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A Fine Kettle of Fish: Salmon in Saskatchewan

Canada is renowned for its fisheries. Going back to the earliest European visitors to North America, it was this bountiful harvest that brought them to Canada’s shores. Legend had it that the Italian explorer John Cabot and his crew were using buckets, not nets, to pull their catch from the fish-filled water.1

Our salmon stocks were always equally impressive—until they weren’t. It has gotten so bad on the Pacific coast that the federal government has stepped in with a $647.1 million dollar investment. The Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative is meant to focus on stronger science, habitat restoration, stabilizing and growing the salmon populations, modernizing fisheries, and better coordination between sector stakeholders.2“Many Pacific wild salmon are on the verge of collapse, and we need to take bold, ambitious action now if we are to reverse the trend and give them a fighting chance at survival,” said Hon. Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard on June 8.

In the 1980s, Canada began programs to domesticate Atlantic salmon for cultured production. Speaking with Neville Crabbe, director of communications with the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), he highlights the direction that was driving change in the industry at the time. “We ran a program with Fisheries and Oceans Canada called the Atlantic Salmon Genetics Research Program that was about producing a fish that would be usable in the aquaculture industry.” This program was driven by conservation needs because Atlantic salmon stocks in the wild were no longer capable of satisfying commercial fisheries and consumer demand.

Statistics Canada reports show the industry produced 118,630 tonnes of salmon in 2019, valued at $914,282,000.3

Aquaculture was a means to meet the demands of human consumption, but we’re now at a point where, like the wild fisheries before, it has also plateaued. “We’ve reached a point where the production of aquaculture salmon worldwide is stagnant or declining in many regions because of severe environmental and biological challenges,” says Crabbe.

As a result, the door has been opened for alternative production models. Naturally, original aquaculture practices focused on the usage of ocean facilities because they provided many free production features such as carrying away waste or regulating the environment around the fish to keep them alive. “In alternative production models these costs are borne by the producers and practices are regulated. For example, land-based aquaculture facilities are regulated and kept to an industry standard, whereas in the ocean it’s equivalent to moving raw municipal sewage into a water source. It’s higher cost for the land-based producers, but it comes with benefits because you now are controlling more aspects of the production that the ocean-based aquaculture left unchecked,” says Crabbe.

One major environmental concern in the ocean-based production model is the formation of sea lice on the salmon. Sea lice are parasites that can affect the health of farmed fish. They are tiny crustaceans that feed on the skin and blood of fish.4 Crabbe calls sea lice an existential threat to the industry. Last year in the Bay of Fundy, rising water temperatures attributed to global warming were a catalyst for increased lice counts. “The industry reported lice counts of 40 adult female lice per fish. And these are of the greatest concern as they of course propagate the next generation of lice which then leads to this kind of cycle of infestation,” says Crabbe. Therefore, if you can control parasites, you then have more control over disease. However, this is not the current state of the industry, and the devastating result is that farmed salmon spread disease to wild salmon populations.

The United States has, except for a small number of farms in the state of Maine, shut down all commercial salmon oceanic aquaculture. After three decades, Washington state made a decisive move to ban outright Atlantic salmon farms.5 This move had been speared on by a major incident that saw a floating farm, owned by Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture, become compromised and release as many as 250,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.6 The Canadian sector still exists in its traditional form with facilities in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the 1980s when the industry was in its infancy, the hope was that ocean-based farming would benefit wild fish, but unfortunately it has proven to contain many pitfalls. “Salmon are carnivorous, highly migratory fish”, Crabbe points out. “They’re probably the most recently domesticated animal in the world for large scale protein production and it has not come without its problems. The industry in Atlantic Canada is experiencing annual mortality rates upward of 20 per cent. So at least one in five animals that go into those sea cages are dying before they can be brought to market principally as a result of stress, disease or environmental conditions like super cold winters or really warm summers.”

Crabbe also details that on top of these issues, there has been a rolling multi-year infectious salmon anemia outbreak that is affecting Atlantic Canada. The disease can cause upwards of 95 per cent mortality when it takes hold in the farming cages. Ultimately though, Crabbe is most concerned with what is perhaps the most insidious and long-lasting impact of Atlantic salmon aquaculture–the escape and interbreeding of domesticated salmon with wild salmon. “Even though these fish are recently domesticated, it does not take long in a hatchery environment for there to be physiological, genetic, and epigenetic changes to these animals. They’ve been intensively bred for commercial characteristics, not for wild traits. So, when aquaculture fish escape and interbreed with wild salmon, their offspring are less able to survive in the wild and it contributes to population collapse and even local extinctions,” says Crabbe.

As the oceanic-farming system reveals its shortfalls, more private capital investment worldwide is going to alternative production technologies. In the United States, one organization—Atlantic Sapphire in Miami—is setting the pace for the emerging in-land industry. “Everybody has their eyes on Atlantic Sapphire in Miami. They’ve raised hundreds of millions of dollars on the open market. They’re a publicly traded company and they’re building a facility that could ultimately satisfy up to 30 per cent of the US domestic demand.” says Crabbe.

The industry is also making headway in Canada. Sustainable Blue is a land-based salmon production business with the mission to create a sustainable fishery that discharges absolutely zero effluent back into the environment. “The key to land-based salmon farming is in the technologies and the filtration. Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) that remove suspended solids from water are the origin for our engineering. However, what really needs to be addressed is the water chemistry changes that occur when you put fish intensively into a system,” says Kirk Havercroft, Sustainable Blue’s CEO.

Creating a completely closed-loop system had many challenges. Sustainable Blue needed to become not only fish farmers, but engineers and manufacturers to create a saltwater filtration system suitable for producing quality salmon for consumption. Salmon are an oceanic fish, but it is possible to raise them in freshwater. However, this affects their flavour profile and therefore it was necessary to achieve a saltwater system. “What separates us from all the other players in the game is at the heart of our filtration system. All of the equipment is manufactured internally by ourselves. And it’s given us what we honestly think is the only saltwater RAS aquaculture facility in the world, which does not discharge waste back to the ocean,” says Havercroft.

Havercroft believes that any project that gets salmon out of a net pen is a huge step in the right direction. “Traditional salmon farming in my view is destructive. It treats the environment with disrespect. It doesn’t pay for its pollution. And then it forces low value commodity products onto the market. If we charged those projects with the environmental cost of the damage that they do, suddenly the prices we pay for salmon would double,” says Havercroft.

The net-pen industry never believed in the viability of land-based production, and therefore never paid any attention to it. That is until the Atlantic Sapphire project in Miami achieved its groundbreaking success of scaling its product to compete with traditional methods. “Suddenly everybody started paying attention after Atlantic Sapphire came about and other similar major projects with large capacity were announced in Maine. The investment pipeline opened up and investors and commercial banks that were originally saying, ‘we’re not putting any money into this because it’s too risky’ changed their minds because it was viable and fit perfectly with environmental and social concerns, and governance investing,” states Havercroft.

The implications of land-based salmon farming will change the industry and its market drastically. It is exciting to consider the range of potential in places even like Saskatchewan. Havercroft points out, “So now that Sustainable Blue has been able to develop saltwater aquaculture in a zero-discharge configuration…why would you want to be by the ocean if it makes sense to build a salmon farm in Winnipeg, or in Saskatchewan?”

For a central continental region like Saskatchewan, these developments are exciting. It means a higher quality product for consumers, but most importantly there is an environmental impact that every consumer of salmon should be considering. Orca whales are an example of an apex predator that has been devastated by declining salmon. Southern resident Orca whales off Canada’s West Coast have been designated as an endangered species.The usage of drone photography has been able to prove that these animals’ body weight has been dropping as a result of salmon depletion. As declining wild salmon stocks affect one apex predator, it certainly affects others that rely on this critical food source such as bears and wolves. In turn, entire ecosystems are damaged through human mismanagement and overconsumption. The commercial salmon industry is an enormous source of protein worldwide. It has been proven that established practices for producing this protein source are not only devastating for the environment, but also unsustainable from an economic standpoint. With new and practical methods of inland salmon farming coming into vogue, opportunities for economic diversification in regions like Saskatchewan become apparent. In just a few years, we could be dining on grilled salmon from Humboldt and Spiritwood instead of Halifax or Sooke.

References

125 years later, Newfoundland still suffering from northern cod moratorium by Jordan Steinhauer, David McKie, http://www.davidmckie.com/25-years-later-newfoundland-still-suffering-from-northern-codfish-moratorium/
2Canada launches C$647 mln strategy to stave off Pacific wild salmon collapse by Nia Williams, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/canada-launches-c647-mln-strategy-stave-off-pacific-wild-salmon-collapse-2021-06-08/
3Aquaculture Production and Value, Statistics Canada, https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/stats/aqua/aqua19-eng.htm
4Why do we need responsible aquaculture, Aquaculture Stewardship Council, https://www.asc-aqua.org/aquaculture-explained/why-do-we-need-responsible-aquaculture/salmon-farming/sea-lice/
5,6After 3 Decades, Washington State Bans Atlantic Salmon Farms, NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/03/26/597019406/after-three-decades-washington-state-bans-atlantic-salmon-farms
7Orcas: uncovering the emotional lives of our ocean’s intelligent predator, The Nature of Things, CBC Canada, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0VsnEzwjGQ