Over the course of his long career in aquaculture, Per-Roar Gjerde has built a solid reputation for results. After 18 years at Norwegian salmon giant Mowi, where he eventually became Director of Mowi’s global farming operations, he moved to Pacifico Aquaculture in Mexico, a young company cultivating striped bass. WeAreAquaculture spoke to the globe-trotting Norwegian to learn more about his remarkable story.
“The best thing about my job is that I’m helping to produce good, healthy, sustainable food in a sustainable way. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do that for many years already,” says Gjerde.
It’s clear his enthusiasm for aquaculture remains as strong as ever. And he’s certain about one thing: the world needs sustainable food, and aquaculture can provide it.
“We are 8 billion people on Earth at the moment, and soon we will be 10 billion. Everybody needs to be fed in the coming years, so where should we get the food from?”
“I have a big faith in the aquaculture industry around the world. But it’s also important that governments have plans for how to develop the industry,” he says.
From Norwegian salmon to Mexican bass
Born and raised in a small town on the Norwegian coast, Gjerde built his career in aquaculture from the ground up, working first in sales and later working his way up the career ladder to become head of global farming operations for the world’s biggest salmon farmer, Mowi.
In 2021, Gjerde had decided to take some time out from his hectic career, to rest and recuperate. But his break didn’t last long. After just six months, he was offered the opportunity to take on an entirely different role, as CEO of Pacifico Aquaculture, a small Mexican aquaculture company farming striped bass.
For Gjerde, this meant not only a change of geography and species, but a radical change of scale. “I went from the biggest farming company in the world, to one of the smallest ones,” he says with a smile.
“I went from the biggest farming company in the world, to one of the smallest ones.”– Per-Roar Gjerde
It’s clear that Gjerde relishes the opportunity to be at the helm of this promising new business. He describes moving to his new role as an “adventure,” and looking back on his career, it becomes clear that Gjerde is no stranger to taking on new challenges.
Starting in the salmon industry
“I grew up on the coastline of Norway. There was not much aquaculture when I was growing up, but I’ve always been very focused on the sea. I fished a lot when I was a kid, in the same place where I have my cabin now. But it was a coincidence that I went into aquaculture and that was when I was finished with my education as an economist.”
Gjerde and his wife had been living in Bergen, but decided to move back to their home region when Gjerde was offered a sales job for a small salmon producer.
“I started to sell salmon for Domstein Salmon in 1994. That’s the reason why we moved to Måløy. It’s a small town close to where my wife and I grew up.”
Gjerde went on to work in banking, with a wide range of clients both large and small, including aquaculture companies. In 2000, he joined Fjord Seafood Norway, which was taken over by Marine Harvest in 2002.
“It was very important for me to be close to the people that really knew the fish and the operation.”– Per-Roar Gjerde
“I worked as a controller for many years both for freshwater and seawater, and then the factory. I had responsibility for a whole value chain, which was important for me to understand the business.”
“I don’t have a biological education – I wish I had, but I don’t,” Gjerde says with a smile. However, he made up for that by learning directly from the people with hands-on knowledge.
“It was very important for me to be close to the people that really knew the fish and the operation. I used to spend a lot of time with them, to understand how the business was functioning.”
Marine Harvest merger brought a new opportunity
Change came in 2006, with the merger of three Norwegian salmon giants: Marine Harvest, Pan Fish and Fjord Seafood. “Three of the biggest aquaculture companies came together to create the biggest one, that became the new Marine Harvest,“ says Gjerde.
However, restructuring the new company meant a significant reshuffle of staff and responsibilities.
“There were three of everyone, so there was a big selection process. Some people got new positions in the new company, and some left. At that time, I was the financial manager for Fjord Seafood Norway. And of course, there was also a financial manager in Panfish Norway, and another in Marine Harvest Norway.”
Gjerde explains that staff were given the opportunity to apply for new roles during the restructuring. “I said I wanted to be the new regional director for Region West Norway. That was one of the biggest business units in the new Marine Harvest.”
A leap up the career ladder
Gjerde’s wish was granted, and he moved overnight into a role with much greater responsibility. “From being financial manager with two people reporting to me, the next day I was the regional director in the new Marine Harvest and had 230 people reporting to me. That was a very big change in my career.”
“We had a new management group with people from the three companies, and we had to make it function in a good way. We had some changes during the first couple of years both in management and operations. And we manage put together a very good management team for the west region.”
“We went from being far from the best performing business unit to become the best performing business unit in in the new Marine Harvest. That was very good work from the team,” Gjerde says.
“And I guess I also contributed a little bit as the regional director,” he adds, smiling.
Gjerde worked in that role for a decade, following which he moved on to a new challenge: becoming manager and director of Marine Harvest Chile in 2016.
“The one year in life I learned the most”
“I think that year was the one year in life I learned the most. It was a totally different culture and a new language that I didn’t speak very well,” he recalls.
“It was a very interesting time. We put together a very good management team.”
Challenges came in more serious forms, too. Gjerde took over Mowi’s operations in Chile at a moment of unprecedented crisis. Just two months after taking on his new role, high sea temperatures off Chile’s coast led to a toxic algae bloom that wiped out almost 23 million fish, causing over $800m in lost production across the Chilean salmon industry.
“We lost a lot of fish. It was a challenging year, but we worked hard, and we managed to break even, despite all the challenges.”
Gjerde says that his appointment to Chile was originally planned to last two years, but he was asked to return early to add the Norway farming business to his portfolio.
“So I had two neighbour countries, Norway and Chile,” he says with a smile.
“Having good people around you are the most important”
“It was a challenge, but when you have good people in the different business units, it works.”
Following this, Gjerde was given responsibility for the entire international farming division of Mowi.
“Those were very fun and interesting years when I had responsibility for Chile, Canada – both East and West coasts, as well as Scotland, Ireland, Faroe Islands and Norway. At that time, we produced around 430,000 tonnes.”
“We had a lot of fantastic, very clever people working in the organization in all levels. I also had a very good colleague helping me, doing the economic reports and keeping me updated while we were travelling back and forth.”
“Having good people around you are the most important if you want to create something successful.”
“The chance to build something new”: Pacifico Aquaculture
Gjerde’s energy continues unabated as he takes on a different kind of challenge, with a company that is just getting started in the aquaculture industry.
“Moving to Pacifico has been a very interesting change in career. It’s a new country, a new culture, with fantastic people, good food, and a very, very promising product,” Gjerde says. It was an opportunity that was too good to pass up: “This is a great opportunity. I have the chance to build something new, which is very exciting.”
“This is a great opportunity. I have the chance to build something new, which is very exciting.”– Per-Roar Gjerde
“At the moment we are producing around 2.000 tonnes. Our target is to increase to ten times this amount in 6 to 7 years. It’s going to be a very interesting few years ahead.”
Gjerde now splits his time between Pacifico sites in Mexico and his cabin on the Norwegian coast where he grew up, as well as Gran Canaria, where he and his wife have an apartment. “It’s not a boring life, I have to say that!”
His philosophy? People, product and the right financial support
What unifies all of Gjerde’s experiences is a central philosophy: people, product, and the right backing to make it all work.
“In my approach to business, people are extremely important. Having the right people at the right place is necessary to create a good company and a good business. Of course, you also need a great product too.”
Gjerde also notes that sufficient investment is also key to developing a successful aquaculture business. “You really need to have those three elements in place to make a make a success.”
A new species with great potential: striped bass
“Working with salmon was a dream because it’s such a tasty, good product that is known all around the world,” says Gjerde.
But what about the new species Pacifico cultivates, striped bass?
“To be honest, I had never heard about striped bass before April 2021,” Gjerde admits. But although striped bass was unfamiliar, he quickly saw its potential.
“It’s a fantastic product, that has the opportunity to become what salmon has been. Of course, that is not done in one year, but in a maybe in a lifetime,” Gjerde says.
“Of course, we’re not yet at the stage where salmon is, and we still need to improve in many parts of the operations.”
Originally from the East Coast of America, striped bass is a very popular fish for recreational fishing, and is also eaten widely in Mexico. In common with salmon, striped bass (Morone saxatilis) is anadromous, meaning it spawns in fresh water, with its post-smolt and adulthood stages spent at sea.
“It’s a white fish, with a very good texture and structure. People find it very tasty and very memorable, it’s a good experience for them.”
Gjerde says that Pacifico is focusing on both growing the market for striped bass and expanding production, noting that the company has a healthy demand for their product.
Looking ahead: a global need for aquaculture
“I believe strongly that aquaculture will become even more important than it is now. The world is 70% water and 30% land, a lot of which is not productive in terms of food. We need to grow the ocean for sure.”
“I see the future of aquaculture as very bright. But both companies and countries need to have a plan to develop the industry,” Gjerde says, noting that new developments both land-based and offshore technologies are likely to change the nature of the industry going forward.
“I believe strongly that aquaculture will become even more important than it is now… We need to grow the ocean”– Per-Roar Gjerde
“With offshore, you will have bigger areas of ocean that can grow food. But again, it’s important for the different countries to make a strategy for how they want to see aquaculture developing in the future.”
“Us Norwegians are very impatient and governmental processes are relatively slow. I would like them to do more than they’re doing at the moment,” he admits.
Gjerde says that, at least where salmon is concerned, some countries lead the way. He says Norway, Scotland and Chile are among the countries with the best plans for aquaculture.
Aquaculture in Mexico: opportunity for growth
Gjerde says that aquaculture is still rather new for Mexico, with plenty of potential for development in future.
“Mexico doesn’t have a good strategy yet for aquaculture, but for the country there is a huge opportunity. It can create jobs for people in rural areas. And as we see in Norway, it will also create investment in the country in rural areas as well as more central areas. It will also create export income for the country.”
“At the moment in Pacifico, we are in exporting 85-90% of our production and that of course gives export income to Mexico.”
“We are producing good healthy food that is needed not only for the world, but also for the people of Mexico.”
“I feel extremely lucky to be part of developing a new industry in a new part of the world, and to have such fantastic people around me. It’s a good life.”
About Pacifico Aquaculture
Founded in 2010 through a partnership with industry leaders, Pacifico Aquaculture has implemented innovations in ocean farming to ensure the health of its striped bass, ocean health, and the long-term availability of striped bass for generations to come. In partnership with the Mexican government, Pacifico Aquaculture maintains sole rights to raise striped bass in the pristine marine sanctuary of Isla Todos Santos, Ensenada, Baja California which is part of the Pacific Islands Biosphere Reserve.