Fish-farming Tilapia in B.C.

A pioneer in alternatives to open-net fish farming, Barry Sjostrom doesn’t expect his business to be around for long.

A pioneer in alternatives to open-net fish farming, Barry Sjostrom doesn’t expect his business to be around for long.

It’s lunchtime at the Redfish Ranch Tilapia Farm and Hatchery; owner Barry Sjostrom tosses scoops of brown feed pellets into what resembles an above-ground swimming pool as 6,500 fish battle to the surface in concert, voracious and feisty as Amazon River piranhas. But these tilapia are far from bloodthirsty piranhas: for one thing, they live on a dry-land fish farm on the east coast of Vancouver Island, just north of Courtenay. And the pink and red farmed Nile tilapia in question thrive on near-vegetarian diets in tanks of recirculated fresh well water, in stark contrast to both piranhas and the millions of farmed Atlantic salmon raised in open-net cages just up the coast from here.

Sjostrom has been in business since 2000, and with North American demand mushrooming, he is now one of more than 100 tilapia farmers in the U.S. and Canada. Annual consumption of tilapia in the U.S. quadrupled between 2003 and 2006, making it the fourth most popular seafood, behind shrimp, tuna and salmon.

Sjostrom’s venture into fish farming was motivated, at least in part, by what he witnessed over 35 years of commercial fishing for salmon, halibut, tuna and herring. Concerned over the damage to stocks and habitat caused by certain wild B.C. fisheries, the Port Hardy native embarked on a second career as a dry-land fish farmer when he was in his mid-50s – right around the time he sold his salmon troller and got out of commercial fishing for good.

Little did he know when he started that his sustainable farming approach would present a potential avenue forward for the B.C. salmon-farming industry, which is currently under siege by environmental groups and fish lovers of all stripes for its impact on marine ecosystems and wild Pacific salmon.

Not far up the coast from Sjostrom’s tilapia farm, salmon native to the North Atlantic Ocean are raised in open-net cages concentrated in coastal waters along the Georgia, Johnstone and Queen Charlotte straits. The fish raised here comprise the province’s most valuable agricultural export: B.C. produced 77,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon in 2008, with a total farm-gate value of more than $380 million. (Chinook and coho salmon are also farmed in much smaller quantities.) Nearly 90 per cent of this salmon is destined for U.S. restaurants and supermarkets.

[pagebreak] Critics liken many B.C. marine salmon farms to modern factory farms and feedlots on land: maximizing the number of animals in a pen enhances profitability but also creates unnatural conditions where disease and parasites can thrive.

By far the biggest problem associated with B.C. salmon farms has been sea lice, which are small, naturally occurring ocean parasites that latch on to the skin of fish and feed on their fluids. While they do not usually harm adult salmon, the number of sea lice can be magnified by the density of the farmed fish, and such concentrations have been implicated in the demise of wild juvenile salmon migrating in proximity to fish farms.

Open-net cages have been blamed for the escape of at least 1.5 million farmed Atlantic salmon into the wild since B.C. salmon farming began in the 1980s. University of Victoria ecologist John Volpe has documented the presence of Atlantic salmon in at least 80 B.C. rivers to date and has confirmed that they have successfully reproduced in three rivers on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

“We’re now putting millions of non-native Atlantic salmon, year-round, in near-shore marine waters, and there is just no way to avoid interactions with wild fish,” says Craig Orr, an ecologist and executive director of Coquitlam-based environmental group Watershed Watch Salmon Society. “We do not believe that a system that allows the passage of parasites, disease, feces and uneaten food, back and forth into the marine environment from the salmon farms, is a sustainable way to farm.”

Orr says B.C. salmon farms must make a transition to “closed containment,” which entails separating the fish from the marine environment, whether in ocean tanks or taking them out of the water altogether, as in the case of tilapia farming.

Marine Harvest Canada, a division of the Norway-based Marine Harvest ASA, the world’s largest salmon aquaculture company and B.C.’s biggest, is appealing to the federal and provincial governments for money to do just that. In co-operation with a coalition of environmental groups known as the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform – including Orr’s Watershed Watch and the David Suzuki Foundation – Marine Harvest is working on designing and securing funding for a closed-containment pilot project this year.

The challenge of moving to closed systems, says Clare Backman, Marine Harvest’s director of environmental relations, is that it dramatically adds to the cost of the end product and actually creates new environmental concerns. Closed containment systems on land, he says, will require enormous inputs of energy to replicate the natural flushing action of ocean tides (which flush away waste and refresh the farms with clean water), a gratis service currently provided to salmon farmers by nature.

There is also the question of size and capacity: the Marine Harvest pilot project will not even approach what is considered commercial scale for the B.C. salmon farming industry. Whereas a typical Marine Harvest farm holds about 3,500 tonnes of fish (600,000 salmon), the pilot will hold no more than 250 tonnes, although it would be “scalable up to a larger size,” says Backman.

What’s promising, Backman adds, is that Marine Harvest currently raises all of its Atlantic salmon on dry land for the first 18 months of their lives as part of its hatchery system. This existing dry-land technology, with recirculated water systems similar to those at Sjostrom’s tilapia farm, will be used as the basis for the pilot project. He predicts a future when B.C. salmon farms combine a “blend” of the best features of closed-containment technology and conventional open-net cages.

Expensve ecosystem: Sjostrom’s operation has won him praise from conservationists, but the high costs leave little room for profit

Mary Ellen Walling of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, a Campbell River-based trade group, says the industry will be looking very closely at the results of the pilot project, but she cautions that closed containment is not a panacea for interactions between farms and the marine environment. She points to “drastic” improvements already made to conventional ocean net cages in recent years, both in strength and seabed anchoring (to limit escapes), and the use of the pesticide Slice, which is applied to salmon feed to control sea lice outbreaks.

Unlike farmed salmon, the tilapia grown by Sjostrom are fast to mature (hatching to harvest can take as little as eight months), tolerate poor water quality and subsist on a diet loaded with vegetable matter. His on-site hatchery and seven freshwater tanks are kept clean by a system that recirculates and recycles more than 95 per cent of the water. Solid waste is filtered out and sent to a septic tank, while the remaining water is oxygenated, repeatedly filtered and piped back to the tanks.

The Canadian consumer advocacy program SeaChoice, which scrutinizes fisheries with the aim of guiding consumers toward sustainable seafood choices, has not only profiled Sjostrom as a “green” fish farmer on its website but has listed North American-farmed tilapia as a “best choice” in its Seafood Guide, indicating that environmentally conscious consumers can buy it without concern.
The business case for growing tilapia would seem compelling as well. World demand is booming: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts global sales to reach US$5 billion by the end of 2010. Americans in particular love this bland, relatively cheap white-fleshed fish: US$730-million worth of tilapia was imported in 2008 alone, most of it as frozen fillets from Chinese fish farms.

But on the ground, the future of tilapia farming looks less than rosy to Sjostrom, who says provincial and federal bureaucrats battled him at every turn as he struggled to get his business established through the late ’90s. Clearing his two biggest hurdles – building and licensing the fish farm and hatchery on land, and importing the tilapia brood stock to get started – took five years of red tape and acrimony. He started planning in 1995, and it was only in the fall of 2000 that he received permission to import the 20,000 Nile tilapia needed to start the farm.

Now 65, Sjostrom says small-scale tilapia farming in B.C. is a break-even proposition due to the cost of labour, power, fuel, B.C. Ferries services and fish feed. (If you want to hear him rant, mention the B.C. Liberals’ carbon tax.) Meanwhile, his 45 tonnes of annual tilapia production commands about $4.40 a pound – sold almost entirely to Chinese consumers through the Lower Mainland’s live tilapia niche market – earning him less than $450,000 before expenses, a number he doesn’t expect to rise any time soon.

“I opened the door, and one day there will be lots of people doing this in B.C.,” he says. Yet there is a hint of melancholy in his voice, even when he talks of himself as a fish-farming pioneer. “I’m probably not going to be in business too long here, unless I can expand production.”