot of what we catch will be used for export to Southern Europe and some in Asia as well.
SeafoodSource: With Cooke’s ability to view Argentine red shrimp as an opportunity despite its seasonality and its wild fluctuation in pricing, is this an example of Cooke’s effort to achieve vertical integration paying off?
Cooke: It is. From a Cooke perspective, we like homing in on and owning raw materials. Whether it's farming or whether it's fishing, having access to raw materials – right from the vessel or the farm – is so important for our overall strategy to be competitive, and to build long-term customer relationships.
SeafoodSource: So the world is in chaos right now. How's the company doing? Do you feel well-positioned?
Cooke: I think we're well-positioned. We don't really much business currently with Ukraine, some, but not much. Russia we were in much larger years ago. Our hearts go out to the Ukrainian people. We have a lot of Ukrainian employees in North America. What's going on is a tragic situation. Our perspective is that it’s time for suppliers and producers to totally cut Russia off. Not that there's anything wrong with the Russian people. They're very good people there, but obviously the leadership today means that we got to penalize them and we got to do our part as an industry not to keep facilitating Russia and I'm concerned there are a couple of large seafood suppliers today that are still keeping Russia going and I'm opposed to that. Our hearts and thoughts you got to be Ukrainians and we got we got to help put the pressure on to free that country.
SeafoodSource: Would you say the anti-aquaculture movement that gained strength in Canada a few years ago is ebbing at all?
Cooke: When you look in Canada, you’ve got to look at the two different regions [for aquaculture]. On the West Coast, the industry in the province turned over the authority to manage them to the [Canadian] Department of Fisheries. So the Department of Fisheries and Oceans controls the leases and licenses there. But on the East Coast, the power for leasing and licensing has remained with the provinces. And the provincial governments and most of our federal MPs in Atlantic Canada are very supportive of the industry. That shelters us a little bit from the storm. I'm very concerned about the narrative that's coming out of some of the federal ministers that they want to take the production out of the water and put it on land. They're naïve. They don't understand [the industry], and they're buying into rhetoric from the environment community. There's no land-based operation in the world making money today. There's no volume being produced by land-based [operators]. There's no proof that they're economically feasible. And on top of that is, why would you build one in British Columbia? Why would you build one in Atlantic Canada? You'd want to be as close to your market as possible, whether that's New York or Miami or L.A. So very naive politicians are buying into stories that have no reality. Our company's 37 years old and a lot of B.C. is in that same term of operational longevity. How long does the industry have to operate, how long do we have to farm for people to realize, oh yeah, maybe they are sustainable? We haven't ruined fisheries. We haven't destroyed the the bottom of the ocean. It’s almost like we’re treated like a new industry every other day. We're not new. We're long established. And I think we've proved our sustainability.
SeafoodSource: In the U.S., there has been a push now across the Trump and Biden administrations to encourage more aquaculture development in domestic waters. If that initiative continues, would Cooke be interested in expanding its presence in the U.S.? Or has your experience in Washington made you wary of aquaculture regulation in the United States?
Cooke: Well, we’ve been persistent in Washington. We're farming there again and we hope to remain farming there. We’ve got still more work to do on licensing and permitting in the state, but I think we’re on the right track there. In Maine, we've had we've worked very hard to build our social license and respect the local fishermen, towns, and villages there. But, you know, we certainly would like to grow there. I think there's some work being done by NOAA and some other agencies to try and take aquaculture offshore and do warm-water species aquaculture. And obviously, that's of interest to us. Shellfish aquaculture in places like Virginia and North Carolina – we’re doing some oyster farming already, but there's a lot of growth capacity there as well. We want to keep growing and we'd love to grow, but want to do it at a level and speed that people are comfortable with. We don't want to put sites in areas where people don't want sites. We’re trying to work with communities and fishing groups to do things the right way.
SeafoodSource: Is land-based farming something that Cooke would consider involving itself in?
Cooke: Absolutely, if it’s successful. Total cash tied up in land-based projects globally is around USD 1.5 billion or USD 2 billion (EUR 1.4 billion or 1.8 billion) and it’s not profitable. And part of the issue I have is, how can you call anything sustainable if it's not profitable. To use the world sustainable, it means it needs to be financially viable long-term. Once it’s proven, we'd love to get into land-based [farming. But I'm not looking to build land-based [farms] to replace our existing production, just because the market is growing and there's not enough sea-water site capacity to keep up with that growth. But down the line, and once it’s a proven technology – and I don’t think that’s tomorrow, ,it’s going to take some hard work and some big losses before that comes – we’d consider it.
SeafoodSource: Cooke has been really good at buying things at the right time and growing really fast, but really smartly. Do you have any acquisitions planned or in the works? In other words, what’s next for Cooke?
Cooke: I always emphasize, we like to own the raw material, whether it's fishing or farming, but we also want to be close to our customers. We're looking at seafood distribution or partnering and trying to get closer to those customers and retailers. To me, controlling that last-mile delivery is important. We produce fresh product. The [salmon] product coming out of Maine is incredible. If you look all the salmon that comes into the U.S., the product from Maine and the quickness to the U.S. market and its freshness off the shelf is incredible. But to make sure we get that last mile so that restaurant or that the retailer gets that product as fresh as possible, that's the goal and control that part of it. I don’t know whether we’ll buy UPS, but there are seafood distributors in the marketplace that are absolutely interesting to us.
SeafoodSource: Internationally, do you see any other opportunities there that you feel are underappreciated?
Cooke: We love international opportunities, again, whether it's farming or fishing, and we want to grow. Farming opportunities don't come up that often. And when they do, we're active and sometimes we're the winner and sometimes the loser. Part of our strategy is we just won’t overpay because we're a private family company. But you know, we continue to look and we continue to grow and I expect we will grow some more this year, but we haven't exactly figured out where that is yet.
SeafoodSource: What are your thoughts on the 2022 Seafood Expo North America going forward despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
Cooke: There started to be some cancellations from some big groups that walked away from the show, but I felt very strongly that we need a show. During the pandemic, we expected our people to go on our sites, to feed our fish. We expected our hatcheries, our harvest and fishing vessels, to operate. We expected the workers in our processing plants people to go to work, and our office employees to do the accounting. Yet we as leaders of global seafood companies throughout the world are scared to go to a trade show to talk and promote our incredible healthy seafood, whether it's farmed or wild, and we were scared to get together to collaborate and innovate? I think there's leaders in the seafood world today that should be embarrassed they’re not at this show. I'm not going to pick them out, but they needed to be here. Our workers supported us and kept us in business and we’ve got to make sure that we as leaders of these organizations keep these companies growing and collaborating, innovating, and selling our products. I'm a big supporter of the show. I'm glad it happened and it’s been a great show for us. What we're finding is that attendance may be down some, but the people here are serious buyers. Our salespeople are saying it has been one of the one of the better shows and so we're very happy with it and very, very excited about how it’s turned out. If we don’t support the shows, they’re not going to stick around. The shows are important, whether it’s in Boston or Barcelona, so we need to support them and shame on those who bowed out.
Photo courtesy of Cliff White/SeafoodSource