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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Evolving Technology Closes in on a More Sustainably Farmed Salmon

Kimberly Irwin is an intern with SeaChoice and Kelly Roebuck is Living Oceans Society's Sustainable Seafood Campaign Manager.

Take a look back 20 years and it is amazing how far we have come in the way of technology – from brick sized analog cell phones to digital smart phones being just one example of many. Industries typically evolve to become more sustainable, relevant and efficient overtime. Aquaculture should be no exception. Yet the majority of salmon farming is still done the same way as it was 20 years ago, in open net-cages that are in direct contact with the marine environment and wild salmon. SeaChoice deems open net-cage farmed salmon to be an ‘Avoid’ due to this farming method's environmental impacts. But what if salmon farming technology evolved? Well savvy innovators are closing in!

Rural West Virginia may seem like an unlikely location for an internationally renowned research facility and salmon aquaculture, but there sits The Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute (TCFFI) nestled on 100 acres of farm land. The institute opened its doors in 1987 in the hopes of solving some of the most pressing issues related to the management and efficient use of freshwater resources.

Dr. Steven Summerfelt joined the institute in 1992 as the Director of Aquaculture Research. To Dr. Summerfelt, aquaculture is essentially a water resource management issue. An open net-cage fish farm placed in a pristine water body generates a large amount of pollution, which will in turn affect the viability and usability of that water resource. Closed containment technology protects water resources by reducing the need for freshwater and preventing the release of organic wastes. For over 20 years, Dr. Summerfelt has been designing, testing and implementing land-based re-circulating aquaculture systems (RAS), a technology that has the potential to revitalize and transform the aquaculture industry.

Twenty-first Century Technology

When Dr. Summerfelt began his work at TCFFI, his goal was to design a system that “minimized the water requirement and captured all or most of the waste, in order to gain a smaller environmental footprint.” He wanted to do all of this while raising healthy fish at a rate that met or surpassed that of open net-cage farms.

The design that has been implemented and tested over the last two decades is a virtually closed-loop system. TCFFI’s tanks that hold up to 40,000 gallons of freshwater. Up to 99% of the water in these systems is constantly re-circulated, meaning that an almost negligible amount of water is needed to regularly replenish their supply. All waste solids, nitrogen compounds and carbon dioxide generated by the fish are removed from the water once it exits the tank, and oxygen is replenished to saturation before the water re-enters. The solid biological waste that is removed from the tanks and dried is used as an effective fertilizer on nearby farms.

Each tank is a meticulously controlled environment. Every possible parameter, including water temperature, nutrient content, alkalinity and water movement is closely monitored. By creating a highly controlled environment, the need for vaccinations, antibiotics and pesticides is effectively eliminated. These harsh chemicals are often necessitated in open net-cage aquaculture, where external fluctuations such as sea lice and disease can have unforeseen impacts on fish health and consequently on wild fish.

The Future of Closed Containment Aquaculture

Dr. Summerfelt is also providing expertise to the 'Namgis project, a soon to be operational commercial sized closed containment farmed Atlantic salmon pilot based near Port McNeill British Columbia – literally on the coastal shore and doorstep of BC’s ocean based open net-cage salmon farming industry. The temperate climate and available coastal sites make B.C. an excellent place to develop a closed containment aquaculture industry. Furthermore, the collective expertise amongst industry and First Nations, along with existing support infrastructure could turn B.C. in to the ‘Silicon Valley’ of closed containment aquaculture.

Containment is necessary for sustainable aquaculture,” Dr. Summerfelt stated at the 2011 Seafood Summit. This simple conclusion summarizes over two decades of invaluable research conducted by Steve Summerfelt at the Freshwater Institute, and will have profound implications for the salmon farming industry in the future.

During the months of December 2012 – March 2013, SeaChoice partner, Canada Safeway is the exclusive retailer for the Freshwater Institute’s closed containment Atlantic salmon. Note the product is available in limited stores and quantities throughout BC’s Lower Mainland, Interior and Vancouver Island. Be one of the few to taste the future of farmed salmon today!

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