"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
DuPont subsequently struck up a partnership with AquaChile, one of the world's biggest aquaculture companies. [Norway is the world's leading producer of farmed salmon, followed by Chile. Most of the salmon sold in the U.S. comes from Chile and British Columbia.] According to Scott, Alfonso Marquez de la Plata, the CEO of AquaChile who also directs Verlasso, shared his desire to produce protein in sustainable ways for an expanding global population.
As they built the company, they focused on feed. But their attention soon turned to other environmental issues. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whose respected Seafood Watch program advises consumers to avoid farmed Atlantic salmon:
Most salmon are farmed in open pens and cages in coastal waters. Waste from these farms is released directly into the ocean. Parasites and diseases from farmed salmon can spread to wild fish swimming near the farms and escaping farmed salmon can harm wild populations.
Scott says Verlasso is working to address those issues, and others. Their salmon have more room to swim than do conventionally farmed salmon, so much so that Verlasso salmon are sleeker and lower in fat. "The body architecture is different," he said, and the Verlasso salmon have a "cleaner, brighter flavor."
I emailed John Ash, a northern California chef, author and teacher (and James Beard award-winner) who is committed to sustainability, to ask him about Verlasso. He replied:
Monterey Bay Aquarium and others I know are looking again at farmed salmon and are recognizing that they should be encouraging good efforts and not just rejecting them out of hand. The well-documented proof is that the future of seafood is farming and we should be encouraging ways to do it ethically and sustainably. Seems like Verlasso is on the right track. The fish are beautiful and not as "greasy" as conventionally farmed salmon in my experience.
The only drawback: Verlasso's salmon cost more than conventional farmed salmon. Fresh Direct, which delivers groceries to homes in New York City and its suburbs, is selling Verlasso for between $9.99 and $13.99 a pound, less than wild-caught salmon but more than Atlantic farmed salmon. Verlasso is also selling in gourmet grocery stores like Central Market in Texas and Zupan's in Portland, a good sign, according to Scott. "In Portland, salmon's not a fish, it's a religion," he said. Whole Foods Market won't carry Verlasso, at least for now, because of its genetically-modified yeast.
Nationally, sales remain modest -- about 10,000 to 15,000 pounds per week -- but the company is just getting started. The salmon is always sold under the Verlasso brand, sometimes accompanied by brochures on the fish counter telling the story. Scott told me that costs should come down, as Verlasso expands its retail presence and sales and benefits from economies of scale.
To reassure consumers that its salmon is environmentally-preferable, Verlasso is looking to have its environmental performance vetted by nonprofits like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and WWF, which is developing aquaculture standards. [See my 2012 story on shrimp farming for YaleE360.] "Validation is very important," Scott said.
So is getting salmon farming right. The world is going to need a lot more protein in the years to come.
Image by Nordling via Shutterstock.