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Fish farming into the future

This article originally appeared in Saltscapes Magazine‘s Summer 2014 issue.

by Chris Benjamin

I reach Red Bank Road in Hants County, NS after a blue-sky drive through sparkling frozen mudflats in high-tide country. I see a sign that says “Sustainable Fish Farming Canada.” Sustainable Blue is the company’s brand name.

The operation is 500 metres from the Bay of Fundy, near Centre Burlington. This June, its operators had hoped to sell the first inshore-farmed Atlantic
salmon raised in sterilized saltwater. It didn’t happen.

I learned about Sustainable Blue watching a film called Salmon Wars by journalist and author Silver Donald Cameron. The film was an indictment
of the open-net pen salmon farming industry, which came to Atlantic Canada with the first farmed salmon harvest in Deer Island, NB in 1979.

Open-net pen aquaculture has attracted political favour on the promise of rural jobs and a revitalization of the fishing industry. With the help of millions in taxpayer subsidies, it’s also dominated the salmon market. (Globally, aquaculture production surpassed beef in 2011, according to the Earth Policy Institute.)

Since the 1990s, conservation organizations estimate that Canadian taxpayers have compensated the Atlantic Canadian industry alone nearly $139 million for diseased fish ordered destroyed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Similar subsidies and disease compensations have taken place in British Columbia.

With the release of its aquaculture strategy in June 2012, the Nova Scotia government stated it aims to triple the value of the industry, and announced later that same month a $25 million investment in Cooke Aquaculture, a
New Brunswick-based company looking to expand its Nova Scotia operations.

Newfoundland, former bastion of cod fishing, could farm in controversial open-net pens as much as 50,000 tonnes of salmon in coming years, according to some in the industry. That’s more than triple its wild fish
catch. But the industry struggles to find workers.

In 2012, Newfoundland and Labrador’s former Fisheries and Aquaculture critic, Jim Bennett, proposed an entirely land based fish-farming system in response to the threat from open net marine pens to the province’s significant and feted wild salmon resource. Indeed, the Conne River, the only river on insular Newfoundland with an open-net pen operation in its
estuary for more than just a couple of years, has suffered severe depletion of wild stock. Neighbouring rivers remain healthy, but there is concern that rivers on the south coast of the island, where the open-net pen industry has recently expanded with the help of federal subsidies, are now at risk.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic claim the industry is an environmental nightmare. The feces, antibiotics, insecticides and net-cleaning toxins are released into the surrounding marine environment and disease runs rampant. Escapes are so common that farmed salmon run in 87 per cent of rivers within a three-hour drive of a fish farm. They can interbreed with wild
salmon and dilute the gene pool with catastrophic results.

The almost complete loss of wild salmon to 33 rivers draining into the Bay of Fundy, subsequent to open-net pen development, is considered highly suspect. The original wild salmon population was about 40,000 fish.

In 2010, 138,000 juvenile farmed salmon escaped into the Bay of Fundy through torn nets at two open-net salmon cages. The total number of
escaped farmed salmon in Atlantic Canada to date is unknown. Similar disasters have taken place in Norway, Scotland and Ireland in similar circumstances.

Cameron considers the inherent risks of open-net pens particular folly given that a more sustainable, inshore type of salmon farming exists, or is in development, in several US states (including landlocked Montana), British Columbia, China and Scotland. So strong is consumer demand now for
sustainably raised seafood that in Scotland a new fish-farming producer, FishFrom, will be selling 800,000 land-based farmed salmon annually to retailers such as UK’s Marks and Spencer, and plans expansion to New Zealand and North America.

Closer to home, Victoria, PEI-based Halibut PEI has sold from its land-based tanks since 2009. And Scotian Halibut at Clark’s Harbour, NS, breeds juvenile fish for European markets.

“If it exists, it’s possible,” Cameron says.

 

The smell of the ocean

Kirk Havercroft, CEO of Sustainable Fish Farming Canada (aka Sustainable Blue), escorts me from blazing sunlight into a 200-foot long half tunnel-shaped building containing nine fish tanks. Each tank circulates 50 tonnes of water hourly, and resembles a wide black, open drum.

As our eyes adjust, we place plastic covers over the soles of our shoes to prevent contamination. Besides the darkness, I’m hit by the sound of whirring pumps and running water, and the smell of ocean. The water in the tanks is from the Bay of Fundy, but salinated groundwater can also be used.

We climb steps to look inside the tanks. Thousands of two-foot long finned bodies flutter and feed. And they’re not overcrowded—several body lengths separate the fish.

Gauges monitor oxygenation rates and temperatures helping the fish grow steady and predictably. An alarm flashes as water is changed in one tank when its readings step beyond their set parameters.

“You’ve got an alarm,” Havercroft tells a worker.

“Already taken care of,” he responds.

Havercroft opens a door and shows me the poop room where the fish feces are filtered out, and all the impurities are removed until the water can be reused in the tanks. The whole system operates on a loop so that water is constantly sterilized, prepared and re-used. They’re also experimenting in a trial project to compost the feces as fertilizer for a nearby farm.

 

“The Incident”

On March 15, 2014, the day after I submit the original version of this story to the editor-in-chief of this magazine, Havercroft is driving in to the Sustainable Blue facility for a weekend shift. He’s the money guy, but like everyone else, he helps out with the tanks.

In the car, he gets a call from a devastated employee. When the employee arrived at the office two hours earlier (he was sleeping in a house on-site, just 100 metres away), he found the building dark.

That wasn’t the problem—there were backup systems. But the laptop that runs the back-up system was down. That meant the UPS (uninterrupted power system)—essentially a powerful battery—hadn’t kept the tanks going until the generator kicked in.

The employee grabbed a flashlight and bolted to the farm building that houses the tanks. He entered silence and dark. Absent were the sounds of running water and pumps.

He knew before he looked that the tanks were drained of water, and the fish—12,000 of them—lie dead. After more than nine months of convincing success, their land-based aquaculture experiment had abruptly failed.

 

Post-mortem

The failure of the UPS remains a mystery, but the circumstances were suspicious enough to warrant an RCMP investigation. The UPS was replaced three days before the incident, and Havercroft was involved in three test runs.

Now that the fish are dead it’s humming away, oblivious to its previous incompetence. When the company ran a simulation of what would happen if  somebody deliberately turned it off, the results were much like the actual outage that occurred, sparking a call to police. Regardless of the cause, the whole system had proven extremely robust, surviving more than 30 actual power outages, a direct lightning strike, power spikes and brownouts.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” says Havercroft. But he believes a recurrence can be prevented with an improved system of independent alarms that would go off in any power outage, whether because of the main power, UPS or generator. Had the employee known what was going on early enough, he could have quickly solved the problem.

Havercroft takes solace in the survival of the eggs and juvenile fish in the hatchery, which give them a several months head-start on a new crop.

Despite the setback, the company sees the first effort as a success insofar as it showed that raising and marketing land-based salmon is possible. “As my business partner, Jeremy Lee said, we’re not giving up unless someone pulls this from our hands.” A new plan sees mature fish marketed in August 2015.

“Our buyers are incredibly disappointed,” Havercroft says. “Mostly they feel sympathy for us—you build intimate relationships with your clients when you have a niche product.”
Decades in the making

Besides salmon, Sustainable Blue has also been successfully producing and marketing sea bream and, in partnership with the Mill Brook First Nation, raising Arctic char in an indoor facility near Truro since 2009. It’s a marketplace smash.

“The char is amazing, beautiful,” says Scott Thompson, national sales manager for Fisherman’s Market International. “We get great feedback from customers.”

If its Atlantic salmon follows suit, the hit will have been decades in the making. Havercroft joined the land-based aquaculture endeavor in his native England after meeting Jeremy Lee, who started designing aquaculture systems 25 years ago.

The people behind Sustainable Blue believe the product is “on the positive side of the environmental equation,” as Havercroft puts it. But they’re careful not to criticize the cage farming industry’s record. “We’re not cage farmers and therefore not qualified to comment.”

They don’t have to—it’s an industry with a reputation problem. “We have two major salmon producers [in Atlantic Canada] and one has had its knuckles rapped numerous times,” says Thompson, whose company also buys and sells cage-farmed salmon.

New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture is the king of salmon, with more than 100 farms. It’s this company’s knuckles to which Thompson refers. Last year, Cooke paid a $500,000 fine after pleading guilty to illegal pesticide use, killing hundreds of Bay of Fundy lobster. It lost 20,000 fish from a cage on the south coast of Newfoundland, and received $13 million in compensation after losing one million salmon to viral infestation.

In 2011, after Environment Canada officials raided its offices, it faced 11 criminal counts of violating the Fisheries Act. Havercroft and Lee have an alternative. What sets the Sustainable Blue salmon technology apart from other land-based operations is the saltwater. Saltwater poses greater technological challenges than freshwater, but Havercroft thinks it’s
worth it.

“A saltwater fish should be raised in saltwater,” he says. “It would affect the taste.” Havercroft contends that the health and environmental risks of cage farming don’t apply in a contained system. “We have never sold a fish subjected to antibiotics,” he says. And it would take a special fish to escape
these tanks, traverse 500 metres to the ocean and crossbreed with wild salmon.

 

People and fish

Lee and Havercroft, who are both British, moved to Atlantic Canada seven years ago, attracted to Atlantic Canada’s blend of environmental consciousness and preference for local fish. These have created a new opportunity in a region with a historically and culturally rooted love affair with fish. But it’s the people, and a stronger sense community than they knew in the UK, that keep them here. “Nova Scotia is home to us… I was
just born in the wrong country,” says Havercroft.

Havercroft hopes the company is giving something back, in part by training and employing as many as 15 to 16 full-time staff at its facilities, including their processing plant in Mill Brook. Its success has helped rural people find employment in the fishing industry, though not in the traditional man-ina-
boat sense.

The plan is to produce 1,000 tonnes of fish annually. If that works, expansion to other inland locations near larger Canadian cities, including ones on the prairies, is on the horizon.

If Havercroft is successful at producing a competitively priced alternative to open-net-raised salmon, something he insists is possible once the process is scaled up, the heavily subsidized cage operations across Atlantic Canada may eventually go the way of the horse and buggy.

But Havercroft doesn’t see Sustainable Blue as an immediate threat to cage farmers. The initial capital cost is too high for most potential copycat businesses. It’s in the long term this model has significant advantages. Because of the limited environmental impact and space required, “This has unlimited growth potential,” Havercroft says.

Several groups, some local, have expressed interest in licensing the technology and acting as a franchisee would. But only if the company proves it can grow Atlantic salmon all the way to maturity.
At a grocery store

Two (almost) identical fish lie side by side on ice at a grocery store. Signs for both say “Atlantic salmon.” One is from a cage farm, the other, a land-based operation. In the short term at least, there is a price difference. Which one do you buy?

That’s the multi-million dollar question.

Based on past experience, grocers expect that consumers will pay more for the greener product. That’s why grocery chains advertise the sustainability of their products. The challenge is that environmentally minded fish lovers don’t necessarily differentiate between one kind of fish farming and another.

“Evidence shows wild fish are healthier,” says Gloria Wesley, who was raised on fish in Yarmouth, NS. “Anything in a confined area is subject to disease. They’ll try to sell you a line about sustainability, but I wouldn’t try it.” She’ll stick with wild Pacific salmon.

Jennifer McCarthy-Roy, a fish lover in Quispamsis, NB, wonders if tank-raised fish are clean, but would consider paying extra to try it for the sake of sustainability. While some see Sustainable Blue as the best farmed option, others prefer a local wild species. “The feed is equivalent to dog kibble, and in the ocean that is not what fish eat,” says Terri Whetstone of
Blandford, NS.

Health risks associated with the diets of farmed fish are a concern. A recent study by the University of Albany, NY, linked PCBs and dioxins—probable carcinogens—in farmed fish to oil residue in the tiny sea life in their feed.

Sustainable Blue salmon are fed food comprised of fish and land-based proteins. Havercroft says their feed creates “a water environment that is constant good quality and perfectly suited for the species of fish.” Fish can then “put all their energy into growing and none into fighting conditions which aren’t appropriate.”

But overcoming consumer objections will remain a challenge no matter the technology. Many fish connoisseurs feel farming fish, and feeding them land meat, is unnatural.

Thompson is optimistic. His company is one of several lined up to buy the first hundred tonnes of Sustainable Blue salmon. “Consumers and restaurants are looking for something locally produced that is sustainable,” he says. His role is not only to supply it, but also to teach people why there’s a price difference.

“We have to explain why and how it’s produced.”

Thompson’s comments remind me again of Havercroft’s excitement, despite the major setback. An accountant sitting in his simple, open white-walled office in his adopted hometown, he takes regular calls from locavores who quit eating salmon.

“But they want to eat salmon again,” he says. “And they’re pleased we’re growing it in this environment.”


 

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