Sustainable fish farming?

By Judith Lavoie, July/August 2014

An experiment in fish farming may point the way to keeping our wild fish healthier.

Salmon at the first commercial land-based Atlantic salmon farm in North America are certainly fat and, as far as anyone can tell, they seem happy as they swim around their 500-cubic-metre tanks.

That’s a bonus not only for the fish, but also for Kuterra, the ‘Namgis First Nation company raising the fish. Contented fish also seem to be tasty fish—following the initial April harvest, the product is flying off grocery store shelves.

It has been a good commercial start for Kuterra, which is raising the fish on ‘Namgis land near Port McNeill. But there is more than commercial success at stake as proponents of closed containment fish farming aim to show land-based pens can help save BC’s runs of wild salmon by getting open net pen fish farms out of the ocean.

Controversy surrounds the ocean-based salmon farming industry because of interaction between wild runs and farmed salmon. Concerns, acknowledged in the Cohen Commission report and 2012 Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel Report, include transmission of disease and parasites from farmed fish to wild salmon, escapes of non-indigenous fish from the farms, predator control—including shooting sea lions and seals and accidental drownings when marine mammals become entangled in nets—and discharge of antibiotics, pesticides and farm waste into the ocean.

But, for decades, closed containment critics have claimed that farming Atlantic salmon on land is impossible, impractical or uneconomical.

‘Namgis, supported by SOS Marine Conservation Foundation, the US-based Freshwater Institute, and Tides Canada, are out to prove the environmental and economic benefits of recirculating aquaculture systems.

‘Namgis have traditions stretching back 4000 years that tie them to Pacific salmon and the word Kuterra comes from Kutala, which means salmon in Kwak’wala. But, despite the close ties to Pacific salmon, the choice was made to farm Atlantics—the species grown by fish farming companies—because of the need for a true comparison, says Kuterra spokeswoman Jo Mrozewski. “We are comparing apples to apples,” she says.

Kuterra fish are grown without the use of antibiotics or pesticides and smolts are quarantined for four months to ensure they are disease-free before graduating to grow-out tanks. They are then raised in slightly saline, disinfected groundwater from wells. The temperature is controlled; 98 percent of the water is recirculated; fish are protected from predators and the elements; and changes are made if there is any sign of stress.

The startling result is that fish are growing to marketable size in about half the time it takes to grow fish in ocean pens. The first fish made it to market in 13 months, compared to 18 months to two years for ocean pen fish. “They are fat and happy, so they have an amazing growth rate,” Mrozewski says.

Apart from the obvious economic advantages of faster-maturing fish, feed is reduced by 30 percent. Feeding fish protein to farm fish is contentious and, at Kuterra, the aim is to minimize fish content and use meal from sustainable fisheries, but the amount of vegetable material fish will tolerate is limited, Mrozewski says. “The biggest sustainability factor is that our feed conversion is so much better than for ocean pen farming,” she says.

From the consumer’s point of view, Kuterra fish are already a success, says Guy Dean, vice-president of Albion Fisheries, the company distributing the fish. “It’s going amazingly well,” says Dean, who believes most consumers now look for seafood that is sustainable and healthy, with no pesticides or antibiotics. It means that stores can demand a premium price for the specialty product and the fish are sold for 15 to 30 percent more than ocean-farmed Atlantic salmon.

“And they taste fabulous. Very rich tasting, but very mild and very easy to cook because they have a firm texture,” Mrozewski says.

About 1300 fish are being harvested each week, with the aim of expanding three-fold to about four-and-a-half tonnes a year.

The only marketing problem is that the sale of Vancouver Island Safeway stores earlier this year removed Island outlets for the salmon. “That’s a little bit of a challenge we’re trying to work through,” Dean says, predicting that the fish will be available in independent retailers around Victoria within a couple of months.

As with all innovations, there have been hitches as the farm struggled with logistical and design problems in the recirculating aquaculture system. “It has not been easy and we are not there yet. This is the beginning of an evolutionary process,” says Jackie Hildering, of the Save Our Salmon Marine Conservation Foundation.

And the lingering question is whether the economics of farming Atlantic salmon on land are sufficiently attractive to convince fish farming companies to leave the ocean.

“Fish need to be raised on land. That’s indisputable from an environmental perspective,” says Hildering. “It is not a good idea, if you value the long-term health of the environment, to do it in the way it’s being done in BC now…so, it becomes a question of the economics.”

The project has a capital cost pricetag of $10-million, including $1 million from ‘Namgis, $5 million in federal funding and $3 million from Tides Canada’s Salmon Aquaculture Innovation Fund.

The first post-harvest information about Kuterra’s finances will be released in late October at a Tides Canada workshop in Vancouver and those financial reports will help decide when expansion will take place, whether the company should take over its own composting of fish waste, and the potential of growing plants in the discharged waste water, an extremely profitable venture at some fish farms.

The funding assistance, however, makes it more difficult to assess whether the operation is truly commercially viable, says Jeremy Dunn, BC Salmon Farmers Association executive director. 

“This is an experimental project. We are interested to see if it can be a fully commercial venture. I think our members would have to be convinced that the markets worldwide could sustain the price,” says Dunn, adding that association members are interested observers, but switching from ocean to land is “not in the cards at the moment.”

There are unanswered questions about the amount of land needed, plus water and energy usage for recirculating aquaculture systems, he says.

Those arguments are dismissed by Eric Hobson, SOS Marine Conservation Foundation president, who says land-based farms use less space than those in the water. He also notes that energy efficiencies include geothermal heating of the water and that 98 percent of the water is recirculated. 

Dunn also points to a concern around fish health because of densities needed to make an operation commercially viable: “In the ocean we can optimize for overall fish health and we have a 90 percent survival rate.”

Kuterra mortality rate is currently 12.8 percent, with the aim of stabilizing it at five percent, says Mrozewski, adding that fish are monitored for stress and, as they are disease-free, density does not appear to be a problem. 

While Dunn questions the viability of land-based farms, he does not categorically dismiss the concept and says all fish farmers have the same objective—to grow the best fish in the shortest time, with the least amount of feed. “Aquaculture will help feed the world and land-based will be part of it and ocean-based is going to be part of it,” he says.

Experts predict that a hungry world needs to see fish farming increase by 70 percent by 2030, meaning there is an urgent need to produce fish sustainably—in a way that does not adversely affect wild fish populations.

Biologist and vocal wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton says on-land farms are better than ocean pens, but she wants to see even more innovative thinking: “If people really want to farm salmon, they should do it on land, but it’s not the way to feed the world. If they really want to feed the world they should look at the bottom of the food chain, look at algae and then they will be doing something really incredible.”

Morton says the heart of the problem is lack of government oversight of an invading industry that has put pens in the most productive areas of the BC coast and is threatening wild salmon. “They have put themselves on the vital organs of this province…Government is just the handmaiden of the industry which is a very skilled and well-funded lobby,” she says.

However, the determination of a small First Nation could set a new course for raising salmon without destroying wild runs, provided major fish farming companies and the provincial and federal governments can be convinced. And sooner or later, says Morton, they must come to realize the much larger economy comes from the wild fish.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment and First Nations issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith