Pavan Padavala at a Marine Harvest salmon farm.

Using the sea as farmers instead of hunters

In the early days of fish farming on the West Coast, Ian Roberts, Marine Harvest Canada’s public affairs director, figures there were more than 200 companies. When he started with Marine Harvest in 1992 there were more than 40 companies. Today there are four big companies with a few small “ma and pas.”

Marine Harvest Canada is fully integrated. The company hatches the salmon, raises the salmon, harvests and processes the salmon and ships it fresh to the rest of the world. Though they continue to report to Marine Harvest International, they are a business unto themselves. They employ more than 500 people and the head office is here in Campbell River.

Marine Harvest ships 25,000 to 30,000 salmon a day, five times a week, off the Island. Roberts said farmed salmon is B.C.’s biggest agricultural export.

“Canada really has a good hold on the market because we can have fish out of the water and on to a plate in California within 48 hours [of leaving our processing plant],” said Roberts. “It is extremely fresh and it is a market advantage that Canada has.”

He says the ongoing controversy around fish farming and its impacts on the environment has only made the industry stronger.

“I think those criticisms and our response to those criticisms has helped salmon farming grow into one of the most responsible and transparent and safe food production models in the world,” Roberts said.

Marine Harvest, as well as all of the major salmon farming companies in B.C., is a member of the Global Salmon Initiative. As a group, the members of the initiative have committed to meeting the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s standards for responsible and sustainable seafood.

According to Roberts, these standards are on top of what Canada already expects of the fish farms.

“It essentially just raises the bar on what we already do,” he said.

Roberts himself has been working for Marine Harvest Canada since 1992. He loves tropical fish, and when aquarists began moving from removing tropical fish from the ocean to breeding them in captivity he saw the value of that and applied that to consumable fish.

“We can’t continue to take from the oceans and the lakes without supplementing that, because it is popular,” he said. “If I was to link it to a movie, it’s just to ensure that 50 years from now you can still find Nemo.”

He also completed a communication degree later on in his career.

Many of the staff working outside of Campbell River at either the hatcheries or the farms have backgrounds in aquaculture or biology.

“It’s a draw because it’s a change to the status quo,” Roberts said of working in aquaculture. “The oceans can provide a growing appetite for seafood. People that love the ocean really love the concept of aquaculture, growing sea food for the future.”

Marine Harvest also has 15 formal protocol agreements with the First Nations peoples whose territories they operate in and 20 per cent of their staff are First Nations people.

“Over half of our staff are dedicated to growing fish on our farms and in our hatcheries the rest are supportive and processing positions,” Roberts said.

Those staff who are not in the office in Campbell River every day are working in one of five hatcheries, one of around 30 farms or one of two processing plants.

Though many live in Campbell River, many also live in smaller communities in the area and Marine Harvest is committed to contributing to those communities.

“We want to contribute to that because we want our people to enjoy living here, raising families here and working here,” he said.

Marine Harvest spends $10 million a month on supplies and services, and around $3 million on payroll and benefits, which makes them a major player in the economic landscape of the North Island.

They also give back to the community by donating to more than 100 Vancouver Island organizations and charities each year and hosting charity salmon barbecues throughout the summer in various locations and in partnership with various organizations.