New Brunswick’s new­est em­pire

Cooke Aqua­cul­ture joins Irv­ings and Mc­Cains as big world play­ers


FRED­ER­IC­TON For the Irv­ings, it was Bouc­touche. For the Mc­Cains, Florenceville.

Now, in tiny Blacks Har­bour, in be­tween an Irv­ing gas bar and the lo­cal Fresh­mart, is a small, two­s­torey brick build­ing that is head of­fice for New Brunswick’s new­est fam­ily-owned multi­na­tional.

Cooke Aqua­cul­ture Inc. is the world’s largest in­de­pen­dent seafood com­pany, with bil­lions of dol­lars in an­nual rev­enue, ship­ping one bil­lion pounds of fresh seafood an­nu­ally to 67 coun­tries.

And it is about to get big­ger. Founded 33 years ago, the firm is set to com­plete its lat­est ac­qui­si­tion, grow­ing its global work­force to some 9,000 em­ploy­ees.

Cooke is in the fi­nal stages of buy­ing one of the largest shrimp farm­ing com­pa­nies in Latin Amer­ica, although ex­act de­tails are be­ing with­held un­til the deal is com­plete in the next few weeks.

“Cooke Aqua­cul­ture started in 1985 by Gif­ford Cooke and his two sons Michael and Glenn. They started with farm­ing 5,000 salmon in a pen,” said Joel Richard­son, vice-pres­i­dent pub­lic re­la­tions for Cooke Aqua­cul­ture.

“That grew over the years through ap­prox­i­mately 100 ac­qui­si­tions since 1985 glob­ally. We have now be­come the largest in­de­pen­dent seafood com­pany in the world. We are in­de­pen­dently, fam­ily owned, right here, and Blacks Har­bour is our head of­fice,” he said.

Com­pany rev­enues are ex­pected to be $2.4 bil­lion for 2018. Cooke op­er­ates 657 ves­sels and 25 pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties. It op­er­ates un­der a num­ber of brands in­clud­ing True North Seafood Com­pany, Ici­cle Seafoods and Wanch­ese Fish Com­pany.

Last month, the Cana­dian Cham­ber of Com­merce named Cooke Aqua­cul­ture Inc. its Top Pri­vate Busi­ness Growth Award win­ner in Canada for 2018.

Growth started quite nat­u­rally for the Cookes. Four years af­ter open­ing their first salmon cage, they needed a sup­ply of eggs and smolt, so they bought a hatch­ery.

The cor­po­rate web­site de­tails the sub­se­quent pur­chases, in­clud­ing feed plants, dis­trib­u­tors, pro­cess­ing plants and other aqua­cul­ture and wild fish op­er­a­tions.

“We have farmed salmon op­er­a­tions in Chile, Scot­land, Maine, Wash­ing­ton state and we also do sea bass and sea bream in Spain. We have wild cod op­er­a­tions in the United States and down in Latin Amer­ica as well,” Richard­son said.

About 40 per cent of Cooke’s seafood busi­ness is wild caught.

De­spite the growth around the world, the com­pany has kept its roots in ru­ral New Brunswick and has about 2,000 em­ploy­ees here.

“En­trepreneurs and fam­i­lies in New Brunswick have a spe­cial con­nec­tion to where we’re from,” said Richard­son.

Ob­servers liken them to dy­nas­ties like the Irv­ings and Mc­Cains, lo­cal fam­ily busi­nesses that have made their mark on the North Amer­i­can stage.

Don­ald Savoie, an ex­pert in eco­nomic devel­op­ment at the Univer­site de Monc­ton, said there’s a com­mon mind­set to the fam­ily run, re­source busi­nesses that have their roots in ru­ral New Brunswick.

“When you start in nat­u­ral re­sources you don’t need much startup cap­i­tal. You don’t need ven­ture cap­i­tal, you don’t need the stock mar­ket. You need op­por­tu­ni­ties and an en­tre­pre­neur with a sin­gle­minded pur­pose,” he said.

“Har­ri­son and Wal­lace McCain, when they started, they had a hand­ful of em­ploy­ees. To­day they’re in China, they’re in Europe. Cooke has fol­lowed the same pat­tern. The Irv­ings started off in Bouc­touche with two or three peo­ple work­ing there. That’s the pat­tern,” he said.

How­ever, Savoie said the rules of the play­ing field are chang­ing and new en­vi­ron­men­tal re­quire­ments, con­sul­ta­tions with First Na­tions and other reg­u­la­tions are mak­ing it harder for com­pa­nies to get a start in ru­ral ar­eas.

“It calls on govern­ment to look at ru­ral devel­op­ment and to see how we can make it eas­ier for en­trepreneurs to start a busi­ness in ru­ral New Brunswick in the nat­u­ral re­sources sec­tor,” he said. “New Brunswick re­mains largely ru­ral. We are just cross­ing the line now at 50 per cent ur­ban and ru­ral. On­tario crossed that line 100 years ago.”

But the aqua­cul­ture in­dus­try has faced its share of con­tro­versy.

In a re­port this year, fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment com­mis­sioner Julie Gelfand warned of the dis­ease risk that farmed fish pose to wild salmon, find­ing that Fish­eries and Oceans Canada had not ad­e­quately balanced the in­dus­try’s risks with its man­date to pro­tect wild fish.

The re­port pointed to the un­der­stud­ied ef­fect of pes­ti­cides and the risk of salmon es­capes, which can lead to ge­netic de­fects in wild pop­u­la­tions.

Cooke Aqua­cul­ture it­self has faced push­back on its op­er­a­tions in mul­ti­ple ju­ris­dic­tions, in­clud­ing New­found­land and Labrador and Wash­ing­ton State af­ter salmon es­capes.

On Mon­day, the fed­eral govern­ment an­nounced a new ap­proach to the aqua­cul­ture sec­tor, in­clud­ing cre­at­ing a sin­gle com­pre­hen­sive set of reg­u­la­tions to clar­ify how it is run in Canada.

Richard­son said Cooke op­er­ates in “a safe and en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able man­ner,” and the pub­lic un­der­stands that fish es­capes can oc­cur if ma­jor storms cause dam­age to the pens.

“Our com­pany fol­lows global best prac­tices and all govern­ment reg­u­la­tions by re­spond­ing im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing se­vere storms — just like land-based farm­ers do,” he said. “We in­vest heav­ily in world class en­vi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing and feed­ing sys­tems, us­ing the best tech­nol­ogy and ex­per­tise from around the world.”


Dr. Amy Canam, a fish health vet­eri­nar­ian at Cooke Aqua­cul­ture, on Deer Is­land, N.B. Blacks Har­bour, N.B.-based Cooke Aqua­cul­ture is the world’s largest in­de­pen­dent seafood firm, with bil­lions of dol­lars in an­nual rev­enue — and it is about to get big­ger.


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