Fast-expanding seafood giant joins Irvings, McCains as N.B. business royalty

FREDERICTON — For the Irvings, it was Bouctouche. For the McCains, Florenceville.

Now, in tiny Black’s Harbour, in between an Irving gas bar and the local Freshmart, is a small, two-storey brick building that is head office for New Brunswick’s newest family-owned multinational.

Cooke Aquaculture Inc. is the world’s largest independent seafood company, with billions of dollars in annual revenue, shipping one billion pounds of fresh seafood annually to 67 countries.

And it is about to get bigger. Founded 33 years ago, the firm is set to complete its latest acquisition, growing its global workforce to some 9,000 employees.

Cooke is in the final stages of buying one of the largest shrimp farming companies in Latin America, although exact details are being withheld until the deal is complete in the next few weeks.

“Cooke Aquaculture started in 1985 by Gifford Cooke and his two sons Michael and Glenn. They started with farming 5,000 salmon in a pen,” said Joel Richardson, vice-president public relations for Cooke Aquaculture.

“That grew over the years through approximately 100 acquisitions since 1985 globally. We have now become the largest independent seafood company in the world. We are independently, family owned, right here, and Black’s Harbour is our head office,” he said.

Company revenues are expected to be $2.4 billion for 2018. Cooke operates 657 vessels and 25 processing facilities. It operates under a number of brands including True North Seafood Company, Icicle Seafoods and Wanchese Fish Company.

Last month, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce named Cooke Aquaculture Inc. its Top Private Business Growth Award winner in Canada for 2018.

Growth started quite naturally for the Cookes. Four years after opening their first salmon cage, they needed a supply of eggs and smolt, so they bought a hatchery.

The corporate website details the subsequent purchases, including feed plants, distributors, processing plants and other aquaculture and wild fish operations.

“We have farmed salmon operations in Chile, Scotland, Maine, Washington state and we also do sea bass and sea bream in Spain. We have wild cod operations in the United States and down in Latin America as well,” Richardson said.

About 40 per cent of Cooke’s seafood business is wild caught.

Despite the growth around the world, the company has kept its roots in rural New Brunswick and has about 2,000 employees here.

“Entrepreneurs and families in New Brunswick have a special connection to where we’re from,” said Richardson.

Observers liken them to dynasties like the Irvings and McCains, local family businesses that have made their mark on the North American stage.

Donald Savoie, an expert in economic development at the Universite de Moncton, said there’s a common mindset to the family-run, resource businesses that have their roots in rural New Brunswick.

“When you start in natural resources you don’t need much start-up capital. You don’t need venture capital, you don’t need the stock market. You need opportunities and an entrepreneur with a single-minded purpose,” he said.

“Harrison and Wallace McCain, when they started, they had a handful of employees. Today they’re in China, they’re in Europe. Cooke has followed the same pattern. The Irvings started off in Bouctouche with two or three people working there. That’s the pattern,” he said.

However, Savoie said the rules of the playing field are changing and new environmental requirements, consultations with First Nations and other regulations are making it harder for companies to get a start in rural areas.

“It calls on government to look at rural development and to see how we can make it easier for entrepreneurs to start a business in rural New Brunswick in the natural resources sector,” he said. “New Brunswick remains largely rural. We are just crossing the line now at 50 per cent urban and rural. Ontario crossed that line 100 years ago.”

But the aquaculture industry has faced its share of controversy.

In a report this year, federal environment commissioner Julie Gelfand warned of the disease risk that farmed fish pose to wild salmon, finding that Fisheries and Oceans Canada had not adequately balanced the industry’s risks with its mandate to protect wild fish.

The report pointed to the under-studied effect of pesticides and the risk of salmon escapes, which can lead to genetic defects in wild populations.

Cooke Aquaculture itself has faced pushback on its operations in multiple jurisdictions, including Newfoundland and Labrador and Washington State after salmon escapes.

On Monday, Ottawa announced a new approach to the aquaculture sector, including creating a single comprehensive set of regulations to clarify how it is run in Canada.

The department is also ordering a study on alternative aquaculture technologies, developing a risk management framework and moving towards area-based management plans to take regional environmental concerns into account.

But Richardson said Cooke operates in “a safe and environmentally sustainable manner,” and the public understands that fish escapes can occur if major storms cause damage to the pens.

“Our company follows global best practices and all government regulations by responding immediately following severe storms — just like land-based farmers do,” he said.

“We invest heavily in world class environmental monitoring and feeding systems, using the best technology and expertise from around the world.”

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