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Ocean feedlots big business

There’s many a night Norm Penton has been rocked to sleep by the gentle rolling of the sea and calming sound of lapping waves while working on a British Columbia salmon farm.

Salmon farms are operated by two to four people who live and work on the floating farms for eight days followed by six off.

The farmhands’ house has all the comforts of land-based home with a full-equipped kitchen, a living room with a TV, computer, and of course bedrooms.

But instead of Prairie vistas and the occasional coyote, these farm workers gaze at scenic shorelines green with coniferous trees reaching up the sides of steep mountains rising from the water’s edge. Bald eagles and seals, even the occasional pod of orca whales, are common sights.

Gone ashore

Penton now works ashore for the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association. But his aquaculture career began with hands-on work in the industry that has become B. C.’s largest agricultural export. The $400 million from farmed salmon sales last year dwarfed the $38 million taken in by the wild fishery.

Farming salmon accounts for 3,000 jobs directly, plus another 3,000 indirectly and contributes $800 million to B. C.’s economy.

Several of the farm journalists who recently toured the Marine Harvest facility north of Campbell River at feeding time likened it to a cattle feedlot – except it’s prettier, quieter and smells better.

Floating feedlot

Penton dislikes the comparison but he concedes raising salmon in cages in the ocean, has more in common with agriculture than fishing.

As a biosecurity precaution all visitors to a Marine Harvest facility located north of Campbell River must dip their shoes in disinfectant as they step aboard and don life-jackets.

A floating walkway up the middle gives staff access to the pens housing 477,000 salmon. At the far end of the facility is a warehouse where bags of feed pellets are stored and then dropped into a hopper connected to each pen by a pipe.

Fish are trained from a very young age to follow the feed – mostly pellets of fish meal and oil – as it’s dispensed from a pipe in the middle of their pen. Underwater video cameras monitor the fish as they feed. When the fish break out of their feeding schools, workers stop dispensing pellets, which lessens feed waste and lowers the environmental impact.

The pellets are delivered by barge. The only access here is by boat or float plane.

Fish husbandry

Like conventional livestock producers, salmon farmers have brood stock. Young salmon are vaccinated against diseases. Sick ones are injected

Salmon Farming /

“You can grow more protein in a smaller area in the ocean than you can on land so it just makes sense (to do).”

– Norm Penton

with antibiotics if prescribed by a veterinarian. And fish farmers, like their terrestrial brethren, are at the whim of international markets.

“It’s all market driven,” says Gary Caine, a senior biologist with the aquaculture branch of B. C.’s Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. “It’s not just growing a fish and hoping someone will buy it.”

Fish farming, which began as “mom and pop” operations in the early 1980s, have long since been taken over by the four or five large multinational corporations that now dominate the industry and operate in Norway, Scotland, Chile and New Zealand as well as Canada.

Raising fish is capital intensive. One farm costs around $5 million to set up. Marine Harvest operates 22 itself.

“You just can’t go out and start your own fish farm these days,” says Caine. “Even if you could it wouldn’t be economical. The size of the farms has increased so greatly.”

Economies of scale

Another hurdle is getting a piece of ocean, which must be approved by the B. C. government. The location needs to be sheltered, a least a mile from a salmon-bearing river and be deep enough and have enough flow to help flush away fish waste. B. C. has licensed 160 salmon farms but only 60 to 80 operate at any one time, says Penton, a transplanted Newfoundlander from a family that once made its living fishing cod.

It takes 2-1/2 to three years for a fertilized salmon egg to grow to market weight. The delayed return on the investment is another impediment to entry.

The fish are raised in pens built like a submerged upsidedown pyramid. Dead fish drop to the bottom and are collected twice a week by divers or by an automated pumping system.

Production risks

Dead fish are examined to find the cause of death so precautions can be taken to protect the others. Salmon farms expect to lose about 10 per cent of their stock, but in rare cases a catastrophe like a plankton bloom can wipe out an entire farm. Plankton can plug salmon gills preventing them from getting oxygen from the water.

The fish here in 10 pens measuring 100 feet square (2.3 acres in total), weigh about 1,200 grams. They started life in a freshwater nursery and were put into saltwater in July 2007, transferred here in July this year and will be harvested next fall weighing around five kilograms.

But it only takes about two hours from the time the fish are pulled from their pens until they are processed and on their way to consumers.

“You can have fresh fish anywhere in the world in 36 hours,” Caine says.

Environmental groups such as the Suzuki Foundation and Greenpeace say farming salmon is bad for the environment. They allege farmed salmon pollute by concentrating fecal material and unconsumed feed.

Ecological downsides

They also say farmed salmon can transfer diseases and pests like sea lice, to wild salmon.

Earlier this year 30,000 nearly market-ready Atlantic salmon escaped from a Marine Harvest farm in this region after one corner of a pen slipped.

Salmon farms are stocked with Atlantic salmon, which are not native to B. C. waters but are favoured for fish farms because they are more robust and better suited to confined rearing.

There’s no possibility of the two types of salmon interbreeding, he says, and it’s unlikely they will outcompete wild Pacific stocks because the native stocks are well established. Caine adds efforts years ago to try and establish wild Atlantic salmon in B. C. failed.

Both Penton and Caine stress B. C.’s salmon farming industry is the most regulated and monitored farming activity in the province and the most regulated in the world.

Salmon farmers are required by law to test for sea lice and treat infected fish.

As for fish waste, Penton say it breaks down over time and the seabed recovers; fish farms remain “fallow” until they do.

Fish farming critics say farmed salmon are fed other fish, which could be eaten. The association says most are bony and undesirable for human consumption.

Feed conversion

For every 1.1 pounds of feed consumed by a farmed salmon, it produces one pound of meat, according to Penton. Chicken, one of the most efficient animals for converting feed to meat, has feed conversion ratio of around 2.2 to one.

“You can grow more protein in a smaller area in the ocean than you can on land so it just makes sense (to do),” Penton says. “It allows the wild stock to recover.”

Caine says farmed salmon are less likely to be contaminated with PCBs or heavy metals because their environment is more controlled.

“With wild salmon you can’t control if they swam through water polluted with lead or mercury,”

Linda Sams, CEO of the B. C. Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences, has no qualms about eating farmed salmon.

Good controls

“I ate them through both my pregnancies and feed them to my children regularly and I feel for someone who looks at fish and diseases a lot that’s a pretty good endorsement,” she says. “There are really good controls right through.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also tests and monitors farmed fish.

“With all the quality control that goes into farmed salmon I feel very safe eating one of them,” Sams says. [email protected]

About the author


Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.



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