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Bill Cranmer , chief, Namgis First Nation at the closed containment Project to grow farmed fish near Port McNeill June 21, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

An experiment unfolding near Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island is designed to settle a long-running debate over whether a land-based system can raise fish from fry to market-size entirely on land – and make enough money to persuade investors to back the capital-intensive operations.

The $7-million 'Namgis Closed Containment Project is also part of broader business plans for the 'Namgis First Nation, which will build and run it through the band-owned K'udas Limited Partnership.

If the project goes according to plan, it will demonstrate that Atlantic salmon can be raised on land – challenging the status quo of sea-based fish farming on the B.C. coast and generating potential revenue and employment for band members.

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That has implications not only for the 'Namgis, which has a registered population of about 1,750 people, but for other bands along the coast.

"There's a lot of interest from other First Nations, especially from Ahousaht," 'Namgis chief Bill Cranmer said in June at the fish farm site.

Ahousaht and other remote communities depend on jobs and income generated by conventional fish farm operations. Mr. Cranmer contends land-based systems can provide similar benefits without environmental risks that some associate with the ocean-based operations.

Once the 'Namgis project is up and running, it's expected to employ fewer than a dozen people. The bigger potential is in selling the end product, Atlantic salmon, and possibly branching out to other species, including B.C.'s native Pacific salmon.

The idea is to prove first that a closed-containment system can compete in producing the species that now dominates the aquaculture industry. "There's nothing to say we can't change species," Mr. Cranmer said.

Funds for the project have come from a variety of sources, including Vancouver-based Tides Canada Foundation and the federal and provincial governments.

The 'Namgis are centred around Alert Bay, a community perched on Cormorant Island off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, and claim traditional territory stretching west and south of Port McNeill.

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The band already has a 12-per-cent equity stake in Orca Sand and Gravel, a quarry west of Port McNeillthat began operating in 2007.

Other ventures include a fish hatchery and tourism revolving around the U'Mista Cultural Society, which runs a museum that showcases potlatch artifacts seized in past decades when the ceremonies were deemed illegal and since returned to the community.

The band is also a partner with Brookfield Renewable Energy in the Kokish River Hydroelectric Project, a 45-megawatt project that was approved this year despite opposition from conservation groups that said it would hurt salmon, trout and steelhead runs.

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