Closed Containment Fish Farming: How soon will it be real?

 With all the recent talk about closed containment fish farming being the solution to the perceived damage caused by current practices of the west coast fish farming industry, many must wonder where and what it is.  As Rob Walker, Operations Manager for Agrimarine Industries says, “Closed containment is viewed as the ‘Holy Grail’ of aquaculture.”

 Like the holy grail, the idea seems both mythical and illusive.  There hasn’t been any concrete evidence in our area of the concept in operation, yet environmentalists are urging the aquaculture industry to move in this direction.  There was an initial land project in Cedar (just south of Nanaimo) operated by Agrimarine from 2001 to 2005, and they produced a desirable product, but found that the cost of raising Chinook on land was prohibitive as sea water had to be pumped into tanks some distance from the ocean.  This discouraged fish farm companies from adopting their methods and it was perceived that closed containment didn’t work.  Now however, Agrimarine is taking a different approach, and instead of on land, their tanks will be in the ocean.

 Based at Middle Bay, just north of Campbell River BC, their new operation shows promise.  Alexis Helgason of Agrimarine tells me that their new tanks for raising Chinook should be in the water within six months. 

Illustration of closed tank operation at Middle Bay

It has been a long process.  While Agrimarine has been at Middle Bay for about two years already, there have been many hoops to jump through – getting permission from the DFO for example on their location, and perfecting the technology of their system.  As Walker told me last year, closed pen technology differs from open net pen technology in that they need to take into consideration how to supply enough oxygen to the fish and how to deal with waste; two considerations solved by open net pen fish rearing.

What isn’t solved by open net pens is how to protect the ocean environment directly surrounding the pens from what potentially comes from the farmed fish (like waste and sea lice), and how to protect the farmed fish from predators and algae blooms.  Closed containment could result in fewer losses of fish as they would be protected from predators like sea lions, and water drawn into tanks would be below the level of algae blooms.  (Algae blooms or ‘red tide’ can be deadly: a bloom killed 20,000 fish at one Grieg Seafoods fish farm site in 2009).

Jean-Luc Williams, a manager with Grieg Seafoods, welcomes the idea of closed containment.  “I think it’s a great idea”, he said, “and I hope they can make it work”.  Some benefits would include better feed to fish ratios, (as feed can better be monitored in an enclosed environment and not lost), fish can be raised in higher densities in closed tanks and be monitored by fewer staff.  The staff wouldn’t need to be housed or fed, and this would reduce the carbon footprint associated with traditional fish farming as staff, supplies and harvested fish would not have to be transferred to and from remote areas by boat and truck.

Two years ago, the Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture stated in their recommendations that they would like to see all open net pens move towards closed containment within the next five years.  Is this wish attainable?  As Alexis Helgason says, Agrimarine has been in the business for ten years.  If they are only just now making some real progress, then how can those who are just starting expect to be fully operational in just three years?

These questions can’t be answered yet, but at least one company had the foresight to begin trying long before open net pen farming became a critical issue.  “Our intention is to change the paradigm,”  Rob Walker told me, “to do the right thing instead of doing the thing right.” 

“It [aquaculture] is a necessary industry,” he assures us, “and the more people thinking positively, the better the industry is going to be.”

Helgason tells me that the public will soon be able to follow Agrimarine’s progress on their website, http://www.agrimarine.com.  The site currently offers an explanation of their technology and an excellent chart that illustrates how closed containment works.  If it does work, then there is a possibility of creating a truly stainable aquaculture industry in British Columbia and making wishful thinking a reality.

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