Behind the Scenes column: The craft of ocean-farming salmon
October 22, 2013
In last week's column, we toured fabulous restaurant kitchens in the Vail Valley to savor chefs' innovative preparations of Skuna Bay craft farmed salmon from Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Hopefully my words enabled your mind's eye to see the fish's signature rose-colored, firm flesh, and your imagination to smell its clean, fresh scent and taste its mild, buttery flavor.
Through their simple preparations devoid of unnecessary accouterments that mask the fish's fine qualities, these chefs pay homage to the dedicated artisans who — with talented chefs in mind — produce Grieg Seafood BC Ltd.'s premium brand Skuna Bay salmon.
I'll once again preface our discussion of Skuna Bay craft farming with a reminder that I'm not wading into the turbulent waters of fish farming pros and cons. Controversies I prefer to avoid pervade the multi-billion dollar global aquaculture industry dominated by five large agribusiness corporations.
Instead, I want to shine a spotlight on Grieg Seafood's mission to personalize what is otherwise an impersonal business, and connect their farmers with end users: conscientious, talented chefs in search of high-quality product.
From the autumnal Colorado Rockies we head northwest to glacial waters surrounding Vancouver Island where head farmer Stewart Hawthorn oversees the company's 20 ocean farms. In 2011, Hawthorn came to Vancouver Island from New Zealand's Marlborough Bay, bringing with him more than 20 years of international aquaculture experience. He was on a mission.
The North American salmon farming industry's reputation for poor quality fish and farming methods that were less than environmentally sensitive, and in some cases inhumane, needed change. Hawthorn endeavored to repair that bad reputation and introduce a new model for the industry.
The opposite of industrialized is craft or artisanal. Hands replace machines and assembly lines. Hawthorn strongly believes in craft farming where judgment, experience and passion are key qualities artisans possess. Hawthorn's customized craft farming is a step back in time when farmers connected with end users. It's not the most cost effective production method, but Hawthorn recognized its potential for improving quality — and reputation — of farmed salmon.
Skuna Bay's strict controls apply to all aspects of the supply chain — farming, harvesting and processing. In July, the company's exclusive processor, Walcan Seafood Ltd., joined Skuna Bay as recipients of Best Aquaculture Practices international certification from the Global Aquaculture Alliance for its commitment to sustainable performance.
In November 2011, Skuna Bay's first harvest arrived at Santa Monica Seafood in California. Two short years later, on average 3,300 fish per week arrive at distributors in 35 states. No doubt, that number will grow as word of this delicious fish spreads across the nation.
Lonely at the water's edge
Most of Skuna Bay's 20 farms — of which only two-thirds are farmed at a time — are located in remote areas around Vancouver Island, including Nootka Sound. Like shepherds who live amongst their sheep in the remote Scottish Highlands, Skuna Bay farmers live solitary lives on farms with their fish. Eight days of farming, then six days home. It's not for the faint hearted, but the remote farms are excellent environments for ocean farming salmon.
Land-based, closed containment fish-farming operations use concrete and fiberglass ponds. Skuna Bay salmon live in low density pens — 98.5 percent water and 1.5 percent fish — in their natural ocean environment. Instead of energy-consuming pumps, recirculating treated water around high-density fish populations, Skuna Bay salmon are raised in open pens through which glacial waters of optimal salt content flow. Tidal water moving through the pens combined with low fish density allows the salmon to swim against currents, building up firm muscles chefs demand. This natural ocean environment is also better for the fish's health.
Low-density population is a crucial aspect of sustainable ocean fish farming. For example, Whole Foods' density standards are 20 kilograms of fish per cubic meter of water. At 12 kilograms per cubic meter, Skuna Bay's populations are far below that limit.
The fish are what they eat
Skuna Bay's feeder fish ratio goal is one pound of Menhaden feeder fish to produce one pound of salmon, far below land-based operations where ratios are more like 3 or 4:1. Already, some Skuna Bay farms have attained 1:1 ratios. Feeder fish come from a fishery on the Gulf coast and meets Skuna Bay's high quality and environmental standards.
Skuna Bay endeavors to protect the environment, particularly the seabed. Once a farm is harvested, the seabed is allowed to rest. Farmers take readings of the seabed after harvest and do not reintroduce fish until the seabed regenerates. To prevent feed waste and accumulation on the seabed, farmers use underwater cameras below the fish to monitor feeding. If feed reaches the cameras, then the farmers know the fish are sated and feeding is stopped.
The buttery flavor of firm, well-muscled fish relies on low-stress harvest practices. A stressed fish releases lactic acid that degrades the desired muscle texture. To reduce stress, farmers harvest small numbers at a time at night, holding them in seine pockets no longer than 45 minutes before hand-bleeding. Before rigor can set in, farmers whisk the fish to nearby Quadra Island for processing.
The stringent farming and harvest quality controls continue through processing. Six approved processors select and handle salmon for shipping. Only 6 percent of all fish that weigh on average eight pounds "graduate" to Skuna Bay brand status. The hand-selected fish are next immersed in brine for 15 minutes for sterilization then placed whole into tamper-proof boxes, belly-up on ice, keeping the gill-plate iced during shipment.
Traceability is key to Skuna Bay's model. Processors sign their name, processing date and farm origin to each box. Trucks, which have a lower carbon footprint and allow for better refrigeration than airplanes, transport fish to distributors. This strict cold chain management ensures the quality standards employed during farming and processing continues through shipment. No one opens the tamper-proof 100-percent recyclable boxes until arrival at end users — chefs.
One exception is Skuna Bay's exclusive Colorado wholesaler chosen for its superior cold chain management skills, Seattle Fish. Skuna Bay ships whole fish to reduce handling and ensure high quality. However, in restaurants where space is a premium, chefs prefer wholesalers to breakdown the fish. Seattle Fish is permitted to open boxes, breakdown the fish and repack in tamper-proof boxes. Again, the boxes are signed and dated. Traceability continues even if Seattle Fish handles the salmon.
Artisans love their craft. Those who produce Skuna Bay salmon are no exception.
Grieg Seafood envisions ocean-farming as a sustainable method to relieve pressure on wild salmon stocks, not replace them. The Skuna Bay brand represents Grieg's dedication to salmon, the environment and end users who value high quality seafood produced with minimal environmental stress. It's their near-obsessive attention to detail that gives gastronomes hope for the future of delicious, healthy fish.
Perhaps this was a rather technical deviation from my usual articles, but I believe understanding what's behind every Skuna Bay salmon dish will enhance diners' appreciation for it. It's time we stop taking for granted the origins of our food and support those producers who care that their products are healthy both for the environment and consumers. In achieving these lofty goals, Grieg Seafood and the chefs who serve their Skuna Bay salmon deserve such support.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.