Vision: Hardy Buoys firmly hooked into smoked-salmon markets

A big fish business didn’t get away from Cowichan’s Carol and Bruce Dirom.

Their firm — Hardy Buoys Smoked Fish Inc. — is now a global smoked-salmon business employing nearly 100 workers in Port Hardy.

Despite the Diroms’ current commercial success — their prized product is sold in most island grocery-store chains — it was spawned in 1994 by sports fishermen wanting their catch custom smoked.

Hardy Buoys’ dedicated crew, comprising about two-thirds First Nations folks, still custom smokes seasonal catches while the Diroms troll for all the fish they can buy to feed their hungry smoke house.

“We only use sugar, salt, maybe some spices, and alder-wood chips,” said Carol who, like Bruce, graduated from Cowichan secondary.

The busy parents of three have a home in Hardy, plus a place in Cowichan, connected by 4 ½ hours of driving. That roadwork is a labour of love for the couple whose business annually processes hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish.

“People are banging on our door now because they see our product at their competitors’. We can produce around 4,000 pounds a day,” said Bruce. “We are the marquee producer for hot-smoked product in Western Canada.”

Sure, shoppers may try a competitor’s product, but usually return to Hardy Buoys fish, he explained of his independent firm.

“We don’t buy from commercial fishermen. It’s easier for us to buy from brokers,” he said. “We primarily buy pink, sockeye, spring chinook, and coho, and Atlantic salmon comes to us fresh every day.

“We buy it all; it’s all based on consumer needs. We buy fish from wherever we can.”

And he sets aside the politics of fish as controversy swirls around wild versus farmed salmon.

“We have a great variety of products, and that lets customers make their choice,” Bruce explained of product that’s labelled either wild or farmed.

“We’re not pro-anything. We do a great product and want everyone to be happy.”

Farmed Atlantic salmon fetches about $20 per pound; wild pink gets $15 to $16 a pound.

“Once it’s smoked, pink is something you want to buy if you want less-expensive.”

Bruce was proud of his $8-million annual operation that’s “really on a growing curve right now.”

“We buy on spec, and weekly. We want to have product in our freezers to draw on all year. We’re always looking for product.”

That’s why Hardy Buoys has ballooned from its original 3,000- square-foot building to a 50,000-square-foot plant within two decades.

Ironically, “we’re struggling in Canada to get the retail price we deserve because our product is that good.”

Hardy Buoys burns alder in two commercial smokers made by Portland’s Enviropack.

“They can hold 800 pounds per smoking, and we can produce three to four rotations a day, so we smoke up to 4,500 pounds a day,” he said of his product boasting a two-year shelf life.

But Bruce was baffled by a demand-price puzzle.

“Smoked salmon’s a delicacy, so why is a pound of scallops at wholesale around $22 a pound — after being harvested from the sea — yet my (labour-added) product at wholesale is less than $15 to retailers?

“It’s the crazy part of our business.”

Still, sanity prevails at Hardy Buoys where Carol said her firm draws Aboriginal workers from the Gwa’sala - ‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nation “as it is within walking distance from our plant, and right here in town.”

“The other two bands we have employees from are Kwakuitl First Nation, and the Quatsino First Nation. Our human resources people work with the band offices and their H.R. people. Our last payroll was 89 workers.”

“We’re the single-largest employer to an Aboriginal band on the North Island,” added Bruce.

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