Canada's controversial salmon farming industry, whose growth has stalled because of public concern about impacts on wild stocks, could make a dramatic shift to land-based facilities, according to a groundbreaking new report.
The study by Dr. Andrew Wright, an independent British Columbia consultant, states that land-based farms make sense environmentally, technically and economically.
The report, released Thursday, challenges the long-held industry view that closed containment facilities are too costly and technologically challenging to build.
The report was released by the SOS Marine Conservation Society, which has posted the document on its web site (www.saveoursalmon.ca).
It is expected to add fuel to the debate in B.C., where there have been growing public demands to have fish farms moved out of the ocean, away from wild salmon migration routes.
"What I concluded is that closed containment is both technically and economically feasible, and extremely profitable when coupled with hydroponics, so you use the waste as the feedstock for an associated business beside it," said Dr. Wright, whose research was partly funded by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
He said the salmon farming industry, which on both coasts typically raises stock in open-net pens in the ocean, has not grown to meet market conditions because of fears it is causing environmental damage by spreading sea lice to wild fish, and is polluting the ocean floor with unused food and fish feces.
But Dr. Wright said those concerns could be swept aside by a move to land-based operations, where water would be constantly recirculated and waste would be used to fertilize associated agricultural crops.
"When you look at this fully integrated closed containment and crop notion, not only do you make more money … but you are actually building closed systems that make more environmental sense," he said.
He said at least one business group in B.C. is already raising funds to invest in a major land-based salmon farm, which could be under construction as early as next year.
"It's beginning to happen," Dr. Wright said. "And it has to happen soon if B.C. doesn't want to get left behind."
His report states that for about $12-million, a closed-containment farm capable of producing 1,000 tonnes of full-sized, five-kilogram fish could be built.
"Yearly operating costs are less than $6 million. Final annual income after costs ranges between $5 million and $13 million … dependent upon harvest strategies," the report states.
Dr. Wright said energy costs would be higher with a land-based fish farm, which would require more water pumping, but faster salmon growth rates would give more harvests.
One big benefit, he said, would be increased bio-security. In a land-based farm, salmon are isolated from wild fish, eliminating the risk of spreading diseases or sea lice, and the risk of fish escaping.
Trevor Swerdfager, director-general of aquaculture management for Fisheries and Oceans, said he hasn't seen the final report but government officials reviewed it in draft form.
"I can certainly tell you myself that it's credible," he said. "I haven't read it yet, so I wouldn't want to comment on any of the specific conclusions. But Andrew Wright is well thought of … he's somebody with some scientific credibility."
Mr. Swerdfager said the fish farming industry in Canada has had its growth restricted because of public concerns, but that could change with a move to land-based technology.
"The majority of the industry in British Columbia and Eastern Canada is producing at a rate and a volume that's lower than the demand," he said. "They all know if they could triple production tomorrow, they could sell it. So I think that as companies look to the future, if there were alternate technologies that would allow them to produce more efficiently, more effectively and with greater support from all quarters, I think they would go there."
The BC Salmon Farmers Association did not respond to calls. But Clare Backman, sustainability director at Marine Harvest Canada, which produces 45,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon annually from ocean farms in B.C., said his company is not yet convinced. But, he said, it is interested in exploring possibilities.
"The question of the environmental and financial feasibility of closed culture systems operating at a commercial scale remains, but Marine Harvest Canada feels the time is right to expand on our knowledge of closed containment systems," he said in an e-mail.
"Marine Harvest Canada is now in the process of developing a pilot project which will look at the feasibility of these systems to grow salmon to harvest size. Should this new technology prove to be sustainable, Marine Harvest will assess its integration into the ongoing business," Mr. Backman said.