The development of a new land-based salmon hatchery near Centreville on Digby Neck is the next big project on the books in Nova Scotia for Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd., the Atlantic Canadian salmon farming division of family-owned Cooke Aquaculture Inc.

The $60-million construction project is to be a world-class recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) and is expected to take three years to build.

“The difference with the Centreville facility, it’s considered a post moult facility so salmon would actually be grown larger in that facility, then transferred to the marine farms at a larger size so it’s a different type of facility,” said Joel Richardson, Cooke Aquaculture’s Vice President of Public Relations in an interview.

Richardson said Cooke is aiming to start construction next year.

“Of course, that’s pending market conditions and permit approvals. That’s our plan. We are on track for that at this point in time.”

In June, Kelly Cove was assigned the aquaculture licence for the land-based fish hatchery at Millbrook First Nation, just outside Truro.

“We have formed a productive relationship with the Millbrook First Nation to work together to grow Atlantic salmon smolt at their former Arctic char land-based facility,” said Glenn Cooke, CEO of Cooke Aquaculture Inc. in a press release.

“Our Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd. team and contractors from Millbrook First Nation have spent six months making preparations and we are thrilled to be contributing to the community’s economic development.”

The Millbrook facility includes a grow-out building, a filtration building, bio filter/degassing building, a hatchery building and a greenhouse. The hatchery and main facility use an RAS engineered to have capacity to grow 450,000 salmon smolt for Cooke’s marine aquaculture sites. It will be operated by First Nations employees.

The hatchery is “actually stocked and growing now for our marine farms,” said Richardson. “We have other hatcheries that supply our marine farms in Nova Scotia and we do have some hatcheries in New Brunswick that help with providing salmon smolt to our farms.”

Kelly Cove has also expanded its holdings on the water this year.

“We took over another marine farm site that was owned by Ocean Trout Farms in Shelburne Harbour,” said Richardson.

“The marine farm site hadn’t been used by the previous owners for a while, they decided to sell it, so we acquired it from them. That was just approved, an additional 10-cage site that we are stocking (with salmon). We’re adding that to our marine sites in Nova Scotia,” bringing the total number of marine farms along Nova Scotia’s Southern and Western shores to 20 including 13 farm sites in Shelburne Harbour.”

“We certainly are taking a very thoughtful approach to our growth in Nova Scotia,” noted Richardson. “Working with all the appropriate regulators and the communities where we operate is a priority for us. Our aim is to grow responsibly in Nova Scotia. And this means modest expansion and putting fish health and environmental sustainability at the forefront of our growth strategy.”

Richardson said in Nova Scotia, 309 local companies are in Cooke’s supply chain, which receive orders collectively for more than over $50 million annually.

He added that Cooke’s capital investment plan for Nova Scotia from 2018 to 2020 included a $20.3-million expansion at the Northeast Nutrition salmon feed mill in Truro, a new $5.2-million A.C. Covert seafood distribution and retail centre in Dartmouth, as well as upgrades to hatchery facilities, seawater sites and equipment.

“Our major projects capital investment plan for Nova Scotia over 2021–2025 includes approximately $106 million in spending for upgrades to harvest vessels, seawater sites and equipment,” as well as the new state-of-the-art hatchery, said Richardson. 

Since the arrival of COVID-19, “We saw export sales, values of Atlantic salmon from Atlantic Canada drop down around 32 per cent, so there was quite a significant drop in demand during the pandemic over the last year or so,” said Richardson. But the demand is picking back up as restrictions on restaurants, hotels and tourism operators are lifted not only here but in other provinces and the U.S.,” which is the main export market for Cooke.

Overall, Cooke Aquaculture employs 205 people in Nova Scotia across all divisions and are always looking for more. “Throughout Atlantic Canada at any given time we’ve probably got a hundred vacant jobs in sea farming, trucking operations, distribution, even on the feed manufacturing. There’s always opportunities,” said Richardson.