David E. Kelley, the creator of TV series like "Ally McBeal" and "Boston Legal," is taking on sustainable steelhead.

By Jelisa Castrodale
Updated October 18, 2019
David E. Kelley Sustainable Trout Company Riverence Gold
Credit: Eric Wolfinger

In late August, television writer and producer David E. Kelley gave the commencement address at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, urging the graduating class not to settle for a life spent doing something that they're just kind of into. "Listen to that scream in your belly," he told them. "Do what makes you happy. Most don't."

After a brief-but-unsatisfying stint as an attorney, Kelley proves he's practiced what he's preaching. After ditching his original career, he started a new one writing for television—and it seems to have worked out preeetty well. He created shows like Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, and Chicago Hope, and turned the novel Big Little Lies into a critically acclaimed HBO series. He's also taken home 11 Emmys (so far).

But that scream in his own belly also prompted Kelley to turn a lifelong passion for fishing into a serious investment in aquaculture, or farm-raising fish. Earlier this week, he made an appearance at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California to talk about his newest venture, a system of sustainable steelhead trout farms called Riverence—a portmanteau of "river" and "reverence."

"I've often thought, 'As the salmon goes, so will we,'" he said. "The idea that they might be threatened is how I got into [aquaculture]. The population is headed toward 10 billion in 2050, and the consumption of salmon is is going up and up and up. Something has got to give, and it's going to be salmon, unless we can come up with an alternative protein source." (Steelhead are kind of a confusing fish: they've been classified as trout, as salmon, and as trout again).

David E. Kelley
Credit: Courtesy of David E. Kelley

Kelley started getting serious about aquaculture about five years ago, doing his own research and quietly attending conferences related to the industry. He started out by buying a Washington trout and salmon hatchery before expanding into Idaho, picking up—and upgrading—seven more farms. Aquaculture North America reports that the company now has 175 employees, including sustainability specialists, "technology practitioners," and, of course, a branding expert.

As it stands now, Riverence is the second-largest producer of steelhead trout in the United States, but that comes with a big caveat. Territory Magazine points out that more than 80 percent of the seafood that Americans consume has been imported from elsewhere. (About half of the world's seafood is produced through farming methods, and the industry is continuing to grow.)

"Wild-caught definitely has a better image. Chefs are conditioned to say they only use wild-caught," David Knickrehm, the culinary consultant for Sysco, a Riverence customer, told the Territory. "But this is a sustainability issue. I think farmed fish is the wave of the future. If the practices at Riverence for feeding, care, and development of healthy fish caught on across the market, I think the entire public perception would change."

David E. Kelley Sustainable Trout Company Whole Grilled Riverence
Credit: Eric Wolfinger

Kelley echoed some of those concerns, admitting that the challenges of the venture include convincing consumers to eat farmed fish, and to pay a higher price for his sustainable steelheads. "Our biggest challenge at this point is still building our market," he said. "Because we have invested in nutrition, we've lowered densities, we've put a lot of effort into making our fish a premium fish, and now the goal will be to command a premium price." His aquarium appearance was preceded by a taped message from celeb chef Andrew Zimmern, who said that Kelley's fish was "some of the most delicious trout I've ever tasted."

And it seems Kelley is as committed to his steelhead as he is to creating compelling TV. "That's the joke," he said. "I go to write television shows to pay for fish feed. That's our biggest expense."