Land-based fish farming presents an additional option – but not an alternative – to ocean pens, says industry association

Eric Plummer, May 1, 2019

Chief Bill Cranmer and Eric Hobson at the ‘Namgis First Nation’s Kuterra RAS aquaculture project. The land-based operation produces 250-275 tonnes of salmon annually. (JR Rardon/Tides Canada photo)

Vancouver Island, BC — 

Despite advancements to closed-containment fish farms on land, the industry’s mainstay will continue to be raising fish inside ocean-based net pens, says the BC Salmon Famers Association.

Aquaculture accounts for three quarters of the salmon harvested in British Columbia each year, said Shawn Hall of the association’s communications, and these operations produce approximately 78,000 tonnes of fish annually – representing most of the farmed salmon in Canada.

Hall stressed that farmed salmon are vital to meet the growing international demand for fish.

“Sustainably raised salmon actually play a pretty important role in protecting wild salmon from overfishing by providing an alternative supply,” he said.

Salmon aquaculture has also shown to be a significant source of employment for coastal communities, as approximately 20 per cent of the industry’s workforce of 7,000 in B.C. are First Nations. On the west coast of Vancouver Island jobs are part of the Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations’ respective agreements with Cermaq and Creative Salmon.

But the industry has faced increased scrutiny in recent years from those concerned that the higher density concentrations of fish within net pens are affecting migrating wild stocks. In February the Federal Court overturned a Fisheries and Oceans Canada policy that previously allowed the transfer of hatchery smolts into ocean-based net pens without screening for piscine reovirus, a pathogen that has been found in farmed and wild salmon on the West Coast.

This followed an announcement in December that all 17 fish farms located in the Broughton Archipelago would either be closed or relocated by 2023. This came after years of negotiations, lawsuits and even the occupation by protestors of some farms in the area off Vancouver Island’s northeast coast. The announcement was an agreement between the federal and provincial governments, aquaculture companies Marine Harvest and Cermaq Canada, as well as the ‘Namgis, Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis and Mamalilikulla Nations.

As interest continues for an alternative to ocean-based net pens, a study is expected to be released this summer from the federal government on closed containment technology for land and sea operations.

In late April a report on land-based recirculating systems was released by the Fraser Basin Council, illustrating the viability of setting up a large-scale operation on Vancouver Island. Funded by the Ritchie Foundation and Tides Canada, an environmental and social advocacy organization, the report describes land-based farms near Campbell River that could produce 50,000 tonnes of salmon annually, while providing 2,685 long-term jobs to support operations.

“Innovative aquaculture solutions offer a way to protect the health of our wild salmon and the marine environment and to build a viable and sustainable aquaculture industry in British Columbia,” stated Joanna Kerr, Tides Canada’s president and CEO, in a media release.

The report details a collection of farms with carefully monitored tank conditions for the raising of Atlantic salmon, which is the species of choice for the fish farming industry. The analysis includes the cost of feed, energy, water treatments and fish health management, projecting $400 million in annual revenue and $79 million in profit.

“B.C. is not competing with Florida or Wyoming in the production of salmon,” stated the report. “A new competitive reality must be recognized, and a crucial next step in attracting this industry is developing a cohesive plan for making B.C. competitive, and touting the advantages of locating here.”

“We look forward to both the provincial and the federal governments taking the actions necessary to support [recirculating aquaculture system] development and allow B.C. to take advantage of the growing opportunities for sustainably produced salmon,” stated Kerr.

Currently salmon farmers raise their own brood stock in land-based hatcheries before the fish are moved to ocean net pens for the remainder of their life cycle. This means that the fish already spend approximately half of their lives in land-based tanks. Cermaq Canada, which has over a dozen farms in Clayoquot Sound, raises its Atlantic salmon indoors for the first 18 months.

But although land-based farming has been a topic of consideration in the industry for the last 40 years, an economical means of replicating ocean conditions has yet to be developed, said Hall.

“At this point, larger land-based operations haven’t been successful for one reason or another,” he said. “You have to have land where you’re building the concrete tanks and you fill those tanks full of a lot of water. It takes a lot of power to artificially recreate those ocean conditions, the currents and the wave action that salmon depend on.”

Since 2013 Kuterra has raised Atlantic salmon entirely on land at its facility near Port McNeill. Owned by the ‘Namgis Nation, the operation was started at a cost of $10.5 million (largely funded from government and charitable sources) with a mandate to efficiently grow salmon on land away from wild stocks. Producing 250-275 tonnes of salmon annually, Kuterra has operated with funding from Tides Canada since it began operations. The company is currently seeking a buyer.

Josephine Mrozewski of Kuterra communications said the operation’s three full-time staff aim to produce a quality product with maximum efficiency.

“We’re a heavily automated operation,” she said. “When Kuterra was started, it was not started as a job-creation vehicle.”

Unlike ocean-based farms, Kuterra’s controlled conditions allow salmon to be raised without the use of hormones, antibiotics or pesticides. The fish grow faster than in other farms, ready to be harvested a year after Kuterra buys the smolts from a hatchery. The salmon largely go to markets in B.C., and the product is also sold to the United States’ west coast and as far east as Ontario.

“We get a premium price because we believe its premium quality fish,” said Mrozewski. “The fish in our tanks are grown under optimum conditions in terms of temperature, salinity, oxygen, lighting…it’s all to reduce the stress to the fish to the lowest possible level.”

For the time being, land-based salmon farming in B.C. will be a tiny component of the industry, but Hall expects that fish farmers will be watching any advancement closely to ensure growing international demand is met.

“There’s a number of operations underway that are some years away from showing whether they can be successful or not,” he said. “We’re watching those with great interest.”

“It’s very likely that land-based aquaculture will play a more significant role in food production in the future as technology continues to evolve – alongside ocean-based production.”