When Jemma McCowan was working in the seafood industry in London and trying to find a way to come back to New Zealand, her natural assumption was that she would end up in Auckland, where she lived when she was young.
She didn’t know much about the New Zealand seafood industry or Nelson’s crucial role in it, but she was introduced to Grant Rosewarne, the CEO of New Zealand King Salmon, through a mutual contact.
At the time, he was looking for someone to launch a high-end salmon brand called Ōra King that was targeted at the world’s top restaurants and specialty retailers. It would be the best of breed, with a traceability element added so customers could check the provenance.
McCowan’s job would be to tell that story so, in 2012, after 12 years in London, she took a risk and moved to a city she didn’t know with one suitcase.
“All my family was at opposite ends of the country in Southland or Auckland, but Nelson is almost in the middle. We also used to holiday on the West Coast because my mum’s from there, so it was a bit closer to that region. My experience of coming to Nelson was ‘what an amazing place to come home to live in and also take a career step after London. How lucky am I?”
New Zealand King Salmon has been operating for around 30 years and employs over 500 people. Ōra King is now a leading premium brand for chefs around the world, Regal is its biggest retail brand with a dominant position in New Zealand supermarkets, while Southern Ocean is more of a value and convenience brand.
As well as a multi-brand strategy, the company has also looked to diversify in an effort to remove some of the reliance on perishable salmon that needs to be transported by air - whether that’s smoked salmon that can be frozen and sent by sea; its pet food brand Omega Plus; or, potentially, snacks and canapes or the functional food and beauty space.
An important part of its business (and sustainability) strategy is to use 100% of the fish and look for ways to turn what may have once been a waste product into revenue. But it is also looking at what she calls its Scope 1 and 2 emissions like packaging solutions or energy, as well as scope 3 emissions like transport and feed that are largely external and harder to control.
When it comes to carbon emissions from aviation, biofuels are beginning to be used more regularly and she’s confident electric aircraft will soon be tested on short haul routes.
“On the feed side of things we’re probably seeing more movement than on transport,” she says.
30 years ago, she says the feed used to be 100% fish meal and fish oil, but in 2020 it was down to 10.4 percent fish meal and 6 percent fish oil. Land-based, low-impact protein sourced from the poultry industry is one substitute and algal oils are also being commercialised (in some cases, they are coming as a byproduct of biofuel production). Insect protein is also on the cards.
While King Salmon is big in New Zealand, it is still rare on the world stage, so it’s difficult to get the big global feed companies to trial new products because it’s not worth the effort for such a small market. This is one area where the connection to Nelson’s Cawthron Institute, New Zealand's largest independent science organisation, has been beneficial because it can assist with trials and evaluation to ensure the feed leads to the same high-quality, high-Omega 3 oil salmon.
Around its salmon farms, there are already stringent environmental regulations and, in a stunning place like the Marlborough Sounds, the company takes those responsibilities extremely seriously. She says it is also looking at growing appropriate species of seaweed - and not necessarily as a food product, but as a natural filter and a way to sequester carbon.
Sustainability is complex, there are always short term issues competing with long-term initiatives, and there are so many trade-offs involved in many of these decisions. But that also makes it really stimulating, she says.
McCowan was quite firmly in the sustainability space in London and she says retailers at that time were already demanding very high compliance from producers as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes. When she arrived in New Zealand, that wasn’t really the case and the response to her suggestions about exploring more sustainable practices was ‘we’re already sustainable. Salmon is a sustainable industry and we’re in New Zealand. We don’t really need to do any more.’
Sustainability was a broad idea back then, but it is increasingly something that’s measurable and, after the company went public in 2016, there was a requirement for more disclosure and transparency. Increasingly, as carbon footprints, social efforts and environmental impacts are asked about by consumers, not being in a position to respond is becoming a business risk. But for those companies making positive progress it is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage.
“In time we expect to challenge our market managers to make decisions from a P&L based on non-financial measures related to sustainability, in addition to the usual commercials.”
King Salmon also works with Cawthron on environmental testing and food safety practices, which is especially important for raw products used as inputs for sushi, sashimi and cold smoked salmon production.
NIWA also provides information, local transport partners ensure the cold chain is maintained and other suppliers help track and trace, so the aquaculture infrastructure in the region is crucial to its success.
Due to the company’s relative size in the region, it can also help grow other local businesses.
She says Rosewarne was quite firm early on and said ‘where you can use a local supplier, you should’ because it gives back to the community and forges solid links and relationships. And, from local barge builders to equipment manufacturers to graphic design companies, it still abides by that philosophy. As an example, McCowan points to a net cleaning product called BossAqua, which was developed by an ex-King Salmon employee. He saw an opportunity so it was trialled on their nets and is now sold all around the world.
Outside of the aquaculture industry, a big part of Ōra King’s strategy before Covid-19 was to host high-profile chefs and food influencers from overseas and try to create ambassadors. Whenever it hosted events it would also invite smaller producers like Cranky Goat Cheese and Murdoch Wies. It also positions itself alongside fellow local premium wine brands like Dog Point, Seresin, Geisen and Cloudy Bay.
“We ask them to come and give our visitors a treat but essentially it’s a showcase for them.”
A new initiative to continue the visitor experience while borders have closed resulted in a 45-minute Ōra King documentary which the company has taken to the world in conjunction with local producer Lumiere.
New Zealand King Salmon has proposed open ocean farming in the Cook Strait in an effort to expand production in more suitable waters away from land-based activities. And while that has yet to be approved, McCowan says the focus on science has led to plenty of good dialogue.
“We do want to be commercially beneficial and do the right thing for our community. And bringing jobs is something to be proud of.”
As the world’s food demands increase and pressure continues to be placed on wild fish stocks, McCowan sees so much opportunity for aquaculture in the Nelson Tasman region. There are great career options for young people, whether they’re originally from the region or, like her, if they want to bring back experience from overseas and make their home here.
And as other Nelson Tasman food producers expand globally and look for ways to play in a more premium space, roles like McCowan’s are becoming more common.
“We can build a reputation on premium food and hospitality here … And not having to sit in traffic all the time like Aucklanders is quite nice, too.”