At times, Rudy and Leslie Reimer have felt like they’ve been swimming against the current.
But surveying the tanks at Watersong Farm’s newly built trout observation room, Rudy Reimer said that the five years they’ve spent developing and redeveloping their self-contained fish farm have been worth it.
“There is a lot of potential here — a lot,” he said.
And the potential for inland farmed fish is continuing to grow, according to Ruth Salmon, executive director of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance.
“I certainly think there is opportunity everywhere, the demand for seafood is huge, it’s been growing at seven to nine per cent per year,” she said. “And there are lots of opportunities for trout and other species in the Prairie provinces, particularly using old facilities.”
Not only is demand for seafood growing, demand for fish farmed in self-contained aquaculture systems is expanding in particular, as people become more aware of the environmental impact of traditional fisheries and cage production.
“What’s going on in the industry right now is that everybody wants to be Ocean Wise or SeaChoice approved for retailers or restaurants; they want to be sustainable,” explained Julie Tuk, a purchaser with Mariner Neptune Fish & Seafood Co. in Winnipeg. “And the best way for fish to be sustainable is for it to be raised in a closed, contained facility — not in oceans or lakes.”
Reimer noted that 50 per cent of seafood consumed worldwide already comes from farms, but many are cage farms located in natural bodies of water, a type of production associated with higher environmental impacts.
But just because the market for fish raised in containment systems is thriving, it doesn’t mean connecting with consumers is a simple task.
The Reimers, who farm near Warren, began their journey in 2008 with a pilot project sponsored by the Interprovincial Partnership for Sustainable Freshwater Aquaculture Development and funded by the Canadian Model Aqua-Farm Initiative.
When the project was first announced in December 2008, both the federal and provincial governments committed just over $300,000 in funding. By the time the project concluded in 2013, the provincial government had invested almost double its estimate — $712,000 — while the Reimers covered operating costs, and provided infrastructure such as a hog barn, land and a well.
Not everything went according to plan, said Reimer, explaining that after the project officially ended, the tanks had to be drained and reconfigured to accommodate the size of fish the market actually wanted.
“We’re just at the point where we’re starting up again, and we’ll see. Hopefully everything goes really well this time, we’re much more confident that we have the processing side of it and the marketing figured out now,” he said, explaining that consultants brought in by the province had mistakenly identified two-pound trout as the size preferred by consumers.
“They used numbers from the East, for the eastern market,” he said. “And Western Canada is a totally different ball game, we’re in a retail market, as opposed to the food-service market, like restaurant supply — Western Canada wants a bigger fish.”
Design problems also arose, as did processing concerns as the joint initiative went forward, Reimer said.
“So there was more than one thing we had problems with, but I don’t want to dwell on too many of them anymore, because that just frustrates you,” said Reimer. “We did get some assistance, so no matter whether it didn’t all go as perfectly as planned, the fact is there was financial assistance there.”
With larger fish in the tank, Reimer now plans a two-pronged approach to processing and marketing his trout when they are ready to be harvested.
Watersong Farm is looking to establish a licensed meat shop on site so that it can process some of its own fish, while the rest will be processed at Mariner Neptune, which has a federally inspected facility and can ship outside of Manitoba.
“Once they are up and running again, we’ll take all of their product, or as much as we can get,” said Tuk. “Trout is in big demand across Canada.”
The Winnipeg-based seafood processor and retailer also sells fish from another Manitoba fish farm. Ridgeland Aqua Farms at the Ridgeland Hutterite Colony near Anola produces Arctic char, but processes it entirely on site.
At one time another Arctic char farm was also in operation — located at the old provincial fish hatchery near Teulon — but Reimer said it wasn’t able to remain viable and closed.
Jeff Eastman, aquaculture specialist for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, says there are currently eight fish farms operating in Manitoba, but most provide for anglers and sportspeople, or those stocking ponds.
“I would say that three of them are commercial, or would be considered commercial food-production operations,” Eastman said. “I think once we get up to five or 10 production units the size of Watersong Farm, I think that’s when the industry will really mature and hit that critical mass of production.”
However, Salmon points out that while the global demand for sustainable fish has grown, growth in Canada’s fish farms has stalled.
She points the finger at federal regulations.
“Basically our historic challenges have been around the regulatory system. To date it has really imposed a lot of costs and delays that have restricted growth and investment,” she said, adding that while technically regulated by the Fisheries Act, that act never once actually uses the word aquaculture.
“The act is there to guide the wild fisheries and protect wild stocks, which is really important, but it doesn’t have anything to do with farming seafood and it doesn’t have anything to do with guiding an innovative aquaculture industry,” Salmon said. She would like to see a separate aquaculture act.
Eastman said a fish farming license is indeed required to operate a commercial fishery, and he also recommends obtaining a water rights licence from Manitoba Water Stewardship. Fish hatcheries require a Class 1 environmental licence as well, but operations like Watersong Farm do not, he explained.
“Beyond that it really depends on what you’re doing and what type of operation you have,” he said.
A final report has not yet been issued on the Canadian Model Aqua-Farm Initiative, but all parties seem to agree that a lot has been learned since it began.
“Looking back to when I first started, the amount of information we had was very limited, but through the Manitoban, Canadian Model Aqua-Farm Initiative, we generated so much relevant information that has become very, very useful to people,” Eastman said. “If I could fast-forward the tape five or 10 years, I’d like to think that there would be growth in the sector, there’s definitely a market opportunity and the technology continues to advance, making it more realistic that you could have a viable farm.”
Ten years ago, when Rudy and Leslie Reimer took over a successful chicken farm, they couldn’t possibly imagine that fish would be in their future. Now they couldn’t imagine a future without fish and haven’t ruled out expanding down the road.
And while government funding might not be on the table again, foreign investment, particularly from China could buoy the industry, Remer said.
“There is significant interest in it,” he said. “And we have an advantage on the Prairies, a number of advantages actually… if they’re going to move into closed containment systems, which are basically buildings on land, our land is still pretty cheap compared to say the West Coast and we have excellent water quality here.”