AQUACULTURE

Angling for profitability

JANE O’HARA November 18 1985
AQUACULTURE

Angling for profitability

JANE O’HARA November 18 1985

Angling for profitability

AQUACULTURE

The 24 silver baby Coho salmon, destined for the lunch tables at Vancouver’s fashionable Jean Pierre’s restaurant, shimmered on a bed of ice. At 10 a.m. head chef Bernard Casavant stood in his kitchen, bent over the nine-ounce fish in the Styrofoam box and said, “They are so fresh they look as though they are still swimming.” Only five hours before, the salmon had been swimming—in floating pens owned by one of three salmon farmers who supply fish to Vancouver’s Albion Fisheries Ltd., from which Casavant orders salmon at least three times a week. Indeed, there are now about 50 aquaculture firms which farm an estimated 300 tons of salmon annually on the east and west coasts of Canada. And the fish is becoming steadily more popular—among chefs and consumers alike. Declared Casavant: “When I serve them, I always run out.”

Salmon is not the only salt-water fish raised commercially. In the Atlantic provinces 965 tons of blue mussels worth more than $1 million were

farmed in 1984, compared to 26 tons in 1979 that brought in $28,000. As well, experts say that in Prince Edward Island new lobster-farming technology may increase the $147.8-million lobster fishery by at least 15 per cent. Still, the greatest growth has been in salmon aquaculture. In British Columbia alone, the number of farms is expected to expand to 125 in 1986—from a mere 10 in 1984. This year in Atlantic Canada, 17 salmon farmers will produce an estimated 275 tons, or almost $3 million worth of the fish, compared to only 6.6 tons worth $60,000 in 1979. Declared John Anderson, founding president of the St. Andrews, N.B.-based Aquaculture Association of Canada: “In five years we could have 5,500 tons. Salmon is the Cinderella industry.”

Canada’s newfound enthusiasm for salmon farming is based on the phenomenal success enjoyed by Norway since the early 1970s. Then, Norway’s fishermen and farmers began fullscale development of commercial aquaculture because of a government program designed to encourage more employment opportunities on the country’s remote seacoast. Since then, Norway has become the world’s leading exporter of farmed salmon. By 1979 the country’s 221 aquaculturists were producing 4,400 tons of salmon annually. This year Norway’s 500 fish farms will put about 30,000 tons of salmon —worth more than $200 million—onto the world market. About 75 per cent of that is flown to European centres and served in fine restaurants the same day it is harvested.

Indeed, the Norwegians say that they are eyeing the North American salmon market—last year Norway exported 4,723 tons of salmon to the United States—and would be making greater inroads were it not for transportation difficulties. Explained Ole Peter Ulvestad, a spokesman for Norwegian seafood company SAAS Prosess A/s: “One problem we have now is our freight capacity. All our airlines and cruise ships are booked to capacity.” As a result, Anderson, for one, warns that now is the time for Canadian fish farmers to move—quickly. Said Anderson: “We have a window of two, maybe three, years to make our presence felt. After that we’ll be playing catch-up.”

Still, Canadian aquaculturists face some daunting problems. Few of them have yet to turn a profit, and one reason is the overwhelming start-up costs. It costs at least $400,000 for a property lease, pens, special equipment such as automated feeding machines and brood stock for the operation. Wood Bay Salmon Farms Ltd., 50 km northwest of Vancouver on the Pacific coast, began production last July on Malaspina

Strait. The company paid $80,000 for four fish pens made of heavy nylon netting attached to galvanized steel frames which sit on Fiberglas pontoons 55 yards offshore. And this year’s stock of 130,000 smolts—young salmon—cost $60,000. Co-owner Clark Hamilton says that by 1987 he and his Norwegian partner will have spent at least $2 million developing the site. But he says that with salmon selling for $4 to $5 a pound, he hjopes to harvest 330 tons of salmon in two years time—a catch of about $300 million. Added Hamilton: “The potential is overwhelming.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton and other salmon farmers have to deal with natural predators such as sea lions, otters and herons, which can drastically reduce fish stocks if they invade the pens. Brad Hope of Vancouver-based Pacific Aqua Foods Ltd., a publicly traded company on the Vancouver Stock Exchange whose shares have shot up to $5.50 from $2.10 last April, says, “When I am not out nights chasing otters or holding things down in the wind, I’ve got time to sit back and just worry.” As well, the crowded pens—containing as many as 5,000 fish—make the stock particularly susceptible to potentially deadly ailments such as vibriosis, a bacterial disease which causes scale and fin damage. Said Hamilton: “You have to keep oneon-one contact with your fish to make sure they are healthy.” Added Roy Drinnan, aquaculture co-ordinator for the Scotia-Fundy region of the department of fisheries and oceans: “People tend to gloss over the problems. We are trying to catch up in the oceans in a couple of decades to what agriculture has been going through for 4,000 years.”

In fact, some companies are now developing new technology to speed up the process. After a seven-year research program scientists at Advanced Lobster Technology Inc. in Victoria, P.E.I., have perfected a means of successfully farming lobster—once thought impossible because of the crustaceans’ well-developed cannibalistic instinct. Grown in 17-foot-high cylindrical tanks, the ALTI lobsters mature in 30 months in individual compartments on specially designed trays, compared to up to nine years in the ocean. One reason: a special highprotein feed that contains crab meat and grains. And the threat of gaffkemia—a deadly bacterial disease which attacks the lobsters’ blood—is lessened by special purifiers which ensure that the crustaceans grow in pure salt water. The process can also be used to increase the weight of smaller lobsters now destined for canneries—currently 70 per cent of the commercial lobster

catch—to grow to 1!4 lb.,the acceptable weight for more expensive market lobsters. Experts estimate that that alone can increase the lobster fishery’s profits by some $10 million a year.

The potential profitability of aquaculture has already attracted government interest. The P.E.I. Development Agency has approved a $1.25-million loan to ALTI. Canada’s department of fisheries and oceans is helping salmon farmers by developing and supplying brood stock eggs from fish stock that has demonstrated a potential for fast growth and resistance to disease. And in British Columbia, where the many protected inlets are ideal for salmon farming, the government has since last April offered tax credits to investors and guaranteed low-interest loans to fish farmers. Said B.C. Agriculture Minister Harvey Schroeder: “We need to reduce the early risk of moving into the industry so more individuals can do it.” Indeed, late last month the federal and British Columbia governments agreed to an incentive program that will provide interest-free loans to the industry. Clearly, such assistance may yet make the new wave of aquaculture profitable.

— JANE O’HARA in Vancouver with DIANE LUCKOW in Vancouver,

BARBARA MACANDREW in Charlottetown and CHRIS WOOD in Halifax

DIANE LUCKOW

BARBARA MACANDREW

CHRIS WOOD