Text: "Land of the Lox. Can a high-tech First Nations fish farm save B.C.'s wild salmon?" Background: an overhead shot of the Kuterra facility with the ocean and islands in the distance.

by Sarah Hughes

BRITISH COLUMBIA HAS BECOME a salmon-farming power, but not everyone is proud of the aquaculture boom on the West Coast. Since the 1970s, the development of fish farms to raise Atlantic salmon in Pacific waters—now over 100 sites—has been accompanied by vigorous public and scientific debate about the environmental pros and cons.

A new development in Port McNeill, on northern Vancouver Island, may finally bridge the gap between economists and environmentalists. This spring, the ‘Namgis First Nation harvested their first “crop” at the Kuterra aquaculture facility. Thanks to a “recirculating aquaculture system” (RAS), salmon raised at Kuterra pose almost no risk to wild stocks—because the fish are raised on land.

RAS technology offers a sustainable solution to traditional ways of commercial-scale fish farming. The advanced facilities remove open-net farms from the ocean, where they can spread disease to wild stocks and face environmental hazards, and raise the fish on land in a containment system. In 2010, Statistics Canada listed nation-wide aquaculture production at $927 million, with close to half produced in B.C. With commercial fish reeling in cash crop status, the decision to move facilities to land isn’t black and white. Supporters of sustainable fish farming think RAS is the way of the future—if wild salmon hope to have one.

“We learned with avian flu not to let wild birds land in bird farms anymore,” says independent biologist Alexandra Morton, who has spent 30 years studying the fragile dance between wild salmon populations and conventional open-net aquaculture. “That lesson is just tossed when it comes to these feedlots that are floating in our oceans.”

THE IDEA FOR THE KUTERRA project was sparked in 2011 by the Save Our Salmon Initiative (SOS), an organization launched by the Marine Conservation Foundation to advocate the protection of British Columbia’s wild salmon. SOS communications director, Jackie Hildering, says the idea of the Kuterra facility was motivated by people who wanted to see fish farms out of the ocean. SOS partnered with the ‘Namgis First Nation after they attended a series of sustainable aquaculture workshops put on by the Freshwater Institute in West Virginia, where RAS technology has been developed and used successfully for over two decades.

Five years ago, the Freshwater Institute began raising industry-sized Atlantic salmon to prove the economic viability of closed-containment aquaculture systems. After much planning and fundraising, the majority of funding coming from Tides Canada, the sustainable aquaculture venture in Port McNeill was underway in 2012. Kuterra is now owned and operated 100 percent by the ‘Namgis First Nation.

There are stark differences between RAS and conventional fish farms. The average production of an open-net pen fish farm is about 2,500 metric tons of fish for market every year–that’s equivalent to filling about 183 standard dump trucks. When Kuterra reaches full production in the coming years, the RAS facility will produce about the same as one open-net pen. Kuterra currently produces about 470 metric tons of salmon annually. Kuterra’s contribution may seem at first glance a drop in the international aquaculture bucket, but some supporters of sustainable fish farming agree this is a step in the right direction for the aquaculture industry.

“We hope that the present day open-net fish farms will look at what we’re doing and agree that they should take the open-net fish farms out of the ocean,” says ‘Namgis Hereditary Chief Bill Cranmer. “It’s just a horrible, horrible risk that they’re putting our wild salmon at.” Chief Cranmer adds it’s not only wild salmon being affected. He believes herring, shellfish, and other animals higher on the food chain also suffer.

Hildering notes that RAS technology has been used to farm salmon for over 20 years, but Kuterra was the first facility to raise Atlantic salmon, from smolt to harvest, in a land-based closed-containment facility in B.C. The year-long process ended with the harvest of the first cohort in April 2014.

RAS technology is a full-circle method of raising fish. Facilities filer and reuse 98 percent of the tank water, which means the fish can remain in the water from the moment they enter the tank as smolts to the time of harvest. The water recycling drastically reduces the change of outside contaminants entering the tanks, so the fish grow in a nearly disease- and parasite-free environment, virtually eliminating the need to antibiotics. Fish also grow twice as fast in the controlled RAS environment.

Fish waste, liquid and solid, is extracted and churned into a phosphorous-rich fertilizer for use on private farms or sold to the community. The liquid overflow will be filtered and percolated back into the ground, and the ‘Namgis plan to use the effluent for an aquaponic system to grow food. A major criticism of open-net pens is how fish waste accumulates on the seabed and pollutes the water. If ocean currents fail to waft the waste away, it can linger and spread disease to fish in the pens or to wild salmon migrating past the pens.

Meanwhile, as debates about the Northern Gateway Pipeline and increased tanker traffic hold the public’s attention, Chief Cranmer thinks people need to also consider protecting wild B.C. salmon from farm-spread diseases. “Oil goes away after a while, but once you’ve killed the salmon they won’t come back,” he says.

Chief Cranmer says that wild salmon are a deeply ingrained part of ‘Namgis culture. “Our people,” he begins, “we’re connected to all the animals, all the fish and animals that live on the land. The salmon are so important that we compare the salmon to when people have twins in their family–that’s a special gift from the Creator.”

Kuterra and the ‘Namgis First Nation hope to become as sustainable and self-sufficient as possible, with little to no impact on wild salmon. More importantly, they hope to prove that a market exists for salmon raised on land, not in the ocean. But what if alternative aquaculture—like recycling your newspaper in the age of global warming—is a case of too little, too late?

Two Atlantic salmon on ice at Kuterra

THE OCTOBER 2013 LIFTING of the moratorium of fish farm licences by the Canadian government worries critics concerned about the long-term health of B.C. wild salmon. There are over 100 fish farms along the Central Coast, the two high density areas marked as the Broughton Archipelago and the Discovery Islands region. The Discovery Islands remain under moratorium because of proximity to the Fraser River basin, one of the largest spawning grounds for B.C.’s native salmon species, the Pacific salmon. The lift on the moratorium opens the Broughton Archipelago to conventional open-net expansions of the aquaculture industry’s giants: Marine Harvest, Cermaq, and Grieg Seafood. These three Norwegian corporations make up almost 90 percent of fish farming in B.C.

Chief Cranmer says the ‘Namgis have talked with officials at Fisheries and Oceans Canada about the future of open-net pen production in B.C. Most aquaculture facilities plan to increase production at existing sites rather than apply for new ones.

“It’s going to be even worse than before,” says Chief Cranmer. “There are going to be more fish in those sites. It’s going to be a disaster.”

While Alexandra Morton commends Kuterra, she is skeptical the facility can make a difference, now that the moratorium has been lifted. “The three Norwegian companies are very clear—they don’t plan to get into thanks,” says Morton. “The wild salmon in this province are in serious trouble.”

Morton has lived in Echo Bay, located on Gilford Island in the Broughton Archipelago about 45 kilometres northwest of Port McNeill, for more than 40 years. She says teh industry had devastating impacts not just on wild salmon, but also on her community. “Today there’s only eight people left in Echo Bay,” she says. “The school is closed. There are 27 honking Norwegian fish feedlots. We have toxic algae blooms that paint he waters ocean and red. The whales I was studying left. We have Atlantic salmon appearing in rivers. We’ve got sea lice plagues every single spring, and I’m finding European viruses.”

Open-net pens have proved deadly to salmon in the past. In 2008, samples of wild and farmed salmon showed signs of piscine reovirus, a deadly European virus now in the waters of B.C. This virus is thought to be the trigger of a deadly condition known as heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, a disease that weakens and softens the heart and skeletal muscles of the fish, ultimately causing premature death. Prior to 2008, B.C. salmon tested native for the piscine reovirus, but now Morton has found that over 70 percent of farmed salmon have tested positive.

Sea lice is also prevalent in open-net pens, and young juvenile wild salmon, not known to carry lice naturally, have been found with lice only after migrating past open-net pens. Atlantic salmon are not native to B.C. waters; while they cannot reproduce with the native salmon, they are considered an invasive species and can out-compete wild populations.

Despite her skepticism, Morton suggests there is a huge potential for small-scale, land-based aquaculture in B.C. to drive the aquaculture industry. “It’s important for people to know that if the salmon farming was removed from the oceans there would still be jobs in aquaculture, and they would be Canadian jobs and businesses.”

Gerry Alfred in a yellow slicker and Mike Jolliffe process Atlantic salmon at Kuterra

KUTERRA ISN’T ALONE on the Island. Taste of BC Aquafarms in Nanaimo grows four-and-a-half pound Steelhead trout at 100 metric tons per year using RAS technology. That’s about a quarter of the production scale of Kuterra. Taste of BC is a pilot project with a goal to reduce environmental and energy costs while creating a quality produce to meet market demand.

Kuterra salmon will be marketed and distributed exclusively by Albion Fisheries, a western Canadian seafood company focused on sustainability. Guy Dean, vice president of Albion, says 80 to 90 percent of the first Kuterra cohort harvested in April will go to retail locations, although a major retailer on Vancouver Island has yet to be confirmed.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he says. “It was just our belief that if we wanted to create impactful change [Safeway] was a good partner to be associated with because the consumer base is already used to this product.” Labels list Kuterra salmon as land-raised and farmed, with a link to the company’s website and a QR code to scan for more information. The first wave of Kuterra hit grocery store shelves on Earth Day.

Dean thinks people in B.C. are “fairly knowledgeable” about seafood, but public awareness and education about the differences between Kuterra and conventional salmon will be crucial. He stresses the importance of both the environmental benefits of Kuterra salmon, and the health benefits from the lack of antibiotics. The fish also taste different.

“The Kuterra product has a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids, and so it tends to have a milder, more buttery flavour,” says Dean. The salmon don’t have a strong fishy flavour because they weren’t raised in the ocean.

Albion Fisheries work closely with SeaChoice, the Canadian branch of the Seafood Watch program created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Its criteria system judges certain seafood as green for “best choice,” yellow for “good alternative,” or red for “avoid.” Since 1999, SeaChoice has handed out upward of 40 million pocket guidebooks. It now offers a downloadable app for shopping convenience.

 

PRODUCING ATLANTIC SALMON in an environmentally conscious way while meeting market demand will always be a challenge. It’s made even trickier by the overfishing of smaller forage fish like herring that carnivorous fish like salmon need to eat. “The conventional industry has had to move towards more plant based proteins for the deeply tragic fact that there are less forage fish in the ocean,” says Jackie Hildering.

RAS facilities already use less protein feed than open-net pens because the fish, living in secure tank without predators or environmental hazards, are less stressed and require less protein energy. Hildering hopes Kuterra’s better feed conversion rate of using 30 percent less feed to grow salmon will help the facility earn a green ranking in the Seafood Watch criteria.

Alexandra Morton believes consumers hold the power to make the foreign aquaculture companies look at moving their farms on land. “If people don’t act right now and stop buying [conventionally] farmed salmon int eh supermarkets, and as sushi in sashimi, we’re going to lose our wild salmon.” she warns. “These wild salmon are the blood stream of this whole place—everywhere they go, there’s life.”

This article appeared in our Spring/Summer 2014 issue.

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