Feasting on Drago Centro's celery root panna cotta topped with lightly smoked salmon, we discovered the story behind the beautiful piece of craft-raised fish, sourced by Chef Ian Gresik from Vancouver Island's Skuna Bay. In a world where fish populations are depleting, mercury levels are on the rise and reliable sources for wild salmon is increasingly harder to find, Skuna Bay farmers are lovingly raising salmon in the region's glacier-fed pristine waters to give their chef customers the assurance that they are serving the best product available.
Now with their inclusion in the Aquarium of the Pacific's Seafood for the Future program, the Skuna Bay team is achieving its goals with delicious results. We caught up with head fisherman and managing director Stewart Hawthorn to find out more about how they're swimming their way into the hearts of salmon fans everywhere.
What is your earliest memory of fishing?
When I was a boy on a family holiday in the borders of Scotland. We went down to the local burn (brook) and threw a baited hook into the water. Shortly later I caught a small trout, about the length of my hand. It should really have been thrown back—but I was so excited that my dad let me take it home and we fried it up in butter. Then, when I was a teen, I discovered that wild fish were being caught to the point of endangering their future stocks, and at the same time I came into contact with the fish-farming community, and that really started out my lifelong experience with raising salmon to feed the world.
How did the idea for creating Skuna Bay come about?
Skuna Bay came about because after farming fish for 25 years all over the world I realized that I wanted to make a direct connection with the people who use the fish that I am responsible for raising. Most salmon is farmed by the farmer and then goes through many hands before it gets to the chef. Skuna Bay fish go direct from the farmer to the chef, ocean-fresh. The idea was that we needed to make sure we treated the fish with the same care and attention after it was pulled from the ocean as our farmers had been giving it for the three years they spent raising it.
I love farming salmon because they are the best fish to farm in terms of environmental performance. They are domesticated, we don't need a lot of feed to grow a pound of salmon; most of a farmed salmon can be eaten (about 70% yield) and overall our environmental impact is less than that of any other farmed animal. Right now there are simply not enough wild salmon to meet demand—farmed salmon are taking pressure off of wild stocks and helping to preserve them. And it is a delicious and flavorful protein that is great on its own but can also be used in many ways by the chef.
Describe your day.
Most of my day now is spent making sure our farmers can focus on raising good fish, so instead of doing it myself I make sure there are no distractions for them. I spend time with local stakeholders such as our First Nation partners to make sure we are farming in alignment with their values. I spend time listening to what our customers are saying and what they want. I spend time making sure our practices are environmentally responsible. My goal is to spend as little time in the office and as much on our farms, but what I love about working here is that I know that even when I am not there, the fish are in good hands. Our farmers live with their fish 24/7 for eight days on and then six days off. They get up in the morning and the first task of the day is to take the pulse of the farm—checking up on the fish and checking up on the ocean conditions. Only once this is done to the farmers start to feed the fish, clean the nets and undertake other farm routines. Probably the thing I am most focused on is letting experienced and passionate farmers do their job properly.
Do you ever take time out to eat at the restaurants that are serving Skuna Bay salmon?
Yes, I love to see the innovative ways that chefs are preparing our fish. My favorite is ocean-fresh salmon sashimi with a little bit of wasabi and soy sauce or a simply pan-seared salmon fillet. We had a great salmon experience at Little Dom's in Los Angeles where chef Brandon Boudet did salmon three ways: collars, meatballs and crudo. The most novel was a salmon ice cream by chef Ian Gresik at Drago Centro.
What is your favorite salmon dish?
Sashimi is the best because it lets the quality of the salmon take over and presents it as pure as salmon should be.
What steps did you take to ensure that Skuna Bay salmon would be qualified to be part of the Aquarium of the Pacific's Seafood for the Future program?
Everything that we do as farmers is about helping to solve the world's environmental challenges. We make sure that we farm our fish in the right spots, natural ocean waters that are glacier-fed with perfect tidal currents. We have a really good team of farmers who know their fish and love to work in the wild natural ocean environment. We then need to make sure that we respect the fish that we are farming by looking after them really well and ensuring that they are growing up in a healthy and good condition. Finally we need to make sure that we harvest the fish really well—it is really important to give them that rigorous care and attention even as they are being harvested—it has taken more that 3 years to grow them to harvest size and we can't let our farmers down by dropping our guard in those final moments!
For the Aquarium we had to show that we do all of these things—so showing that we have a good and qualified team of farmer and showing that they work responsibly was the critical piece.
What are your goals with Skuna Bay?
We want to get connected with chefs and to give them fish that are as good as we experience when we pull them from the ocean. We want to have the ocean to plate freshness locked in. We believe that it is possible, with the right care and attention to detail.