Fishery

FISH FUTURES

Aquaculture is providing a huge boost to an East Coast fishery devastated by declining stocks

JOHN DEMONT July 29 2002
Fishery

FISH FUTURES

Aquaculture is providing a huge boost to an East Coast fishery devastated by declining stocks

JOHN DEMONT July 29 2002

FISH FUTURES

Fishery

JOHN DEMONT

Aquaculture is providing a huge boost to an East Coast fishery devastated by declining stocks

THE BEST PLACE to glimpse the future of the East Coast seafood industry may actually be inside a weather-beaten building on a rocky point of land 18 km west of Halifax. There, Steven Leadbeater, who runs the federal government’s Institute for Marine Biosciences hatchery in Sandy Cove, will lead you into a dimly lit room filled with six, white 3,500-litre tanks. Inside, 10,000 mottled juvenile fish, each no longer than a person’s baby finger, swim against the current. Talk about an easy metaphor: the fish are haddock, a species which, until a few years ago, was virtually impossible to grow in captivity. And by the end of the year, Leadbeater predicts that some 90,000 of them will have left his tanks via truck for fish farms in New Brunswick, where they will be

fattened for market in ocean cages. “We’ve worked long and hard on this,” he says. “I’d be lying if I didn’t admit we are excited.” Well, join the crowd. Think fishing Down East means a couple of grizzled salts longlining for cod? Time to update those old perceptions. Nowadays while shellfish is king of an Atlantic Canada industry worth more than ever, swashbuckling entrepreneurs are ringing up sales in a style those old-timers would have found unimaginable: growing fish—shudder—in a manner that’s closer to farming than traditional fishing. Just look at the numbers. In New Brunswick, where the Atlantic salmon rules the farm, the total value of the farmed fish catch hit $282 million in 2000, leaving it just behind British Columbia

($296 million), the country’s aquaculture leader. Sales also jumped 52 per cent in Nova Scotia to $44 million from a year earlier. Even tiny Prince Edward Island hauled in $29 million worth, while Newfoundland sales hit $11 million.

Since the cod fishery’s stunning failure a decade ago forced the seafood sector to learn about diversification the hard way, aquaculture producers have been trying other species in the hope of finding the next hot, new market. “As long as we look after the environment, this industry has unlimited potential,” says Jim Crawford of Whycocomagh, N.S., who has fished for cod and swordfish and now makes his living growing oysters in Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lake.

Atlantic Canada isn’t exactly leading the pack here. Countries like Chile, Scotland and Norway have long realized the big bucks to be made raising salmon and trout in cages and growing mussels, oysters and other shellfish in sea beds or suspended in ocean water.

While total traditional fish landings in Adantic Canada was $1.7 billion in 2000, aquaculture is the fishery of the future for two reasons: it’s easier to provide customers with a steady supply of seafood by growing fish in farms than searching for them in the open ocean; moreover, the globe’s traditional fishery has already hit its peak. Out of necessity, therefore, aquaculture production will soon outstrip the harvest from the wild to meet the needs of the world’s growing population. “This is all about demand,” explains Leo Muise, aquaculture director for the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Which is good news for coastal communities like St. George, N.B. Until a decade ago, it was a struggling community on the Bay of Fundy. Now, it’s a mini-boom town that claims to be “home to North America’s largest aquaculture industry.”

Stan Smith, St. George’s mayor, declares: “This industry has been a blessing for us, no doubt about it.” In 2000, the aquaculture business pumped at least $40 million into the surrounding economy. All told, more than 1,100 people from the area, or more than one-tenth of the workforce, make their living from harvesting seafood. They do everything from managing international fish farming companies and tending the thousands of salmon cages that bob in the Bay of Fundy to working in the feed factories that fatten the salmon for tables across North America and driving the trucks that take the fish to markets throughout the eastern United States and Canada. The upshot: since 75 per cent of the people working in the local

aquaculture industry are less than 40 years old, St. George has become a place with a future compared to so many other depopulated East Coast towns which have become virtual retirement communities as the young and ambitious seek work elsewhere.

But getting a piece of the aquaculture action in Atlantic Canada is becoming more difficult. High start-up costs, which are at least $100,000 for a mussel farm and $2 million for a good-sized salmon or trout operation, mean the industry is no longer a place for mom-and-pop outfits. Most of the some 40 operators farming there are either subsidiaries of, or sell directly to, one of three major marketing organizations: Heritage Salmon Ltd., owned by Toronto’s Weston family, Stolt Sea Farm Inc., a Norwegian-owned multinational, or the locally-owned Cooke Aquaculture Inc.

Depressed salmon prices and shrinking profit margins haven’t helped matters. Neither has the intense scrutiny under which fish farm operators now find themselves. With farmed salmon sometimes showing up in the wild, sport fishermen

and environmental groups blame salmon farms for spreading disease into the precariously small wild Atlantic salmon population. Cottagers and retirees living along the sea shore complain about how fish farms lower their property values. And inshore fishermen complain about the environmental impact that the fecal matter from hundreds of thousands of fish has on the coves in which they operate. “We’re a convenient scapegoat,” says Glen Brown, director of development for St. George-based Cooke Aquaculture.

Things aren’t as bad as in B.C., where a seven-year moratorium on new salmon farms was lifted in April. But in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, it still takes 12 to 18 months for a farm to meet all the

environmental requirements and gain government approval. The regulatory process is no rubber stamp either. Just ask Atlantic Silver Inc., another St. George salmon farming operation which says it is facing bankruptcy because the New Brunswick government has denied the company a new operating licence, claiming it doesn’t meet environmental standards. As a result, Atlantic Silver’s CEO Kim Vance says it will have to destroy $1 million worth of salmon smolt waiting to go in the water.

All these factors have left Atlantic operators scrambling to find new ways to turn a profit. The big players are casting for consumers with value-added products like kebabs, smoked products and stuffed fillets of salmon. Others think the answer is looking beyond the usual catches—salmon, trout, oysters, scallops and mussels—and going after new species. Throughout the region, commercial operators are trying to develop sturgeon, both for caviar and meat, sea urchins, Arctic char, clams and eels. P.E.I. farmers are looking to diversify beyond oysters and mussels into salmon egg pro-

duction. In Newfoundland, they’re heading back to the future, using new-style techniques to grow cod in cages in bays and inlets around the province.

The payoff can be a while coming. Consider the five years it has taken to get the Sandy Cove, N.S., research station’s haddock experiment to approach commercial viability. Now, it all depends upon how good a job the federal government’s private sector partner—Heritage Salmon in Blacks Harbour, N.B.—does in selling the white flakey fish. Finding new ways to grow fish, after all, is a wonderful business opportunity. But if you want to make a buck in the Atlantic seafood industry, you still need to get the fish onto people’s plates. fffl