Robert’s column

Robert Barron column: Fish farm industry must keep up with public expectations

I’ve always been a big fan of the concept of land-based fish farms

I’ve always been a big fan of the concept of land-based fish farms in B.C. since discussions I had on the issue with biologist and activist Alexandra Morton many years ago.

Morton had led an aggressive campaign against the Atlantic salmon open-net fish farms in the province after witnessing their damaging impacts on local wild salmon populations.

Morton did some amazing research that concluded that sea lice that were growing in abundance in and around the open-pen farms were attaching themselves to Pacific salmon that were migrating in and out of nearby rivers and streams and causing significant mortality among the local populations.

Morton went to great lengths to demand that the industry switch to land-based farms that would significantly lessen their harmful impacts on the environment, and riled up the industry and the Liberal government that was running the province at the time.

Her concerns were legitimate, but it became apparent to me that setting up commercially successful land-based fish farms in the province would not be an easy task.

I talked to an owner of a Nanaimo-based business that had been manufacturing equipment for the aquaculture industry, from research facilities to hatcheries and grow-out operations, for more than 20 years, and he said he believed land-based closed containment systems for Atlantic salmon can be environmentally friendly and make money for their owners at the same time.

But the business owner said while the technology is in place to build economically viable land-based fish farms for many fish species (his company had been building them for decades), building commercially successful ones for Atlantic salmon, the main species in B.C.’s open-pen fish farms, is still a challenge the industry is trying to work through.

Apparently, Atlantic salmon are fussy eaters, easy to stress and don’t do well in overcrowded conditions and they need constant good-quality water being pumped through the systems, which makes large salmon operations difficult and expensive.

The large amount of power to operate them would likely make it necessary that they be set up near urban areas to be closer to the province’s main power grid, which would impact the thousands of jobs in rural areas that the farms presently provide.

But, regardless of the difficulties, land-based farming is growing in B.C., largely because the public is demanding it.

There are now five land-based fish farms, albeit rather small at this stage, operating in the province and plans are for more.

NDP critic for Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard, MP Fin Donnelly, toured Vancouver Island this month advocating for wild salmon.

He has introduced Bill C-228, which would amend the Fisheries Act by requiring B.C. salmon farms to move from open-net farms to closed containment systems.

It’s a bold initiative and not one that the industry is in agreement with at this time as the technology is still not there to make it commercially viable on a large scale.

But the drive is on to make it so.

With the public mood souring on open-net fish farms, the industry will have to keep up with the demands of their customers or face losing the whole ball game.

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