British Columbia

Salmon spill prompts open-net fish farm critics to tout benefits of land-based aquaculture

Critics of open-net fish farms say the escape of Atlantic salmon from a Washington state pen should spur Canada to support a transition to land-based aquaculture.

Thousands of Atlantic salmon escaped fish farm near Victoria last week after nets damaged

Fish farmers say Atlantic salmon are a healthy product that create hundreds of jobs in small B.C. communities. (Canadian Press)

Critics of open-net fish farms say the escape of Atlantic salmon from a Washington state pen that held 305,000 fish should spur Canada to support a transition to land-based aquaculture because it's already leading the world with the most facilities using that method.

Steve Summerfelt of the Conservation Fund Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown, W. Va., said three of the world's 13 land-based salmon facilities are in Canada, while China has the largest production capacity with its two operations, followed by Denmark.

Kuterra, based in the Vancouver Island community of Port McNeill and owned by the Namgis First Nation, is the leading closed-containment Atlantic salmon company in Canada, followed by Sustainable Blue in Dartmouth, N.S.

The First Nation, which received part of its funding from Tides Canada on the basis that it provide open access to its knowledge, has enabled Kuterra to become an industry leader, Summerfelt said Friday.

"All across the globe, people are following Kuterra very closely," he said. "It's been a great project for the whole industry to see the transparency, to see what their performances were, what their challenges were and what worked really well."

He said two Nova Scotia companies have produced salmon on a smaller scale, positioning Canada as a global leader in the industry though investors have taken a wait-and-see approach.

Higher costs

The water recirculating technology to grow salmon has steadily improved over the last three decades, Summerfelt said, adding the system uses less water and draws out waste that's turned into fertilizer instead of being dumped in the ocean.

"The challenge is it's a higher capital (venture) than putting a net in the ocean. Building these controlled environments that pump water that's in a building is more costly, it's a trade-off."

Compared with Canada, two closed-net commercial farms are currently producing Atlantic salmon in the United States but they are not expected to start selling it until next year, he said, adding there isn't enough wild salmon to meet worldwide demand.

"Farmed salmon now exceeds wild salmon consumption and the only way it's been done effectively until now is in ocean pens. We're trying to do it differently so we can do it in places where it's not going to impact our marine ecosystems and we have to do it cost effectively."

Josephine Mrozewski, spokeswoman for Kuterra, said part of the company's funding came from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an arm's-length foundation created by the federal government, though it's just breaking even after three years of operating.

She said Kuterra has broken even after distributing its salmon to one retailer in B.C. and chains in Toronto and Washington state but is looking for investors by the end of September to take the company further

Lack of government investment

Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, said the Washington state spill earlier this week near B.C. waters requires investment by government and industry for more sustainable ways to farm salmon.

"The government's infatuation with open-net cage fish farms means there's not the necessary government support with programs, tax breaks, capital incentives and so on to facilitate the flourishment of the closed-containment industry in Canada," he said.

"What I say to Canada is that they provided that same level of resourcing and tax incentives and so on to the fish-farm industry to operate as they are today. My question is, why did they not provide that same framework and support and incentives for the necessary economic environment for the closed-containment industry to be successful?"

Jeremy Dunn, spokesman for the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said the Washington spill involved an outdated salmon-farming structure that isn't used in the province, where he said 109 farms exist, though the industry remains controversial.

"Well over 90 per cent of salmon is raised in open net-pens," he said of the global aquaculture business, adding concerns about Atlantic salmon are continually addressed through innovation, adding any escapees are typically killed by predators.

"Our members have decreased their use of antibiotics and we have developed new vaccines to protect against pathogens endemic to the Pacific Ocean," he said about issues raised in an inquiry that produced dozens of recommendations in 2012 to protect salmon in B.C.

Bill to ban salmon farms defeated

Fin Donnelly, federal NDP fisheries and oceans critic, said he organized a visit to Kuterra last fall with support from some Liberal members of Parliament and Green Leader Elizabeth May but his bill to ban open-net cage salmon farms was defeated last December.

"You can totally support your wild salmon fishery at the same time that you transition the harmful technology out of the salmon-farming system," he said, adding the two Nova Scotia companies that have private investors, Sustainable Blue and CanAqua, are "the ones to watch" if Canada is to become a world leader in land-based salmon farming.

"But the government is not making it easier for companies like that because they're still subsidizing the open-net farms by giving them such reduced licence fees."


  • A previous version of this story erroneously reported that most countries in the world have transitioned to land-based aquaculture. In fact, most countries are not using land-based aquaculture.
    Aug 27, 2017 5:03 PM PT