Bill Vernon is the General Manager of Creative Salmon at Baxter Island Farm in British Columbia.


What do you do to reduce the possibilities of fish being stressed due to densities?

One of the things that we've always tried to do here at Creative Salmon is to let the fish guide us on how we should treat them. We've learned over time that densities certainly play a role in the health of the fish. So we've tried to maintain our densities at a level where the fish live and our survivals are high.

At some farms, the density is so many kilograms per cubic meter. What is it here?

We have grown at higher densities years ago, but now we try to limit the density to eight kilograms per cubic meter and that would only be reached at the time of harvest, so the densities grow as the fish grow. I know that other people grow at higher densities than that, but we've tried to keep it low. Our density in percentage terms is actually less than one percent of the total volume of the net pen.

What ramifications does the density factor have in terms of needing antibiotics?

There is certainly a level of stress in competing for feed or competing for space. What we've learned is that the more pressure we put on the fish, by way of increasing density, the more stress they feel. So, what we've tried to do is limit those densities. We use, as a guide, the health of the fish. So if we see our survivals are dropping below 90%, there are some issues that may relate to density or some other event. Our densities, or our survivals, tend to be at around 90%. Eighty-five percent would not be the best survival that we could get.

If they have less stress, they have less need for antibiotics?

This industry started out using antibiotics in a way that probably wasn't necessary. But, all of us found ways to use antibiotics in terms of thinking that we'd be able to improve survivals. We've taken another approach and tried to breed our fish out of other fish that have never had antibiotics and tried to maintain densities at a level that will keep the fish healthy. So we don't have to use antibiotics. This year has been a very successful year for us.

It looks like you've bypassed the need to use the copper nets.

Our goal is to be able to produce for the consumer an organic type of product. One of the issues in organics is obviously the use of chemicals, and copper is something that is known to be, in high concentrations, toxic. So we've had to go to another way of managing our nets, and part of it is to change our nets more regularly to reduce the amount of growth on the nets. The other way is when we dry the nets out. We've come up with an innovative way of using large inner tubes to raise the bottom of the net up high enough so that it can dry and let the sun supply its UV to help sterilize the nets.

It seems like you're trying to minimize any possibility of a problem, in terms of where you've sited it, and in dealing with predators.

Our whole approach here has been about trying to learn in an adaptive way. We started a program years ago called our Corporate Environmental Program. It includes several ways of monitoring around the farms on the bottom to try and find out exactly what we are doing. In order for us to be able to change, we need to know what we're doing. We started that program in 1996, long before it became something that the government wanted us to do. Now, we're compelled with new government regulation to do it and we're looking for other ways to improve even more.

As far as predators are concerned, they come and go. The biggest predator, the biggest problem is sea lions. We know when they come, they come with the herring, they arrive here in about February, so we put on big heavy predator nets in January and leave them on until April when the sea lions leave and go back to their home range. Then, we remove the predator nets and clean them and get ready for the next season.

It sounds like you are making efforts to not only monitor the presence of contaminants in the fishmeal, but also monitor where the fisheries are actually targeting these small fish.

Part of what people expect, our consumers expect, is that they're going to get a good quality fish. Because our fish are fed feed that comes from fishmeal, we have to be sure that the fishmeal itself doesn't contain anything that is deemed to be harmful, or potentially harmful, to humans. We have a program where we're testing the fishmeal in order to be able to assure ourselves that the feed we're making out of the fishmeal is safe and wholesome. We'll also be doing random checks on our feed as just another level of checking to be able to assure our customers that they're getting a good, safe, and wholesome product.

Where does your fishmeal come from?

It comes from South America from the anchovy and jack mackerel fishery and is part of a very large fishery that's been going on in South America for probably 50 to 75 years. I think now, the fishmeal that we're using and the oil in the past used to be used in diesel trucks. So we're seeing a higher and better use of both the oil and the fishmeal.

It seems to me that a lot of what your doing has to do with your personal philosophy as an approach to business. Why is Creative Salmon taking these measures?

For some people in business, I might be considered a radical, or a bit of a cowboy. I don't necessarily believe that all the textbooks on business apply to what we're doing. A lot of the textbooks on business apply to an older paradigm. We're in a more modern time and we have to think more modern, and as business people we have to hear what people are saying and take steps to change things. The alternative is to have regulations and policies from government that usually go over the top and often don't solve any of the problems. They simply are a political solution to an environmental problem or something else. In Creative Salmon, we take a different approach to solving problems, in dealing with our own employees or with the local community. We think that they are stakeholders in this company, shareholders in this company, and have a right to know what we're doing and if we are embracing their points of view or their culture.

You acknowledge that there are risks, and so forth, and ultimately there's probably no way around that, in fact, there are risks in a lot of things. But what it comes down to is managing those risks. That's what you're doing a lot here.

Anything that we are doing poses certain levels of risk. Any activity that man gets involved in has risks. What we're involved in has risks. It's up to us to be vigilant. It's up to us to be responsible and try and learn from the mistakes that we do make and try to improve things. Hopefully, the mistakes that we're making are small mistakes and don't have big consequences to ourselves or to the environment. From Creative Salmon's point of view, we've always tried to incrementally improve what we're doing. The improvement isn't just about the company improving. The company has a lot of employees, suppliers, and contractors, and it's up to them to understand that the way we behave or the strength of the company is only as good as the weakest link. So everybody has to embrace this point. Hopefully all of us will improve together.

Other comments or concerns?

I'd like to talk a bit about our relationship with the First Nations, as it's one of the things that is one of the telling moments in Creative Salmon. Several years ago I was talking with our local First Nation here, whose traditional territory we are in. It became very clear to me that I didn't really understand their culture. Rather than me trying to learn the culture myself, why don't I hire someone that is going to be, my liaison, or my cultural advisor? So we hired a liaison person, and we're the first people in the industry to actually hire a liaison.

Most companies, now, do have their own liaisons with the local First Nations, the traditional territory that they're in. For me, it's been a real learning process, but it's been a very positive experience for me. If our neighbors have a problem with something we're doing, they come and talk to us. If we have something we want to do, we will go to them first. They're our neighbors, if we're going to build a fence or something like that, we don't go to the government first, we go to our neighbor and let them know what we're thinking.

I've heard that aquaculture is trying to do in 30 years what agriculture took 6000 years to do. The learning curve's been steep, but there have been a lot of changes even in the last few years.

When you look at aquaculture, it started here in this province only 20 years ago. When I look at the type of equipment we're using, whether it's net pens, the anchor lines, or anything, the difference is like three lifetimes. It's a very positive thing. I think for us it certainly helps me to sleep at night to know that I now have anchoring systems that are three or four times what they used to be. So it has been a very positive change. As far as us changing in thirty years as opposed to what took 6000 years, the public now has a much different expectation out of us as business people and as people producing food. We're compelled to move much quicker than what the agriculture industry had to.

Looking at the innovations that you're developing right here as a small company, day-to-day, do you think that the whole industry will go in a better direction?

By and large, whether they're a big company or a small company, whether they're a multinational or not, everybody is hearing very clearly that the public has high expectations out of how we behave in what is a publicly owned resource. Some companies are moving quicker than others. But if you don't move in that direction, you're simply not going to exist in the next few years. My sense is that everybody is moving in that direction.

In terms of public expectations, to what degree is your product getting a premium by people that are, potentially, a growing segment of those who appreciate this kind of seafood?

Most of our business, now, is moving more towards people that are prepared to pay a bit more for the feeling that we're not only producing a healthy and nutritious product, but that the way we behave in and around the environment is what they expect. About half of our production, now, is going for what I would say is a premium price. We certainly look forward to getting a premium price for the rest of it, but it will take time. This has been a slow process, and we're certainly not 100% there yet.

What are you going to do when you retire? Any kind of a legacy you hope to leave?

I hope in a small way that we've been a bit of an example about how things can be done differently and yet successfully. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to follow the textbook exactly. There are ways that you can do things differently and yet achieve success. Success isn't just measured in bottom line alone.