Verlasso works to tackle sustainable salmon farming

"In the fish counter, all the salmon are dead, all the salmon are red, and none of them can tell a story. It's incumbent on us to tell the story."

That's Scott Nichols, the director of Verlasso. Verlasso, a joint venture of DuPont and AquaChile, farms salmon in Patagonia, and seeks to do so in a responsible way. So Scott has a story to tell.

"We feel a tremendous urgency to get this right," Scott said, when we met recently in Washington. "We have to learn our way into it. We don't have all the answers, and we may not have all the questions."

A PhD biochemist who studied business at Wharton, Scott, 57, never expected to find himself in the business of fish farming. But as he researched new business opportunities for DuPont in the mid-2000s -- he had earlier worked on improving the productivity of maize and beans and on Sorona, the company's plant-based fiber -- he got interested in salmon aquaculture. Aquaculture was booming, for obvious reasons: Demand for fish is growing, and the supply of wild-caught fish is flat.

The problem was salmon aquaculture then and now usually relies upon fish feed made in part from forage fish, such as anchovies, herring and sardines. About 4 pounds of wild-caught feeder fish are typically needed to produce the fish oil to make 1 pound of salmon, according to Verlasso. So salmon aquaculture, rather than easing pressures on the ocean's stocks of wild fish, was actually making things worse.

"The system was broken," Scott said.

Scientists at giant DuPont (2012 revenues: $35 billion) discovered that they could substitute a genetically-engineered yeast for the fish oils, and preserve the Omega-3 fatty acids that salmon require -- and that makes salmon a healthful food for the rest of us. The plant-based feed was an environmentally preferable alternative to fish oil from forage fish but, unfortunately, it also cost more to produce.

So DuPont did a study to see if consumers would be willing to pay a premium for a "greener" fish. "There was a cohort of consumers who would pay for it," Scott told me,  "and, in fact, there was cohort of consumers who were enthusiastic about it."

Next page: Partnering with AquaChile