NZ King Salmon unfazed by ash cloud

How an Icelandic volcano that grounded planes around the world allowed local fish farm New Zealand King Salmon to soar. Clean, green & blue, mouthwatering conditions for salmon farming

It’s unlikely Benjamin Franklin even realised the existence of Iceland’s Mt Eyjafjallajokull when he coined his oft repeated homily: “out of adversity comes opportunity.” It’s even more farfetched to believe that anyone outside of the rocky Atlantic Ocean island ever gave the peak a passing thought – until the volcano with the unpronounceable name blew its top.

With Northern Hemisphere air routes and waves severely disrupted, passengers in Europe and the Middle East were stranded, as was high-quality, high-value food destined for dinner plates in up-market eateries.

But the eruption turned out to be serendipitous for niche aquaculture enterprise New Zealand King Salmon. In the company’s Nelson head office, chief executive Grant Rosewarne heard the commotion being caused by the far-away eruption. He thought that he was having volcanic problems of his own when his fax and email ordering systems began flowing like lava.

“We had done some business with people in these areas but customers in Dubai, Singapore, Osaka and Tokyo all substantially upped their orders because of the Iceland disruption. An initial order from Dubai was 100 times the norm, while other orders doubled. To fulfil the urgent orders we increased our daily harvest and processed an extra 10,000 fish.”

Making proverbial hay while the sun wasn’t shining on their competitors was the story – and the opportunity – for Rosewarne. The challenge was how to harness this unexpected gift from the heavens and turn it into sustainable volumes and new business.

While the short-term bottom-line benefits were self evident, the company soon realised that a perfect opportunity to put their product into the mouths of thousands of new consumers—albeit ones more accustomed to Atlantic salmon species – had been handed to them on a plate.

New Zealand King Salmon also had the platform to further promote the underwater version of New Zealand’s ‘clean/green’ story to discernable palates with the income to fuel their tastes.

Known also as Chinook and Pacific King, the King salmon variety was introduced to New Zealand from California in the 1860s. Globally, salmon farming itself, says Rosewarne, is a little over 30 years old, with the biggest producers farming mostly Atlantic salmon in areas such as Norway, Scotland, Canada and Chile.

As an isolated and much smaller producer – and to help manage a species that is notoriously hard to farm – New Zealand King Salmon had to devise many of its own methods. In the process the innovations gave them competitive advantages that they could only dream of. Key for the company was the fact they were ready, and able, to tell a cogent, compelling and coherent story.

“We found ourselves in the enviable position, having gained credibility by delivering in a crisis situation, of being able to then talk about the benefits and advantages of King salmon and our farming methods. Apart from superior taste, colour and texture—which for many created a totally new eating experience—producing a sustainable, disease free, chemical free, clean growing environment found even more favour. Farmers elsewhere in the world need to use antibiotics to control diseases, but because of the unique nature of our fish farming areas – Marlborough in particular – there is no need for such procedures in New Zealand.

“Our pure King salmon brood stock, fresh-to-market distribution, vertical integration and supply chain product traceability were also ticks in our favour. The fact that King salmon has the highest natural content of (heart) healthy Omega-3 oils also helped our cause.”

While the rumblings to the north have subsided and the volcanic ash is gone, New Zealand King Salmon’s fortunes have continued to rise. Exports to 13 countries—including those captured during the eruption—have grown. The company’s most recent new market is Switzerland, where the fish is sold in more than 600 Migros stores.

It remains New Zealand’s largest fin fish aquaculture producer, employing more than 440 skilled workers, and produces 7500 metric tonnes of King salmon a year from five sea farms in the Marlborough Sounds. With 55 per cent of the global market, the company is the world’s biggest farmer and supplier of the King salmon variety, earning around $60 million a year in foreign exchange. It accounts for 70 per cent of New Zealand’s salmon production.

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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