Tighter production controls, new feed sources address some of industry’s key challenges

From tiny inland farms to sprawling net pens, fish farmers around the world are under renewed pressure to embrace more sustainable practices to safeguard an increasingly fragile environment.

2017 was a hectic year for the industry, especially following the collapse, in August, of a net pen in Washington State, which allowed more than 160,000 adult Atlantic salmon to escape into the Puget Sound. The incident invited new scrutiny on the industry and intensified concerns over the effects of foreign fish on wild Pacific salmon native to the area.

At the time, many in the industry argued that the spill involved an outdated salmon-farming structure and suggested that having newer equipment in place could have averted the disaster.

Hallvard Muri, CEO of the Norwegian Akva Group, agrees that using the latest technology is crucial. At a seafood summit in Victoria, British Columbia, last year, he traced how Norway’s introduction in 2012 of new standards for the design and operation of floating fish farms led to the widespread adoption of new equipment and technology and a dramatic decline in fish escapes.

“Since NYTEK regulations were implemented, there’s been a dramatic impact on escapes in Norway – it’s down to virtually zero,” Muri told Aquaculture North America (ANA) in a phone interview.

Norway’s systems approach

But Muri also insists having the latest technology isn’t enough in itself: a concerted effort by government, technology providers, fish farming companies, educators and researchers is necessary to promote growth at sustainable levels.

In addition to NYTEK, the Norwegian government opened 45 new salmon farming licenses, the so-called “green licenses” which gave farmers the opportunity to expand production if they adopted new solutions that reduced sea lice and prevented escapes. A growth management system modelled on the colours of traffic lights was implemented in October 2017—green meant areas where growth could take place, yellow indicated areas to watch, and red was for areas that should reduce production.

“Aquaculture is a sustainable industry when done right, and the technology exists to mitigate escapes and other risk factors,” said Muri. “But it’s important to remember that it’s not necessarily about having new, breakthrough technology. You should make sure that technology is used the right way, that things are being kept up to speed, and that equipment is being used before things happen.”

Looking inland

Heightened ecological concerns have boosted interest in inland systems as a greener alternative to net pen aquaculture.

But the reality is there is a limit to growth in land-based fish farming, says Don Read, president of sockeye salmon supplier Willowfield Enterprises, based in Langley, BC.

With inland fish farms, escapes aren’t a problem and wastes and nutrients aren’t discharged into the ocean. But it takes a lot of energy to pump water through these farms, and high land costs means there’s a limit to expansion.

Fish farming at large is a capital-intensive business, Read said. “You have higher production costs and you need significant capital to make it a feasible business, so I think it’s going to remain a niche industry at least for the foreseeable future,” he said. He noted that many producers that were active 20 years ago have either closed shop or aren’t growing salmon anymore.

Willowfield first caught attention in 2013 as the first commercial land-based producer of sockeye salmon and for its non-polluting design—spring water flows into sockeye tanks and then on to trout ponds stocked with native plants that absorb fish waste and ammonia. The solids from the trout ponds and holding pond are used as plant fertilizer.

Read is planning to expand his sockeye operation to 250 to 500 metric tons a year. The company has partnered with Golden Eagle Aquaculture on a land-based coho salmon facility in Agassiz, BC that grows around 200 metric tons of salmon each year.

Read believes farmed fish has a future if it’s marketed right. “As producers, we need to educate more consumers to appreciate farmed fish, which has the advantage of being harvested close to source but may be somewhat more expensive than other fish,” he said.

The feed factor

Another environmental concern in aquaculture is that small "forage" fish are being depleted in the oceans to feed the farmed fish. About a third of all the fish harvested worldwide are processed into fish meal and fish oil—most of which is used to feed other fish, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fortunately, a number of alternatives exist, including camelina oil, extracted from false flax and rich in omega 3s; the protein FeedKind, which is produced from naturally occurring microbes that are fermented and fed methane gas; and insect protein made from black soldier fly larvae.

“Insect meal has good EPA and DHA content and it’s now everywhere, not just in Canada but also in the US, where it has been used for a long time,” said Cyr Couturier, the scientist who leads the aquaculture programs at the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

He sees a huge future for using algae, such as seaweeds and phytoplankton, in fish meal. In Kona, Hawaii, Kampachi Farms has shown that it is possible to grow healthy farmed fish on a plant-based diet. The company replaced the fish oil in its feeds with algae, soybean oil, canola oil, and other extracts, and the fish thrived on the regime.

A huge bonus: Fish grown on plant-based feeds can have fewer dangerous contaminants—a third less mercury and up to 90 percent lower levels of PCBs— according to researchers at the University of Maryland.

"You can raise fish, feed humans and not necessarily pollute the environment," Allen Place, a professor with UM’s Center for Environmental Science, told media.

(This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr 2018 issue of Aquaculture North America.)

Marine Harvest CEO Alf-Helge Aarskog and BC environmentalist David Suzuki represented two sides of the salmon farming debate in a Q & A piece in the Vancouver Sun today.

The two men talked about the hot button issue that made headlines in British Columbia in recent weeks — from the impact of salmon farms on wild salmon stocks to land-based aquaculture to the industry’s role in feeding the world’s growing population.

Environmental activists have blamed the fish farming industry for the decline in wild salmon stocks and transfer of diseases from farmed salmon to wild salmon. In the industry’s defence, Aarskog said the decline or increase in salmon stocks is very hard to predict. One has to take into account what happens in the ocean, access to food, overfishing, the effect of global warming and why some (spawning) rivers are doing better than others, he said. “It’s hard to know the impact of farms, but we haven’t found a wild salmon with a disease that came from farmed salmon, yet.”

“We’ve got to stop using the oceans as a garbage can,” said Suzuki, adding that a look at the science tells him that fish farms should not have been in the migratory routes of wild salmon in the first place. He suggested what other activists have espoused for a while now—to move ocean-based fish farms to land.

Aarskog believes a lot more work needs to be done—particularly the technology aspect—to make land-based farming a success. “A lot of money is being put into land-based salmon farming these days. There is one in Miami and a few others in Europe and so far no one has succeeded because the costs are so high. The oldest one is in Denmark and it has been bankrupt three times. Instead, we are looking at technologies for closed systems in the ocean.”

Q & A can be found here.

Two oyster farms implicated in the latest norovirus outbreak have been closed by federal authorities.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control says 40 cases of acute gastrointestinal illness have been reported to public health authorities since early March.

In late 2016 and early 2017, 347 norovirus outbreak cases associated with raw or undercooked oysters were reported in BC, Alberta and Ontario. That outbreak was declared over in April 2017.

Tidal Enterprises Ltd, a supplier of aquaculture mooring system components has acquired Northwest Wire Rope Ltd, a supplier of industrial wire ropes.

Executives from the two British Columbia-based companies hailed the move as good news for their aquaculture customer base because it expands their products and services for the industry. Their product range now includes products for lifting, rigging and load securement devices made of chain, rope, and synthetic products.

“This is a very exciting event for both companies, for our employees and our clients. Our greatest assets have always been our people, and by joining forces we have just made a huge increase in the quality of that asset. We are bringing together enhanced experience and expertise in the field of safe overhead lifting, heavy equipment lifting, rigging and mooring/anchoring. Our merger will create a more comprehensive infrastructure with faster response times from our new Nanaimo location,” said Lee Poirier, who co-founded Tidal Enterprises with Allen Reid.

Both companies have worked together frequently over the past five years. The executives said the two companies will continue to operate as two entities.

Stakeholders in the aquaculture industry should be vigilant when hiring staff as this could be a way for activist groups to infiltrate the farm’s operations, according to Hannah Thompson-Weeman Communications Director at the Animal Agriculture Alliance.

At Aquaculture America 2018, Thompson-Weeman said the number of undercover videos from activist groups who paid individuals to gain employment on farms increased in 2017.

Sometimes the activists who are hired at farms have caused the issue they’re filming or failed to prevent an issue from occurring by deviating from farm procedure, she said.

In a contributed piece to Drovers, a beef industry publication, she wrote that farms and companies should review and refresh their hiring procedures by always checking references; reviewing the candidate’s social media postings; and keeping an eye out for red flags, such as whether the candidate’s responses seem overly rehearsed.

More than 50 chefs in British Columbia are calling on the provincial government to end Atlantic salmon farming in the province.

The group outlined its concerns about open net-pens presenting a risk to wild salmon from parasites and disease in a letter to Doug Donaldson, the BC minister of forests, lands, natural-resource operations and rural development, and Lana Popham, the minister of agriculture.

“These farms are making both farmed and wild salmon sick. They need to be shut down or transitioned to sustainable, closed systems as quickly as possible,” said environmentalist David Suzuki, who added his name to the letter.

It is interesting to note, however, that an advisory council that Minister Lana Popham created in 2016 did not reach a consensus on the potential risks associated with salmon aquaculture in BC.

The members of the advisory council included representatives from the aquaculture industry, academia, non-governmental organizations, First Nations and federal and provincial government officials. In their final report released Thursday April 5, the council—called Minister of Agriculture's Advisory Council on Finfish Aquaculture (MAACF) — acknowledged there were “differences within MAACFA on the risk that farms pose.”

“Council members diverge on their views on the level of potential risk that farms pose to wild salmon and as a result views on how to address the overall risk of salmon farming are not uniform,” the report said.

The tenures of 20 open net-pen salmon farms in the BC are up for review and renewal by the BC government in June.

In neigbouring Washington State, a law that would end Atlantic salmon farming in the state when current leases expire in 2022 has been passed.
A report from a provincial advisory council concerning the future of British Columbia's aquaculture operations has, for the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BSCSFA), left a major issue ambiguous.

That issue is the council’s recommendation that fish farms in British Columbia may be required to have agreements in place with the First Nations in the area before the provincial government approves any new or replacement tenures. Twenty fish fam leases are up for renewal in June.

While the association says it agrees in principle with the recommendation, it “will be unworkable in practice without further clarification,” it said in a statement.

“While salmon farmers agree collaborating with local First Nations when working on Crown land is crucial and have a long track record of doing so, as currently drafted the recommendation that would require Crown tenure holders to acquire First Nation agreements as a condition of continuing operations at existing business sites is unclear and would be unworkable in practice.

“The Association cannot support that recommendation as written, but would welcome the opportunity to work with other stakeholders and government to clarify it,” said BCSFA.

BC salmon farmers have agreements with 20 First Nations and many of the 6,600 jobs supported by the province’s salmon farms are held by people of First Nations heritage.

Earlier this year, BCSFA Jeremy Dunn told Aquaculture North America (ANA) that there is currently a required First Nations involvement in the tenure process. “There are a number of consultation requirements that the Crown undertakes and requirements for the companies to participate in those consultations, which our members are more than happy to do.”

How this new requirement would be implemented remains to be seen. BCSFA said it has written to the provincial government offering to consult further on this and other recommendations.

A British Columbia couple who owns a smoked-fish business is worried about the uncertainty surrounding the fate of a number of salmon farms that are up for tenure renewal this year.

The couple, Carol and Bruce Dirom of Port Hardy’s Hardy Buoys Smoked Fish Inc, says shutting down salmon farming will put them and their 75 employees out of work. More than half of their workforce consists of First Nations members.

Roughly 65 percent of the 680,000 kilograms of fish processed by the company every year is farmed salmon, said the couple. “Without the steady, reliable supply of fish from farms, we wouldn’t have the certainty needed to stay in business.”

The Diroms expressed their concerns in a letter to the Times Colonist. They are asking the BC government “to consider the issues in fish farming in a sensible and pragmatic fashion, setting aside politics and hyperbole in favour of science and community interests.”

Salmon tenures in British Columbia became a hot-button issue in October after BC Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham wrote Marine Harvest Canada (MHC) regarding its dispute with local First Nations. The letter appeared to warn MHC, and indeed all who hold tenures with the government, about the importance of collaboration with the First Nations. “As you are aware, government will be reviewing tenures and will make a decision on renewals before the current leases expire,” Popham wrote.

MHC has nine sites that are up for renewal this year. Other companies operating in the area, Grieg and Cermaq, are also subject to five-year terms in the area.

“These are sensitive topics right now, and a lot of people are afraid to stick their necks out in the current environment, but we need to speak up and tell the government it is critical to our business and our larger community that they make rational decisions about salmon farming, and consider the communities where the farming actually happens,” the Diroms wrote.

In neighboring Washington State, salmon farming will no longer be allowed after current tenures expire in 2022.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is seeking public input into a report that will serve as the framework for managing the proposed State Coastal Marine Aquaculture Program.

The public scoping process will guide CDFW in identifying the range of actions analyzed in the report, including environmental effects, methods of assessment, mitigation measures and alternative regulatory management frameworks.

Members of the public, tribes and public agencies are invited to provide comments through April 22. Here’s how you can participate.

ICE detentions put Pacific County shellfish industry at risk

On the campaign trail, much of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric around immigration focused on the need to remove what he called “bad hombres” – illegal immigrants who are dangerous criminals and should be removed from American soil. However, as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have pursued their mandate over the past year, their efforts appear to have targeted all illegal immigrants, not just those who pose a threat to the community. Pacific County in Washington State, in particular, has seen significant ICE detentions, putting the county’s shellfish farming industry at risk. Dr Kim Patten, Washington State University Extension horticulturist, says businesses find it tough to find skilled labour that will replace workers who have been detained by ICE or who have gone into hiding pre-emptively.

“It has had a huge impact on the natural resource industries that utilize that labour force – the cranberry industry, the crabbing industry and the shellfish industry. Not having workers impacts everything from to driving barges, harvesting, to maintaining facilities,says Patten, who is also a board member of the Ocean Beach School District. He says it has been difficult to find replacements. It’s been a huge challenge because many of the workers have been there more than 20 years and it’s hard to replace someone with that knowledge.”

The increase in ICE activity has primarily impacted smaller companies in the area. Larger companies tend to use contract labour through companies that would guarantee the paperwork of their employees. However, smaller operations generally cannot afford to utilize such services.

“Those have definitely been targeted proportionally more,” says Patten. “I’m not sure of the methods they go about doing that. It might be records of who might have gotten a DWI (driving while intoxicated) 10 or 20 years ago and going from there. Also, a lot of people who are picked up just happened to be there when ICE agents were looking for someone else.

The issue has compounded the industrys difficulty in attracting workers. Often, illegal immigrants are the only workforce who will stick with this type of manual labour.

“You can look in the newspaper and you can see labour wanted for this and that,” says Patten. “People get hired and they last a day and that’s that. You can’t legitimately say there’s a workforce out there that has the skillset. It’s hard work shucking oysters, for example, or digging clams. As a clam digger, for example, you work at night, rain or shine, or at three in the morning in the pouring rain. "It's small industries that use this type of skill set that are more susceptible."

As a member of the school board, Patten has also noted that the school has lost many students of Hispanic origin, who are either no longer going to school out of fear, or have simply left for areas with less of an ICE presence.

Patten says he is impressed by the community response – in some cases after an ICE detention, members of the community have volunteered and held fundraisers to raise bail money, which could range between $5,000 and $20,000.

“That shows you, if they’re really the ‘bad hombres,’ the community wouldn’t be doing that,” says Patten. “That shows you the true nature of the character of the people who are being picked up.

In spite of these efforts, however, there is a sense of helplessness in the community with regards to the issue. Even if the sheriff or the county commissioners or the governor or the state attorney general are sympathetic to the issue, there is little they can do to address it.

“They can rattle a sabre, but it doesn’t have any impact,” says Patten. “If we are targeted, as a small county, we can’t do anything about it. No matter how high you go, you can talk to our federal senators, and they’re well aware of it, but there’s little they can do.”

Patten says that one cannot yet put a dollar value on the amount of lost productivity these labour gaps will cause. But as industries move into the busy season where, for example, oyster farms would require shuckers, the financial impacts will become more pronounced. However, the impact on the individual businesses will be immediate.

“I know many small family-owned operations that are really hurting,” says Patten. “It hits right away. We’re not going to farm what we used to because we can’t harvest as many oysters, or I have to quit my other job so I can spend more time farming because my farm manager got picked up. They’re a great resource and it’s a tragic circumstance for them and for employers.”

Members of the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association would not provide comment for this article due to frustrations at having been named in previous media coverage of the issue when they thought they would be kept anonymous.

(Story originally appeared in Aquaculture North America's Mar/Apr 2018 issue)

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee on Thursday signed into law a bill that would ban salmon aquaculture in the state.

House Bill 2957 will phase out non-native fish farming in the state by 2025. New leases and permits for farming non-native finfish will be no longer be issued. Canadian company Cooke Aquacuulture is the only fish farming operations currently affected by the new law.

Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s Vice President of Public Relations, Joel Richardson said: “While our company and our rural sea farming employees are deeply disappointed by the Governor’s decision to ignore the science and sign the bill, we will certainly respect the wishes of the Legislature. Our employees remain our top priority, and Cooke Aquaculture Pacific will continue to take the time we need to fully evaluate our operations and investments in Washington and explore all our available options. We will also continue to work with tribal, state and community partners.”

The Washington Fish Growers Association (WFGA) said it is “deeply disappointed by Governor Inslee’s failure to take science into consideration by signing i nto law HB 2957.Our organization holds the position—supported by leading fisheries scientists—that this law completely lacks any scientific basis,” it said in a statement.
Findings of infectious salmon anemia (ISAv) virus during a routine inspection at a Cooke Aquaculture’s site in Newfoundland, Canada has forced the untimely harvest of salmon at that site.

Cooke Aquaculture says it is harvesting the entire salmon population in that farm. The  discovery of the virus at the site proves that the Province’s surveillance program is effective, it added.

“This proactive approach to harvesting fish immediately following a positive diagnosis has proven to be the most successful method for managing this virus,” said the company.

In October 2017, a Cooke Aquaculture site in the same province also tested positive for ISAv.

ISA is a naturally occurring virus and is not a human health issue or a food safety issue, said the company.  According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), ISAv outbreaks are most common in susceptible farmed finfish reared in sea water. Depending on the virus strain, the disease can potentially kill up to 90 percent of an infected Atlantic Salmon population, representing significant economic losses for aquaculture operations.

Questions over the integrity of British Columbia’s Animal Health Centre (AHC) can now be put to rest after a review panel found no evidence of "dubious data or conflict of interest.”

The lab, based in Abbotsford, BC, is the leading accredited full-service veterinary laboratory in Western Canada, whose tasks include diagnosing farmed fish diseases that are viewed by some as a threat to wild salmon. AHC also conducts testing for private fish farms for a fee, which Agriculture Minister Lana Popham called into question in October.

The review conducted by the independent consulting firm Deloitte and Premier John Horgan’s deputy minister, Don Wright, found no conflict of interest.

“Our independent assessment of the AHC did not identify any evidence of financial or technical conflict of interest regarding the diagnostic activities of the AHC,” said Deloitte.

Don Wright wrote:  “I am impressed with the professionalism, the attention to quality control and the dedication to good science that I observed during my visit. I am satisfied that the Animal Health Centre operates with strong professional, scientific and ethical integrity. My review process found no evidence of ‘dubious data or conflict of interest.’”

A business accelerator program in is set to accept applicants from aquaculture companies for the first time. The Maine Centre for Entrepreneur (MCE) Top Gun program is a 15-week entrepreneurial boot camp, designed to support Maine entrepreneurship and to help companies grow. This spring will see aquaculture-focused sessions in Brunswick, Maine.

“We never themed Top Gun around any particular industry, but we decided this year that we would launch a Top Gun cohort that was specifically themed around aquaculture,” says MCE Executive Director Tom Rainey.

John Pavan, program coordinator and subject matter expert for the program, says the aquaculture program was developed in partnership with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Pavan is currently helping to secure participants and industry experts that will give presentations.

“I want to ensure a good cross section of participants,” says Pavan. “The participants learn from one another, so we’re trying to make sure they represent as many parts of the industry as possible. The goal is not to grow a handful of companies, but to grow an industry.”

The Top Gun program ends with a pitch-off competition, where the two finalists come to an annual showcase event in May or June to compete for the cash prize of $25,000. In addition, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute has also promised to give a $5,000 prize to each of the top two finalists from the aquaculture sector. The institute is also offering a $200 scholarship to each company that participates to help offset the $500 Top Gun entry fee.

Marine Harvest Canada (MHC) says it is introducing a non-medicinal machine called the Hydrolicer in its anti-sea-lice arsenal.

The latest Hydrolicer model can delouse 350 tonnes of salmon per hour but is gentle on the fish.

“We want to make sure that while the system removes sea lice, it is also delicate to our fish. We won’t accept anything less than a quick and safe process that ensures our fish are kept as stress free as possible,” says Gerry Burry, who leads MHC’s R&D for this particular system.

He explained that the system uses water pressure “to carefully get between the sea louse and the salmon’s skin. Once the sea lice are separated from the salmon, we can capture them for disposal.”

MHC says the new tool will help the company continue to effectively manage sea lice levels on its fish, as well as reach its certification targets that include continued reduction of medicine use.

Another tool that the company is introducing to help it combat sea lice is a “fish spa” — a 75-metre vessel with a 3,000-cubic meter freshwater capacity that can provide a freshwater bath for an entire pen (up to 50,000 fish).  Immersion in freshwater is a common practice in the salmon farming industry to improve gill health and to help remove external parasites.

MHC expects the $35-million vessel to arrive in mid-2018.

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