This semi-closed containment system is being trialed in Norway and the results have been solid enough that Cermaq Canada is bringing the innovative salmon farming technology to Canada for the first time this fall. (Photo courtesy of Cermaq Canada)

Semi-closed fish farming to be tested in Clayoquot Sound

Environmental group unswayed by salmon farmer’s semi-closed containment plan near Tofino

A salmon farming innovation that has never been tried in Canada will be tested out in Clayoquot Sound this winter.

Cermaq Canada recently announced that its open-net pen Millar Channel farm site will be replaced with a semi-closed containment system that has yielded solid results during a trial in Norway over the past three years.

“The key thing here is the continual need, want and desire for us as a company to innovate…There are always better ways of farming being developed,” Cermaq Canada’s managing director David Kiemele told the VI Free Daily.

“This is probably the single-largest change in cage infrastructure to be implemented on the coast of this province in about 40 years. It’s been no small task to take this step. We’re trying to find a pathway forward here to continue to be responsible farmers of sustainable protein for British Columbia. This is a good step in the right direction. There will be other steps to follow, but this is where we’re heading in the short term.”

READ MORE: DFO says sea lice levels fine, but fish farm data shows otherwise

The semi-closed containment system involves a large water-pressurized bag made from flexible polymer material that creates “an impenetrable barrier between the open ocean and the inside of the pen,” according to the company’s announcement.

Kiemele said the new system gives operators more control over water quality, adding that Millar Channel’s new system will be set roughly 27 metres deep, which he believes will protect the fish inside it from algae blooms, like the one that popped up last November and caused mass die-offs at Cermaq’s Binns Island, Bawden Point and Ross Pass farm sites in Clayoquot Sound.

The company also believes setting their fish at a deeper depth will prevent sea lice outbreaks and that the polymer barrier will block predators like sea lions, which are prevalent in Clayoquot Sound. Over a two-day period in 2016, Cermaq employees shot and killed 15 California sea lions that had been trying to access fish at the company’s Binns Island site near Tofino.

Cermaq’s new system is currently being built in Port Alberni and is expected to be towed to Millar Channel in September with the first cohort of fish entering in November. The farm has been empty since April.

Millar Channel is located within the traditional territory of the Ahousaht First Nation and Kiemele said one of the reason’s the company chose the site for its first Canadian foray into semi-closed containment was to honour the relationship Cermaq Canada has with its Ahousaht partners.

“We scoped out a couple of different sites on the east coast of the Island too but, to be frank, we just wanted to be showcasing this technology for Ahousaht. We have a good relationship with the Ahousaht First Nation and it’s important that we respond to that and show our want and ability to innovate and improve in their territory, dare I say, first,” he said. “I’m really happy that we’re doing this in partnership with the Ahousaht First Nation. I’m glad it’s going where it’s going.”

He said the semi-closed containment system has been going through trials in Norway for the past three years and has shown promising results, particularly in regards to maintaining consistent water temperatures and providing a barrier between the Atlantic salmon being farmed and the wild Pacific salmon swimming past.

“All of that leads to a better product, a responsibly grown fish,” he said. “It’s about working in harmony with the ecosystem where we farm, being stewards of the leases we’ve been granted to raise our fish and working hard to also protect wild salmon on the coast of British Columbia.”

Last year, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said his government was committed to transitioning salmon farms out of the ocean and into land-based systems by 2025.

READ MORE: First Nations call for end to B.C. open-net salmon farms

Last month, The First Nations Leadership Council published a media release calling for an end to all ocean-based open-net pen farms in B.C. waters.

“No more excuses, distractions, or delays — open-net fish farms are decimating wild salmon populations and First Nations’ ways of life are on the line,” stated Sumas First Nation Chief and Union of BC Indian Chiefs Fisheries Representative Dalton Silver through the FNLC’s announcement. “We need a collaborative, co-operative transition to land-based containment with First Nations leading in order to conserve and protect the species vital to our communities.”

Open-net pen salmon farms have long been criticized by environmental groups that have argued their presence in the ocean leads to pathogens and parasites being transmitted to wild salmon populations.

Tofino-based Clayoquot Action is one of those groups and its co-founder Dan Lewis told the Westerly that the new semi-closed containment system at Millar Channel will not ease the concerns of Cermaq’s critics.

“It’s not that big a move they’re making and we are not at all pleased. We are alarmed because it’s a false solution. It will not address the concerns that so many people have raised,” he said.

“We’ve been calling for years for fish farms to be moved onto land. Why don’t they invest their money into doing that? To me, it just looks like the wrong direction to be going.”

He noted the new system would take Cermaq roughly two years to test out, which means the testing would conclude just three years prior to Trudeau’s stated goal of having salmon farms out of the ocean by 2025.

Lewis assured that Clayoquot Action and other organizations will continue demanding a transition to land-based systems and won’t settle for Cermaq’s semi-closed system.

“Nobody will accept this, so they will not end the battle. They will not make peace. This is not going to solve the environmental problems and it’s not going to save wild salmon. It’s a false solution,” Lewis said. “There’s no way that we can let wild salmon go extinct, so people will continue to push until the fish farms come out of the ocean.

“Wild salmon here are on the brink of extinction. We need dramatic action. It’s so clear to me that fish farms are the one thing we have total control of and I have no doubt that getting the fish farms out of the ocean would remove a huge barrier to the salmon rebounding and that’s what we want to see.”

READ MORE: Robertson Island fish farm operator says most of escaped salmon likely eaten

Cermaq Canada’s sustainable development director, Linda Sams, told the Westerly that Cermaq and environmental groups like Clayoquot Action share similar values.

“We have a lot of factors to consider and we think this is a really good technology that starts to address some of the shared objectives that we know we have with environmental groups and conservation groups. They want to see a minimal impact on wild salmon, minimal impact on the ecosystem,” she said. “While we know that everybody knows the importance of the economy and nutritious food, I would say we have a lot of shared objectives around this trial, this innovation. We’re not opposed to all these concepts.”

Kiemele and Sams both declined to state how much Cermaq is spending to bring in the new semi-closed containment system, though Kiemele suggested that installing the new site will cost roughly five times more than a traditional open-net pen.

Cermaq operates roughly 15 salmon farm sites in Clayoquot Sound and Kiemele said it’s too early for the company to commit to replacing any other sites with the system going in at Millar Channel.

“We’re going to really dig in and do our homework and learn as much as we can from the fall of 2020, when the first fish enter, until the harvest of that site that would happen sometime in the spring of 2022,” he said.

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