David E. Kelley on Creating a Fish Farm: "I’m Trying to Save Something Bigger Than Myself"

David E. Kelley - Publicity - H 2019
Aquarium of the Pacific

Producer David E. Kelley compared himself to a salmon at a talk he gave at the Aquarium of the Pacific last night.

The Big Little Lies, Private Practice, Boston Public and Ally McBeal creator told an audience that he had grown up on a horse farm in Maine and had thought he would never want to get near a farm again. "I studied in high school and one of the biggest motivators was so I would get to stop mucking stalls," he said.

But now, years later, he has a farm in his life. In a chat with aquarium CEO and president Jerry Schubel, Kelley talked about starting his own U.S.-based aquaculture farm, which raises steelhead trout (the species is a cousin of salmon, part of the salmonid family of fish). "I guess like a salmon," he said, "I’m sort of returning upriver to the stream I began on and have returned to farm life."

The farm is called Riverence, harking to the idea of having a reverence for rivers. It comprises a brood farm in Washington state — "We really drilled down on selective breeding, perfect the genetics and breeding fish for vigor," said Kelley — and eight aquaculture locations in Idaho. Before the talk, Kelley, Riverence’s founder and chairman, told The Hollywood Reporter that he started down this additional career path because he had been a fisherman.

"I got involved by falling in love with salmon fish in British Columbia. I just became mesmerized with the beauty of the fish and its contribution to nature," said Kelley, who until now hasn’t spoken widely about his fish venture. About five years ago, he began attending seafood industry conferences and researching the business and science of aquaculture.

One of Kelley’s biggest motivations for starting Riverence, he said, is his concern for the environment amid the escalating climate crisis. "The world’s in trouble and not enough people are tumbling to that conclusion fast enough," he said in his talk. "Part of the problem, in the corporate world you’ve got people in short-term tenure jobs making decisions that will affect the world forever."

Among the environmental threats are that wild salmon stocks are in trouble due to overharvesting, loss of habitat, dam building and a warming world. At the same time, consumption pressures are growing on salmon species as population rises. "If we don’t step in and endeavor to try and protect and save them somehow, we might not have them forever," said Kelley, who believes that aquaculture is "the best way to take pressure off fishing in the wild.” He added, “I’m trying to protect and save something bigger than myself."

Riverence, which is rated as a "Best Choice" fish by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide, is now the second largest steelhead trout producer in the United States, raising 7.5 to 10 million pounds of fish a year.

"The more we grow and expand, the more impact we’ll have on saving wild stocks," he said. Fish from his farm is sold in Los Angeles at Santa Monica Seafood and is on the menu at such restaurants as Tender Greens, Momofuku, Bottlefish, Blue Plate Oysterette and Toast.

During a Q&A portion of the program, Kelley took questions from audience members. One asked about the environmental impact of farmed salmon. Another said he had stopped eating farm-raised fish because it tastes like “cardboard.” Admitting there’s still a “stigma” to farm-raised fish, Kelley said the proof is in how Riverence raises its fish and in how it tastes. To that end, Kelley’s talk was preceded by a taped video by celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, who called Riverence fish “some of the most delicious trout that I’ve ever tasted, in many cases better than some of the wild stuff that I have tasted. That’s how far aquaculture has come.” 

Kelley explained that Riverence’s trout are raised in spring-fed water courses, in a system in which water is returned to the environment. "In Idaho, that is all driven by nature. The water comes out of the canyon walls. It really explodes out. By virtue of gravity, it runs down our raceways and through our flow-through system it’s 100 percent natural. They are kind of like concrete rivers. They are as natural as can be without being a river," he said.

There’s also traceability, a concern that he hopes more consumers come to care about. "The truth is most people do not know where their fish is coming from. I make it a habit when I go to a restaurant to ask where the fish is from and invariably the proprietors do not know," he said, adding that at Riverence, “We have full chain of custody from egg to fish."

While he has included storylines inspired by his side venture into some of his shows — a recent Big Little Lies scene had one character asking a waitress about the origins of the restaurant’s fish and an episode of Boston Legal once discussed the dangers posed to wild salmon — don’t expect a new David E. Kelley show about just fish. “I say to my wife once a week, ‘How about a series about a fish farmer?’ She says, ‘Honey.’ I’ve said, ‘No really, you have these people in Idaho growing trout and they’ve got a better food conversion ratio than anyone else.’”

His biggest challenge — apart from the cost of fish feed ("That’s the joke — I go to write television shows to pay for fish feed, that’s our biggest expense," he said) — is getting consumers to pay a premium for Riverence’s product and part of that will come from getting name recognition for the company. Of course, it would help if it’s not confused with a TV show that’s not even one of his own. One member, asking a question about where to find his fish, called the company Riverdale. Gently correcting her, Kelley did admit, "It’s a very good show."