Nova Scotia-based aquaculture company Sustainable Blue hopes to celebrate completion of its new, 50,000-square-foot building add-on at the company’s home in Centre Burlington later this year.
The addition will double production, moving from a capacity of 500 metric tonnes a year to being able to produce 1,000 metric tonnes of salmon a year.
“You compare that with somebody like the net pen operators, Cooke Aquaculture or Northern Harvest or Grieg aquaculture, it’s a very, very small output,” CEO Kirk Havercroft told Atlantic Business Magazine in a recent interview. “But for a land-based facility in Canada, it is quite significant. And for us, more significantly, it represents the transition from a technology development company to a commercial aquaculture company.”
The new building holds 10 tanks, each 12 metres in diameter and three and a half metres high, containing about 400 tonnes of water apiece.
The new addition has been a “significant undertaking,” Havercroft said, with the added challenges of COVID-19 “playing havoc” with the construction. But the build is currently expected to be complete in August. He hopes to have first fish in the new building in September.
It’s a marker of the physical growth in operations and the kind of scaling up that will demonstrate if local, land-based farming can stand on its own feet in the market.
The small fry stage
Sustainable Blue started with a pilot plant in Centre Burlington in 2010. The company raised some niche fish species then, still more focused than anything on proof-of-concept for its proprietary technology and closed-containment, land-based aquaculture system. In 2013, with the support of private investors, a freshwater hatchery was added and the company made the switch to farming Atlantic salmon, but was still technology-minded. Government support at all levels helped with additional builds, being land-based, saltwater grow-out sites.
Sustainable Blue was still talking tech when its fish hit the local market in 2015. It was a successful launch, and saw continued demand. In December 2019, a deal with a group of investors based in the United Kingdom provided the capital needed for the latest expansion, focused on adding to production.
As it readies to bring more fish to market, Sustainable Blue has done some repositioning internally and rebranding, with a new look and new media, down to a video featuring sweeping aerial shots of the farm, Havercroft walking the untouched coastline and chef Michael Smith cooking up some fresh product.
“Our early project years here in Nova Scotia, we were essentially a technology company. And our first attempts at branding were sort of ‘look at this great technology that we’ve developed, and by the way we also produce fish that we hope you’ll buy,’” Havercroft said with a quick laugh.
“We had this sort of ‘hang on a second.’ We’re not a technology company, we’re an aquaculture company and we really need to bring the focus to bear on our product, so it’s great product first and a little bit about the great technology in the background,” he said.
The re-brand was completed with Halifax-based District Design Co.
District co-founder and creative director Tyson Hynes said before any decisions were made, District staff were able to visit the Sustainable Blue site and walk through, to understand the technological process, but also better understand why it could matter to the end product and to consumers.
“They were a fantastic client to work with. They know they’ve got something special, but I think their greatest challenge is they tend to fly below the radar a little bit,” he said.
The video was shot in the fall and its environment-first approach was intentional, as it is with messaging through the company’s website. It’s all about winning recognition in the market.
Sustainable Blue uses a land-based, recirculating system filtering all effluent and contaminants as its fish grow. It’s fish farming without ocean pens and without wastewater flowing into the ocean.
Havercroft believes the approach is environmentally responsible and the way of the future and it makes sense to communicate that. But he doesn’t want to spend time condemning other approaches, so much as promoting his own.
“We’re not activists. Sometimes I have to make that very, very clear. Because we’re often approached by groups that I think would like us to take that position, and we’re not activists,” he said.
Farm to plate
While the company’s newest building is in progress, the company still has fish in its other buildings and continues operations. Previous direct sales to restaurants fell off as the pandemic hit, but some key partnerships allowed the company to pivot and actually grow sales through 2020.
It’s not something Havercroft likes to talk too much about, but he confirmed the company moved from producing only fresh products, whether they’d be whole salmon or filleted salmon, having success with a line of frozen, individual portions of salmon, provided to retail operations with online retail. Specifically, he offered thanks to Afishionado Fishmongers and Hana Nelson for getting the ball rolling.
Bedford-based Afishionado directly serves seafood lovers through an online ordering system, even subscription boxes, providing fresh and frozen seafood from environmentally low-impact producers. They offer deliveries within range, pick-up hubs and even a more traditional presence through The Warehouse Market at 2867 Isleville St. in Halifax in a partnership effort.
And Havercroft said businesses like Afishionado are making all the difference.
“Even through the pandemic, we were able to build our volumes and increase our sales because, through Hana’s work, we were able to pivot and change the channel on the product that we were providing,” he said.
And he sees growth ahead, as the company’s product is seen and understood.
For land-based aquaculture, there have been some large projects announced globally and significant investments promised.
“Sustainable Blue is just as ambitious as these super large companies in the U.S. about the viability of land-based salmon aquaculture and it does intend to very significantly grow and scale up over the next few years and get ultimately to a size where it is performing extremely efficiently, in terms of the scale metrics,” he said.