DFO says land-based fish farms commercially ‘ready’

DFO study of alternatives to open-net salmon farms finds RAS and hybrid systems most viable

Hybrid systems would reduce the amount of time salmon spend in open-net cages, like this one owned by Mowi Canada. _ Submitted

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has concluded a study of alternative technologies to open-net salmon farms in B.C., and concludes only two are commercially “ready.”

Those two systems are land-based RAS (recirculating aquaculture systems) and hybrid systems.

But given the Trudeau government's plan to phase out open-net fish farms, that really leaves only the land-based RAS option for B.C., since hybrid systems still require rearing salmon in open-net pens.

And whether RAS systems in B.C. are ready enough for investors remains to be seen. Investment has been pouring into large new RAS systems, but not in Canada. The two biggest systems being developed are in Maine and Florida. The one in Florida would produce enough Atlantic salmon to meet half of the demand of the entire U.S.

The Trudeau government has been under pressure from activists and First Nations to phase out open-net salmon farms in B.C., due to concerns about their potential impacts on wild salmon stocks.

In the last federal election campaign, the Trudeau government announced it would work to phase out open net salmon farms in B.C. by 2025. There’s now some question about that date.

In his mandate letter to his new Fisheries minister, Bernadette Jordan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed Jordan to  “Work with the province of British Columbia and Indigenous communities to create a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025 and begin work to introduce Canada’s first-ever Aquaculture Act.”

But in an interview with Seawest News, Jordan said 2025 is the deadline she has to have a plan in place to phase out open-net salmon farms, not the date by which they must be off the water.

“The mandate letter is clear that I have to come up with a plan by 2025 and that’s what I will be doing,” she told Seawest News.

Asked to clarify the phase out date, Jordan's press secretary confirmed that the 2025 date is for the phase-out plan to be in place. The actual date for a full transition away from open-net pens hasn't been determined.

"Our government is working on a responsible plan to transition the industry away from open net-pen salmon farming in B.C., and we have committed to developing this plan by 2025," Jordan's press office confirmed.

Like its moratorium on oil tankers on the northern B.C. coast, the Trudeau government’s plan to phase out open-net salmon farms applies only to B.C., not Atlantic Canada.

In B.C., a number of First Nations support the salmon farming industry, while others have vehemently protested the industry and have succeeded in pressuring the provincial government to start relocating some salmon farms.

Several open-net salmon farms have been shut down in the Broughton Archipelago, and several more are earmarked for removal over the next few years.

Opponents of open-net salmon farms want to see them removed entirely and replaced with land-based RAS systems. While these RAS systems have proven to work on a small scale, from a technological standpoint, the jury is still out on whether they will be commercially viable, as they have high capital and operating costs. But they are at least closer to commercial viability than two other systems that the federal government looked at.

As part of a technology review, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans examined four alternative technologies: RAS, hybrid, floating closed containment systems, and offshore open-ocean systems.

The State of Salmon Aquaculture Technologies, released today, February 4, suggests the latter two are not ready for prime time.

“Land-based RAS and hybrid systems are the two technologies ready for commercial development in B.C., while floating closed containment requires 2-5 years of further review, and offshore technologies may require 5 to 10 years of review,” the report states.

BC Salmon farmers have already been exploring hybrid systems, which simply reduces the amount of time fish spend in the open water. And one small RAS system, Kuterra, has successfully operated as a proof-of-concept.

Emergent Holdings, the parent company of Whole Oceans, recently signed a 15-year lease with Kuterra to continue operating. It’s not clear if the company plans to expand the operation. One of the ongoing concerns with Kuterra is that its production capacity is simply too small to be profitable.

Hybrid systems use land-based RAS systems to rear salmon for several months, before they are introduced into open-net pens. These systems reduce the amount of time salmon spend in open-net pen systems. But if it is the federal government's intention to phase out open-net pens, it means hybrid systems wouldn't be allowed, unless some form of containment is developed for them.

The BC Salmon Farmers Association says it welcomes the report’s findings.

“While these technologies are yet to be proven on a commercial scale, all are at some stage of development and have the potential to play a role in B.C. in the future,” John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, said in a news release.

“We continue to actively participate in their development and testing. The hybrid system, which involves extending the amount of time young fish spend in land-based hatcheries before being moved to ocean pens, is particularly promising in the near-term, and something we are actively pursuing."