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Fish Out of Water: Interest in Land-Based Aquaculture Grows

The recent escape of 160,000 Atlantic salmon raised in Pacific Ocean pens and environmental concerns about the impact of fish farms on wild populations have prompted a new look at inland aquaculture.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A salmon jumps in a submerged cage in front of the feeding system at a fish farm in Norway.Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

PORT MCNEILL, British Columbia – Less than a mile from where British Columbia’s Nimpkish River flows into the Pacific Ocean, dozens of Atlantic salmon swirl around in a 12ft (3.6m)-deep tank that resembles a large indoor swimming pool. Above, a rotating automatic feeder blows hundreds of pounds of feed into the tank – fishmeal, fish oil and vegetable protein. These salmon will spend roughly a year of their life in this tank, growing from smolt to adult, before they’re transferred to harvest tanks where they’re killed and sent to markets around Vancouver Island and beyond.

This is Kuterra, a $7.6 million, closed containment, recirculating aquaculture facility run by the ‘Namgis First Nation. The name comes from the ‘Namgis word for salmon, “kutala,” which essentially means salmon of the land. Kuterra, which began sending its fish to market in 2014, is one of a dozen inland salmon farms that have popped up around the globe to raise salmon sustainably without impacting the health of wild populations. Following the August escape of more than 160,000 farmed Atlantic salmon from a net pen anchored in the Pacific Ocean near Puget Sound, interest in finding safer environmental alternatives is growing.

To date, the United States has been a small player in the global aquaculture market, though one company has proposed building an open ocean farm off the Southern California coast. In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approved regulations to permit up to 20 offshore fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Most aquaculture operations involve raising salmon in net pens or cages located in coastal waters so that the ocean can easily pass through. But that free exchange of water also means other unwelcome elements can be transferred. A recent report by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that expanding nearshore and offshore fish farms in the U.S. could pose significant risks to aquatic ecosystems. Among them: escapes of farmed fish that can endanger native salmon populations, infectious disease outbreaks, the development of drug-resistant parasites and bacteria, leakage of fish waste and the transfer of sea lice to wild fish.

Atlantic salmon swim in a harvest tank at the Kuterra fish farm near Port McNeill, British Columbia. (Gloria Dickie)

“If you are farming fish in nearshore or offshore settings, it’s not that you’re introducing the diseases, but research has shown that [these farms] serve as a magnifying force and can infect wild populations of fish nearby,” said Jillian Fry, coauthor of the report and director of the public health and sustainable aquaculture project at Johns Hopkins.

Conversely, inland facilities pose fewer risks to the environment and can be established in more flexible locations. There’s no need for antibiotics; the fish can be fed more effectively than those in net pens and cages, requiring less feed; waste can be pumped out of the facilities and taken to composting sites; and there’s zero interaction with wild counterparts, according to Kuterra chief executive Garry Ullstrom and the findings of a 2016 study. In October 2014, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s notable Seafood Watch initiative bestowed a “Best Choice” sustainability rating on Kuterra’s farmed inland salmon, boosting demand.

But while the cost of production for land-based salmon farming systems is approximately the same as those for salmon in traditional net pen farming systems, startup costs can be prohibitively high.

“The biggest challenge is the capital that’s required to produce salmon on land and compete in the marketplace,” said Steve Summerfelt, director of aquaculture systems research at the Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute, which specializes in the design of aquaculture systems to promote water conservation. “When you start accounting for paying back capital, it makes it a more challenging business proposition. Right now, entrepreneurs are trying to prove it’s economically viable. There are only a few pioneers trying to be first, and a lot wanting to be second.”

That’s essentially the goal Kuterra, the only land-based fish farm on the West Coast, had in mind when it began operations, said Ullstrom. Kuterra has received funding from several government and charitable investors, including $3 million from Tides Canada. “Our goal is to reduce the risk profile for others who are interested in this industry and accelerate innovation in the sector. We got tired of waiting for others to do it,” he said.

If inland fish farms are to be the future of aquaculture, they need to be done on a large scale. Kuterra currently produces only 300 tons of fish per year – and it’s “extremely challenging,” according to Ullstrom. To be viable, he said, farms should be producing a minimum of 2,000 tons per year.

Atlantic salmon at the Kuterra fish farm. (Gloria Dickie)

But greater infrastructure requires even more capital investment, which makes it problematic for small-scale farmers. In the end, it’s likely the business will end up being dominated by major players in aquaculture, according to industry observers.

In Norway, which raises more salmon than any other country in the world, major aquaculture companies are already constructing inland farms for young salmon called post-smolts. That reduces the amount of time the salmon need to spend in ocean pens as adults.

“These companies are making a large investment in land-based technologies for post-smolt production,” said Summerfelt. This investment is especially important given the implementation of regulations in October that allow the Norwegian government to freeze production at fish farms if they fail to control the sea lice that threaten the health of wild salmon, whose populations have declined by more than 50 percent in recent years.

Many land-based salmon projects in North America are now being acquired by larger aquaculture groups or being built by major investors, according to Summerfelt. Recently, Atlantic Sapphire was listed on the Norwegian stock exchange after raising more than $100 million to build the first phase of a 99,208-ton inland farm in Miami, Florida. “The industry is starting to gain momentum,” Ullstrom said. “But scale is everything.”

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