High-Tech Tools and Innovative Strategies Guide the Fish Farming Sector
Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association
Salmon farming is big business on Canada’s East Coast, generating $2 billion a year in revenue, employing 8,000 people, and providing more than 320 million meals annually.
Far from being an ‘old school’ industry, the fish farming sector is innovative and forward-looking, says Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association (ACFFA) Executive Director Susan Farquharson. Cutting-edge technology is used to feed, monitor, and measure the growth of fish in underwater pens, and sustainability is a key focus for fish farms, which are less harmful to the environment than terrestrial (land-based) farms, she adds.
Headquartered in Letang, New Brunswick and industry-funded, the ACFFA was profiled in the June 2021 issue of Resource in Focus. The association operates a marine facility in Letang called the Limekiln Wharf Service Centre, advocates for members, and educates the public about the benefits of raising aquatic species for food in underwater farms (aquaculture).
The association currently has 81 members, whose ranks include “farmers, feed companies, pharmaceutical companies, a range of service providers, First Nations, and research organizations,” according to Farquharson.
Many member companies offer innovative products or services that can enhance revenue and the marine environment. With a touch of pride, she cites just a few member companies with futuristic solutions.
Among these is Innovasea, a Bedford, New Brunswick firm with 250 employees around the world. Innovasea specializes in advanced fish monitoring systems that incorporate sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, and high-resolution cameras. “Our integrated solutions deliver unprecedented insights into how your farm is operating—from measuring oxygen levels to ensure fish remain healthy to accurately estimating biomass to reduce feeding costs,” says Innovasea.
Another is Aquabyte. Based in San Francisco, Aquabyte has developed a “holistic software platform,” in its own words, that fish farmers can use to count sea lice, estimate biomass, and detect fish appetite, among other functions.
Skretting is another member company. This self-described “global leader in providing innovative and sustainable nutritional solutions for the aquaculture industry” boasts production operations in nearly twenty countries around the world. It produces over 2.5 million tonnes of fish food a year, made from aquatic and poultry meal, plants, and fish oil.
The ACFFA is eager to dispel myths and misconceptions about fish farming. Some critics claim, for example, that fish farms are overcrowded and unsanitary, filled with penned-in salmon that are stuffed with chemicals. In truth, salmon farming is highly regulated, sustainable, and eco-friendly, says Farquharson.
“Site assessments are conducted before any farm is established. There is environmental monitoring that is conducted as per regulations all the time. Cameras and computers are used when feeding the fish and to minimize feed waste,” she states. “We have the lowest antibiotic use of any protein producer. It is never used proactively and when needed it is overseen by a veterinarian.”
Government regulations stipulate that fish farms are subject to regular inspections. Also, “we fallow, just like terrestrial farmers.”
The ACFFA posts detailed information about fish farming on its website and social media platforms. The association also spreads the word about fish farming via media interviews, fish farm tours, and its annual fall forum. This event typically features lectures, seminars, networking, and presentations by industry experts, government officials, academics, and business leaders.
Due to COVID restrictions, the 2020 fall forum was conducted virtually. Last October, the association opted for a hybrid model, featuring online and in-person events, the latter taking place at the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. People who attended in-person events adhered to COVID health precautions, including social distancing. This blended forum drew 155 people, 88 of whom participated virtually.
“Health precautions dictated that we had to limit the number of people attending, so we went ahead with our first hybrid conference. It was good. Lots of different people attended; there was lots of new information, new technologies, innovation,” reports Farquharson.
Conference highlights included a presentation about the Inner Bay of Fundy salmon recovery project. This is a massive initiative involving the ACFFA, federal and provincial officials, First Nations, academics, and Parks Canada. The goal is to replenish depleted wild salmon stocks by raising wild smolts—salmon of intermediate age that can survive in saltwater—in customized ocean pens, then releasing them back to home waters.
“In 2021, the project released 1,500 salmon in the inner Bay of Fundy rivers. We saw over 110 salmon from previous releases return to the Fundy National Park and over 30 on the Petitcodiac River system from previous releases. The project is now being looked at in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland,” she says.
An online discussion by Dr. Martin Jaffa, a UK academic and conference guest speaker, was another highlight of the 2021 fall forum. Dr. Jaffa offered insights from an investigation he conducted regarding the decline of wild salmon catches in Western Scottish rivers. There has been speculation that fish farms on the western coast were to blame for the decline.
After reviewing data going back centuries, Dr. Jaffa noted that wild salmon numbers had also dropped on the east coast of Scotland, despite a lack of fish farms in the region. The doctor concluded that changing sea temperatures, predators, recurring natural events, and other factors were responsible for the wild salmon decline, not fish farms. His findings were published in the peer-viewed independent journal Aquaculture and Fisheries Studies.
The ACFFA is discussing what a 2022 fall forum will look like with an expected draft agenda available later this year.
“I think we’ll do a hybrid forum for the foreseeable future. We liked it. We learned that it allows many more people to participate from around the world. There were reduced costs for participants, and of course, we continue to do our part for climate change when you don’t have to put people on a plane or make them drive,” notes Farquharson.
The ACFFA will also be participating in the Aquaculture Canada and WAS America conference in St. John’s Newfoundland this August. WAS is the World Aquaculture Society.
“We plan to be there to support the conference and our members that are there. As with all conferences, it’s all about networking and exchanging information, and they always have a trade show which is different than our annual conference. We really focus on science and research and technology, so [the WAS conference] trade show component allows our supply sector to highlight their technologies and innovations,” she states.
The ACFFA shares valuable independent research in the salmon fishing industry. This includes a December 2020 study by Dr. Stefanie Colombo, assistant professor of Aquaculture at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, regarding the nutritional value of salmon.
“Six types of salmon were analyzed: farmed Atlantic, farmed organic Atlantic, farmed organic Chinook, wild Chinook, wild Pacific (pink) and wild Sockeye. Protein, fat, fatty acids, amino acids, potassium, iron, cholesterol, and mercury were analyzed,” Colombo wrote in a report published 2020 in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Research.
While wild salmon is often perceived to be healthier to eat than farmed salmon, Colombo discovered this simply is not the case.
“It’s really the species of salmon that makes the biggest difference in nutritional quality—not whether it was farm-raised or wild-caught, or whether it’s certified organic or environmentally certified,” said Colombo in a July 9, 2020, Dalhousie News story.
In her report, Colombo also observed that “for frequent consumption, farmed Atlantic salmon is an excellent option due to nutrient density, low mercury, affordability, and availability.”
Such positive conclusions, arrived at by an objective academic conducting an independent review, help bolster the credibility of the fish farming sector, says Farquharson. Similarly, each year the ACFFA commissions a polling company to query Atlantic based consumers about fish farming.
“We have consistently had an eighty percent approval rate for those polled in all four provinces. That’s a pretty good approval rate for any industry. So, I tend to believe that those people out there with misinformation and negative information are a very small group. Vocal, but small,” she says.
Into the future, Farquharson anticipates that the Atlantic salmon farming industry will “continue to innovate and grow,” with a need for “more employees in the area of science—computer, electrical, biology, chemistry.”
As for other benefits of fish farming, she highlights one final study, commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. Founded in 2018, the High Level Panel is a fourteen-country initiative that aims to manage the ocean sustainably.
The panel published its findings in a September 2019 report titled The Ocean as a Solution to Climate Change. According to the report, clean coastal and marine ecosystems, aquaculture, and ocean-based energy generation through wind, tidal, and wave-power all contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Aquaculture, fisheries, and a trend towards fish-based meals represent a shift “away from emission-intensive, land-based protein sources (e.g. red meat) towards low-carbon, ocean-based protein and other sources of nutrition,” reads the document.
So, in addition to jobs, revenue, and sustainable protein, fish farms contribute to improving the environment for everyone, says Farquharson.