Local fish at your doorstep now part of aquaculture business model
The pandemic has prompted aquaculturists to start bringing local fish to your doorstep
Every minute, about 11,000 litres of water course through the five concrete channels at Cedar Crest Trout Farm, a second-generation family business near Hanover.
The channels, or raceways, each 90 metres long, just under two metres wide and a metre deep, draw their water from a tributary of the Saugeen River a few metres away.
The water, aerated and sprayed through "flingers," travels down the raceways, following the grade of the land and gravity, then into a channel that returns it to the river. Swimming around in each raceway, in sections dedicated to their size, are a couple of species of fish ready to harvest, along with juvenile fish.
Before the pandemic, roughly 90 per cent of Cedar Crest's juvenile fish would have headed to net pens elsewhere in Ontario, with the other 10 per cent becoming recreational stock in private lakes and fishing clubs across Ontario and Quebec.
But those markets took a sharp decline with the pandemic closures of recreational facilities and restaurants, so about a year ago, Cedar Crest re-routed its business and expanded its operations.
Pandemic prompts pivot
The expansion was headed up by RJ Taylor, his sister Arlen Taylor and her husband, who together have owned and operated Cedar Crest since the Taylors' parents, Jim and Lynette, retired five years ago.
In March 2020, the second-generation Taylors built their own processing facility, which employs nine of their 14 staff three days a week, and has evolved into a one-of-a-kind direct-to-consumer fish producer for southwestern Ontario, under the brand Springhills Fish.
Since last fall, Springhills has been delivering frozen rainbow trout and Arctic char – along with barramundi from a partner farm in Oxford County and wild-caught pickerel from Lake Erie – to Fergus, Elora and Stratford homes. They began delivering in Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and Guelph earlier this year, and now supply, each month, about 1,000 homes and approximately 50 retail stores and Community Supported Agriculture programs.
Springhills Fish belongs to a diverse sector of the province's food production, with Ontario aquaculture satisfying many sectors of the market. Some businesses produce koi; some produce live trout; some produce fish, smoke it and then sell it; some produce juveniles for net pens or raise fish in pens in Lake Huron. In Aylmer, there is even a business called Planet Shrimp.
According to RJ Taylor, what his company does is unique: they raise the fish for their entire life cycle, process, package and freeze them within a few hours of harvest, and finally deliver them to customers.
"There aren't a lot of land-based [fish] farms in Ontario left. Decades ago, there were over 150 sprinkled throughout the province. The economics are hard," said Taylor, adding that Cedar Crest is Ocean Wise Recommended and certified by Best Aquaculture Practices.
Modern aquaculture means high-tech techniques
As it flows through the raceways and the return channel, the water is monitored regularly for ecological standards, and the raceways are cleaned daily.
Up an adjacent hill, above the raceways, is Cedar Crest's indoor facility, which spawns eight million eggs a year. There are also several troughs for what are known as fry; they'll swim around there for about six months before being moved down to the raceways.
These days, there's more to aquaculture than fish in water, however; technology plays a role. In the indoor facility, a machine the size of an office photocopier sits ready for a job that does away with the intensive manual labour of sorting eggs.
Using digital image-processing technology, the machine can examine over 125,000 eggs a minute, count them and remove the non-viable eggs after they have been fertilized.
Cedar Crest uses aquaculture technology to monitor the fish from birth to harvest, says Taylor. "We're tracking what they eat, the water temperature, how they're growing and whenever they're moved throughout their entire life cycle. It's all at our fingertips," he said.
Taking advantage of trends in eating
Taylor says his company's increased business, including its expansion to Waterloo Region, reflects the increased demand from consumers for fish as a protein source.
"The world-wide trend is that half of all seafood consumed globally is from farms, and by the end of this decade it's going to be two-thirds. We see the demand for seafood rising exponentially," Taylor said.
However, the demand for direct-to-consumer products is also driven by the intense focus, the past several years, on the concept of eating local.
"We're really, really grateful for the excitement people have about local food and asking where their food comes from, and wanting to know where their protein comes from," Taylor says.
As much as anything, that's the trend that has allowed Cedar Crest to pivot to Springhills Fish and see significant growth in the market for the fish they produce.
Listen to the full column on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition: