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Going Green: Closing in

Closed-containment salmon-farming project paying environmental, economic, culinary dividends

By James Wright
April 05, 2012

Immediately after Cooke Aquaculture announced in mid-February that it euthanized three of 20 cages of salmon it was farming off the coast of Nova Scotia, industry opponents renewed calls to end the use of open-ocean net pens. 

Suspecting that infectious salmon anemia (ISA) was present, the Blacks Harbor, New Brunswick, company followed its “proactive fish health management strategy” and destroyed the animals. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency later confirmed ISA in samples of fish taken from the site.  

The flu-like ISA virus, while harmless to humans, has devastated production at salmon farms on several continents, including those in nearby New Brunswick and Maine and most notably Chile. The spread of ISA and other diseases from one pen to another is one of several reasons why conservationists want the industry to change its ways — and its locations — to prevent escapes and diseases and protect the environment. 

The steepest obstacle to widespread industry adoption of land-based closed-containment aquaculture systems is the significant cost of designing and building such facilities. But some say the possibilities are being proven. A project in the hills of West Virginia that began last May aims to arm industry and investors with the confidence to boldly move where few farms have gone before — away from the shore. 

The Conservation Fund Freshwater Institute (TCFFI) in Shepherdstown, W.V., is nearly finished with a one-year experimental project growing Atlantic salmon smolts (the St. John River strain that Maine and Canadian farms currently use) in fresh water to market size. It’s being done in an indoor facility that recycles water for the fish and captures the majority of waste material. 

The project’s leaders say the results are encouraging: Ten-pound fish are already being harvested (about 20 metric tons total) and processed throughout this spring. The finished product wowed crowds at special events in New Brunswick and Washington, D.C. 

“[This system] is a tool to raise salmon that allows you to locate the farm near the market,” says Dr. Steven Summerfelt, director of aquaculture systems research at TCFFI, which also conducts ongoing projects with trout and char. “It’s an environmentally friendly and economically viable method to produce salmon, protect sensitive watersheds and prevent escapes.” 

There are plenty of other positives, Summerfelt notes: 99.8 percent of the water flowing through the system is continuously cleaned and returned to the tanks; the recirculation system also helps to capture more than 99 percent of the fish waste solids and phosphorous, keeping coastal areas free from such pollutants; and no pesticides or vaccines have been necessary in the indoor setting. 

One of the next steps is to push the density from current levels of 40 to 50 kilograms per cubic meter to 100 kilograms. Salmon, he adds, seem to do even better in higher densities than trout. 

“Just 24 months ago, everyone was saying it can’t be done,” Summerfelt says. “We don’t need the ocean to grow salmon, just locations that are convenient to market, convenient to low-priced power.” 

Estimating the energy costs of growing salmon at between 2 and 6 cents a kilowatt-hour, he adds, “The United States has some of the cheapest power in the world.”  

Because the farmed fish live in an environment with a constant water temperature and 24 hours of light (after a six-month hibernation stage when the fish weigh just 40 grams), they are willing to feed year-round, which aids their growth rate tremendously. Maybe the best news of all is the feed-conversion ratio (pounds of fishmeal and fish oil required to produce a pound of harvested fish), which Summerfelt says is 1.05:1. 

“I think we’re going to [eventually reach] zero fishmeal with salmon,” he adds. 

Summerfelt says the grow-out cycle to reach market size is approximately nine months shorter than conventional ocean-farming methods, where fish eat very little for weeks at a time during the coldest periods. 

This kind of rapid development is an argument against genetically modified (GM) salmon, says Bill Taylor, president of the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. GM salmon proponents tout its potential to cut the average three-year growing process in half because of its ability to grow consistently. 

ASF is “adamantly opposed” to GM fish, Taylor says. “This puts a different lens on that question,” he adds, contending that closed-containment is the solution to many of aquaculture’s largest issues. “[ASF] has real problems with open-net pens. We’re not against aquaculture; we want to make it work.” 

There hasn’t been a wild Atlantic salmon commercial fishery in the United States since the 1940s; Canada began phasing out its harvest in the 1980s. ASF, which is dedicated to protecting and restoring wild Atlantic salmon and its critical habitat, decided to “put its purse where its policy is,” says Taylor, and directed $120,000 to the TCFFI project (about $1 million in the institute’s annual funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service). 

They may seem like strange bedfellows, but Taylor is excited about the possibilities for the land-based salmon-farming industry and also for what he says is wild Atlantic salmon’s return. “It’s all heading in the right direction,” he says. 

Summerfelt estimates production costs at about $3.50 per kilogram ($1.60 a pound), whole fish weight, which he says is slightly more than production costs in Norway. 

As with any fish, the proof is on the plate. Two chefs who recently served the fish say it stands up to scrutiny. 

Chris Aerni, chef-owner of Rossmount Inn in St. Andrews, served the TCFFI fish for an ASF function in December and said it was slightly lighter in color but had a pleasant flavor, not much different from the farmed fish he normally buys from local ocean net-pen farms. He’s heartened by recent improvements in aquaculture in Can-ada, but would like to see more operations move on land. 

“Everything works in the world if somebody can make money at it,” Aerni says. 

José Andrés, chef-owner of ThinkFoodGroup in Washington, D.C., prepared the fish at his restaurant America Eats Tavern for U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsask, without telling him where it was from. 

“Then when I did, he was even happier to know that America has the know-how and technology to produce such amazing fish,” Andrés says. “The way we eat is a political statement, so yes, I take [environmental impacts] very much into my decisions.”   

Email Senior Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com

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