The push for finfish aquaculture to move from net pens in the water to closed containment systems on land has been gaining momentum, as advocates promoting land-based systems believe they will reduce or eliminate some of the problems with net-pen fish farms, including disease, impacts on the environment and wild fisheries and interactions with wild salmon. But like the net-pen farmed salmon industry in this area 30 years ago, land-based aquaculture has had difficulty attracting investment to fund its high start-up costs, with such investments seen as risky. The fledgling industry has seen many failures -- including Maine Pride Salmon, which tried to grow fish in the former American Can plant in Eastport in the 1990s -- but few success stories -- at least until now.
"Land-based systems are the future of fish," says Eric Hobson, who was among the speakers at a recent workshop at the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) in Chamcook, outside St. Andrews. Hobson was speaking on behalf of Kuterra, a closed‑containment operation owned by the Namgis First Nation in British Columbia that launched its salmon in April. The salmon are now available in grocery stores in western Canada.
The workshop on April 29 and 30 attracted more than 80 scientists and industry experts from Canada, the U.S. and Europe to discuss the latest technology and operation of land-based, closed‑containment aquaculture. Hosted jointly by ASF and The Conservation Fund Freshwater Institute (TCFFI) of West Virginia, the workshop featured topics from start‑up costs and construction, to fish health and welfare, organic and sustainability rankings and marketing and promotion.
Steve Summerfelt, director of Aquaculture Systems Research for TCFFI, said they have been successfully selling land-based, closed‑containment grown Atlantic salmon for more than two years to the public. "We have had no major disease issues, no ISA [infectious salmon anemia] and no sea lice," says Summerfelt. "We have a survival rate of 84B94%." Diseases such as ISA and sea lice are common in net-pen salmon farming operations.
However, net-pen salmon farmers say that closed-containment systems also have disease and environmental issues, along with high operational costs, high stocking densities and concerns ranging from the amount of energy to power recirculating pumps to the taste of the fish. Cooke Aquaculture, Canada's largest seafood aquaculture company, which raises salmon in sea cages in Maine, New Brunswick and other provinces, Chile and Spain, believes that there is no reason to move to land-based operations and that there are as many issues with siting large numbers of tanks on land as there are with sea farm operations.
During the workshop, in response to a question about what is holding back fish production in closed-containment systems, Thomas Losordo of Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems, which has operations in North Carolina, Florida and Massachusetts, said that success stories are needed in the industry, because the failures during the last 20 years have made it difficult to get loans or attract investment. Norman McCowan of Bell Aquaculture, which raises perch, trout and salmon in Indiana, added, "There were a lot of aqua-shysters who sold a lot" of technology that was bad. It was noted that continued research and development are needed for the industry to grow.
Jeremy Lee of Sustainable Blue in Nova Scotia said that the industry needs "to be able to explain to investors how close we are." Sustainable Blue was near the end of a salmon growth trial when the facility lost its backup power on March 15, ending the trial. The cause of the incident is not known.
Along with the Kuterra operation, Taste of BC Aquafarms has developed a farm that is now at production stage and expects to be harvesting 100 metric tonnes of steelhead salmon annually. Tides Canada is providing funding for both projects, and the Conservation Fund's Freshwater Institute also is providing support.
The Freshwater Institute has conducted five Atlantic salmon growout trials in closed-containment systems, with one using salmon from Cooke Aquaculture's Bingham hatchery that were raised to harvest size. The trials have shown that the cost of production is approximately equal for land-based and net-pen growout. The environmental impact analysis indicated that land-based production would have a larger carbon footprint if the facility is sited where electricity is provided by a typical U.S. mix of fossil fuels. The carbon footprint is approximately equal if electricity is provided by hydropower.
Worldwide, a half-dozen commercial facilities using closed-containment systems are now growing Atlantic salmon, with the largest farms located in Canada, France, Denmark and China. The production potential of these farms will approach 5,000 tonnes annually. Another dozen facilities are being built or planned around the world, which could produce more than 10,000 tonnes. In comparison, with its sea-farm operations Cooke Aquaculture processes over 72,000 metric tonnes of salmon and over 20,000 tonnes of other fish annually.
More government support also is needed for closed containment systems, with other speakers noting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's guaranteed loan programs should be available for aquaculture.
Lee pointed out that small owner/operator businesses have a difficult time crossing the bridge to greater production because administrative overhead costs are "a killer." While salmon net-pen businesses used to believe that 5,000 tonnes was a maximum for annual production, Gary Robinson, president of GRV Inc., a closed-containment salmon project in British Columbia, noted that there are "strong drivers toward scaling up." Steve Summerfelt said that, along with family-farm size operations, companies also would need to grow to the agri-business size, and acceptance of the technology would allow the farms to be placed anywhere.
Eric Hobson noted that the industry needs to become organized into vertically-integrated companies that handle all aspects of the business, from feed, production and processing to sales, marketing and transportation. If any one piece is missing, the company "becomes a susceptible, risky business."
Rob Johnson of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax stated that the market demand outweighs the current supply for closed containment salmon. He outlined different seafood eco-certification programs and ranking systems for environmental sustainability. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program uses a green, yellow and red ranking, like a traffic light, with all net-pen farmed salmon having a red ranking, meaning they should be avoided. However, other certifications include the Aquaculture Stewardship Council standards and the Global Aquaculture Alliance standards. While Cooke Aquaculture's True North Salmon has recently been certified under the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Management Practices, Johnson said that True North has no plans to pursue Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification unless the company is pushed to do so by the market. He said ASC has "the highest certification bar in the marketplace, but it doesn't fully address the risks to wild salmon."
For fish raised in closed-containment systems, four out of five species raised by different companies that were recently assessed received a green ranking under the Seafood Watch program. The factors for obtaining green ranking include the feed that is used, data availability and the means of production. A report on closed-containment salmon will be issued soon.
A number of speakers during the conference looked at how to address disease management problems with recirculating aquaculture systems, including the possibility of significant outbreaks or chronic disease issues.
Nell Halse, vice president for communications at Cooke Aquaculture, says there are a number of reasons why the company doesn't use closed containment systems for growing salmon for their entire life cycle: the operation cost is too high; the environmental impact and energy costs are much greater; and there isn't enough land on the coastlines or freshwater sources available to handle the tank farms that would be required to move all of the company's production on land.
Halse observes that the company is already using recirculation closed containment facilities in most of its hatcheries and also grows a percentage of its fish for their entire life cycle for its broodstock program. She states, "That means we know the technology, the cost, the stocking density and feeding requirements to keep the fish healthy for their entire growout period in freshwater, land‑based facilities."
"If it were to become economically and biologically feasible to grow Atlantic salmon entirely in tanks, these factory farms would be located in major urban centres, in industrial parks near the marketplace, not in isolated coastal communities," she points out, noting the benefits that aquaculture has brought to the coast of Maine and New Brunswick.
According to Halse, animal welfare also is a concern. She says the highest stocking density that Cooke has on its land‑based farms for broodstock is 40 kilograms per cubic meter, while proponents of land‑based farms are talking about 100 to 120 kg/cubic meter. "This is a very intense kind of farming that could lead to major disease and animal welfare issues. We clean and disinfect our tank farms between crops, but an operation that has to operate continuously with high densities to be economical will have difficulty with this protocol. Our experience is that disinfection between crops is critical for disease management."
Halse also points to the issue of taste with closed-containment fish. She says salmon raised entirely in freshwater have a muddy taste and need to be depurated or rinsed for more than 10 days before they can be marketed. "Even then, the taste is of no comparison to the salmon that are grown in their natural environment, the ocean. The amount of fresh water that is required for this depuration process is also enormous."
She adds, "The challenge of managing environmental impacts and fish health exists on all farms where animals are raised. It doesn't matter if you are farming in a barn, a tank or in the ocean or open field -- animals can get sick."
Halse observes that even when closed-containment systems recirculate more than 95% of their water they still have to release water into the environment and get rid of their solid waste. "Land‑based facilities do not eliminate environmental or disease concerns."