TRANSCRIPT - Grace Cho
Grace Cho is the research coordinator at Yellow Island Aquaculture
Ltd. in Campbell River, British Columbia.
What is it you're trying to do here? What makes Yellow Island Aquaculture
different from some of the other companies?
One of the main
things is that Yellow Island is the smallest farm in British Columbia,
but we’re unique in that we actually have an active research
and development program, which is where I come in. We partner up
the production aspect with an active breed stock program, as well
as the research, which ties everything in together nicely. It covers
so many different topics from your basic biology to the ecophysiology
to genetics to immunology of the organism, so that you can understand
how the organism works a little better. This puts the knowledge
that we’ve gained over the last 17 years into practice. The
long-term vision is to have an operation that is more sustainable,
so we can reduce or eliminate as many of the off-farm inputs to
the farm as possible, and have healthy fish as a result of that.
Why is it that your company has decided to go in a sustainable
or organic direction? In general, what motivates you?
I think the
original goal was not to be organic; it was a more long-term vision.
This was a company that was going to be around for many years to
support the staff here as well as the family who actually owns the
Why isn’t your company using standard protocols that
a lot of the other farms are using? They’re using feeds that
aren’t organic and they’re using higher densities. Why
isn’t your company doing it that way?
We are the oldest
farm in BC that has been continuously owned with the same people.
Being a small farm, it’s a matter of also taking into account
the owners themselves, John and Ann Heath who are just very interested
in the organism, salmon, biology, and everything to do with the
biological aspect of the organism. From a production standpoint,
it just makes sense to be able to optimize the operation without
having to rely on techniques, materials, or other off-farm inputs
that contribute to more intensive culture.
If you can rely
on the animal to essentially take care of itself, which comes from
Yellow Island’s brood stock program, then you don’t
worry how successful your production is going to be, or how often
you have to monitor your fish for health issues. It just makes sense
to tailor your monitoring or your management strategies so that
the farm takes care of itself, in terms of the animal. You manage
the system so that it’s just easier to manage. The salmon,
being a volatile organism, has tremendous potential to adapt: to
be naturally robust, versus having to rely on other methods artificially.
What kinds of fish do you farm, and what are the average
densities in the cage? How does that compare with what’s standard
in the industry?
has specialized in Chinook salmon for at least 15 to16 years. We
started off with Coho, and we tried Steelhead at one point, but
Chinook has been the mainstay of the program. We stayed with Pacific
salmon. They tolerate lower stocking densities. For a feeding population
in the wild, as detected by sonar, the densities have been recorded
as being 5-kg/cubic meter, or thereabouts. We maintain our farm
at 5-kg/cubic meter for all the pens. In comparison to other farms
that also grow Chinook, they may grow them out at 6 to 8 kilograms.
The upper tolerance in European farms might be 25 kilograms. It
has to do with the evolution of the species, and for Pacific salmon,
at least for Chinook; it’s been quite low. So we decided to
maintain it that way.
Is there any reason that you decided not to farm Atlantics,
like most farms are doing?
When the farm
first started there really wasn’t very much known about the
environmental impact of Atlantics on this coast. I realized that
the province had intentionally stocked rivers with Atlantics back
in the early 1900’s, and they were not able to take to the
wild very well. Now that argument still remains today, but we now
have a whole group of researchers who are dedicated to that issue
specifically. Some of the results are quite contradictory. Some
support the continuing production of Atlantics and some don’t.
That’s not really the direction that Yellow Island has decided
to go. We decided that if we’re on the Pacific coast, we might
as well grow indigenous species to the coast that has evolved to
Don Noakes agreed that the farming of Pacifics, in terms
of escapes, could present even more serious problems than escapes
of Atlantics, in terms of diluting the gene pool of wild stocks.
Do you take extra precautions? What’s your strategy here in
terms of minimizing escapes?
In terms of
escapes from Yellow Island, which has not occurred, as well as predation,
we have not had to shoot anything. One of the management strategies
we have here is to maintain smaller pens, so should the event of
an escape happen, there’s fewer fish that actually escape.
We also have a predator net around the entire system and around
a block of systems, or around a block of pens. We have weekly mortality
dives and the divers also check the nets, every week, of all the
pens. We have a procedure for checking the pens, maintaining them
if the divers find a hole as soon as possible, and then maintaining
the farm on a smaller scale. So, in the rare event that we have
a log boom that comes into our system that there’s fewer fish
A lot of the growers that we’ve talked to feel that
the problem of escaping salmon is one that they’re going to
get a grip on. Yellow Island is now doing these strength tests or
stress tests with the nets. What kinds of protocols do you have
in addition to the weekly inspections? Is there anything else you
try to minimize escape?
The BC aquaculture
industry recently underwent a compliance audit, province-wide, all
farms. What the audit required was that each farm take every single
net and record when was the last time it was washed, when was it
cleaned, and to also record tensile strength.
That is now incorporated into the new BC salmon aquaculture regulations,
which took effect April 2002. Escapement is the main focus of the
new regulations as well as environmental monitoring and sustainability.
As for Yellow Island, the regular dive-inspections are more than
adequate. Weekly dives aren’t the norm in some areas. That’s
what we can do now. There’s more we could do, but I think
we’re maximizing it.
Do you have any videotape of your divers, like someone shooting
them down there?
It’s interesting that you bring that up because we have had
BC fisheries do an underwater video taken directly beneath our pens,
not to monitor the diving, but to monitor sedimentation beneath
our pens, as well as up to 50 meters away from our pens. What they
found, and this is going off-topic, is that there is no sedimentation
directly beneath our pens or up to 5 to 50 meters away. But no,
we have not had direct mortality dives being recorded.
With this lower density, to what degree has it reduced the
need for the use of antibiotics, and reduced the incidence of disease?
It has a tremendous
impact on whether we use any kind of theraputants to our fish. When
you have a whole system, when you have a whole operation, what’s
important to remember is that you’re dealing with an organism
that’s in direct interaction with its aquatic environment.
So, we can’t just say that if we reduce stocking densities,
it will solve some of the problems. It will solve a few problems,
but it all works in integration with each other to optimize the
good health of the animal as well as the environment.
is situated ideally in an area where there’s incredible tidal
flushing action and current flows. We are situated where there is
considerable tidal flows and flushing action, so that with the upwelling
action of the water, it helps aerate the water as well as to maintain
a good quality of water. We found that we have a good system, a
good environment for the fish to grow in. This minimizes any impact
that the fish have on the environment. It’s a two-way street;
they work in concert with each other.
With regard to disease, to what degree has disease been
a problem at Yellow Island?
an outbreak, has not been a problem at all. We have not had a major
infectious outbreak at Yellow Island, even since the time we stopped
using antibiotics in 1989. The reliance on antibiotics is nil. We
have absolutely none. We have not used theraputants since then.
The only prophylactic we use is the vaccine for vibriosis, and that’s
about as far as we go. After that, it’s relying on a robust
animal that has been developed through the years, and also the inherent
conditions here at the site.
Lot’s of people include parasite infestation with
disease, but I’d like to separate it out. To what degree have
lice been a problem?
We have not
seen any problems with sea lice on our farm here. The most you will
see would be maybe 1 or 2 sea lice on 1 or 2 fish here and there.
Certainly we have not had the infestation that other farms have
experienced. That is partly to do with the siting of the farm.
What are some measures you take towards reducing any kind
of climate for disease? You’re taking care to monitor the
amount of feed, making sure that excess feed isn’t getting
into the pens and making sure the fish aren’t overfed or whether
there are pellets sitting on the sea floor and so on. You’re
using a TV screen I take it?
I think that
is it. We have an underwater video system that we can insert into
each pen. Essentially, it’s a camera that faces upwards towards
the surface. You place it at the bottom of each pen. During feeding
you can see whether pellets pass through the whole school of fish,
of salmon, and reach the bottom of the pen, which at that point
When we first tested the system, the video system, we found that
no pellets were coming down at all, and at that point we thought,
maybe we’re not feeding enough.
So, it was a
possibility we were underfeeding our fish, but what we found is
with the growth performance and the health performance of our fish
they were doing just fine. In fact, we do maintain the underwater
video system to monitor the manual feeding of our fish every so
often. It’s a good monitoring tool. We do feed manually on
the farm. We do not use automated feeders. So, through experience
our manager and the staff here are well versed in how much feed
to give a certain size, age, or class of fish, which pen, and how
much feed per day.
Why do you choose to feed the fish manually rather than
using the loaders?
One of the main
advantages with feeding manually is that it allows the manager and
the staff to be up close with the animals. So, you can see how they’re
feeding and how they behave. Do you notice slow swimmers? Do you
notice anything off of the behavior of the fish? It’s a little
labor intensive, but in the end it’s worth it because you’re
that much closer to the animal.
Can you talk about Yellow Island’s manual feeding
vs. the contention from the largely automated farms that aquaculture
will create jobs?
What helps is
that Yellow Island is the smallest farm in BC. It’s run on
a very small scale. So, even if we had 4 staff members on the docks
here versus 4 employees on another farm, we just have a smaller
farm to look after. That’s to our advantage to be able to
be close to the fish in the first place. In a larger company, you
might have your veterinarian come by and do diagnostics or diagnose
your mortalities from the mortality dives. In that sense, it’s
their way that they have in place to see how the fish are dying,
or if they’re not dying, and how they are in general.
About the feed, can you talk about the feed you use and
why you’re doing it?
Our feed is
unique. It is manufactured by Taplow Feeds in North Vancouver. It
contains 20-25% certified organic wheat from Saskatchewan. The fishmeal
and oil come from a herring byproduct fishery in South America.
So we’re using whatever is left of the herring fishery down
there. We also have naturos astazanthin which is a carotinoid. It
gives color to the flesh, but as a carotinoid it is an antioxidant
that also is essential for the normal development and the immune
system of a normal salmon.
natural form; it’s the same chemical isomer as found in a
vitamin pack, which is pretty standard for the industry. We are,
and one other company is, the only producers in BC that utilize
this particular feed. It’s called an “organic grower”.
There might be a third company that you mentioned earlier that is
using the feed, but we can’t confirm yet whether it is the
these byproducts from the herring fishery, is there a reason that
Taplow is doing well? Address any concerns about using other marine
resources to feed a carnivorous species like salmon?
formulation can address several issues. The first one is the byproduct-fishery
issue. To make it as sustainable as possible, instead of using the
whole herring, our feed manufacturer has obtained the byproducts
of the processing of herring. From the fishmeal point of view, we
have substituted quite a bit of the protein with the wheat, and
then we have the demand. It’s a niche market, certainly, if
you have an aquaculture system that is striving to become more sustainable.
raised salmon, the feed becomes one of the bigger issues that the
public is very concerned about, and rightly so, because we are taking
natural resources and feeding them to a salmon to feed people.
As coordinator for the Yellow Island research program, we are actively
seeking funding for contaminant loading in our fish, as well as
potentially other farms that may use the same organic feed. There
may or may not be a link between the feed and what’s actually
found in the organism, which is what we’re trying to do, as
well as an environmental assessment of the area.
To what degree are you guys moving toward or trying to develop
an organic product?
The first step
for Yellow Island was to stop using antibiotics in 1989. That was
the first step, and probably the most important step that we could
do. We stopped cold turkey, and the company did suffer quite a few
mortalities in the ensuing years. Since then, because of the brood
stock program, we naturally have developed a more robust Chinook
salmon. So, our reliance on antibiotics is nil. The vaccination
for vibriosis continues, and everything else after that falls into
again with the feed issue, we have a special formulation of feed
as discussed earlier and it’s not so much organic, it’s
just a more sustainable way to run a farm so you don’t have
to rely on an intensive use of technology, intensive use of theraputins.
In terms of the organic market, we are finding there is a tremendous
potential for that niche. There is a growing demand for our product,
and in some cases we have been requested to supply a huge amount
of salmon to a given store.
a small operation, so unfortunately we can’t meet that demand.
In British Columbia alone, certainly we’ve conducted a market
survey to assess public opinion about organic salmon in British
Columbia, and found that the demand is tremendous. The support for
it is a little unexpected at this point, with the attention that
the industry has been receiving lately.
There is a huge market for organics in California because
demand has grown so much it has made it much more possible for a
number of farms to go organic. To what degree do you think this
could hold true for aquaculture?
There are some
constraints in aquaculture, partly because to operate in an organic
sense, without the use of antibiotics or to have a certain type
of feed, it’s more feasible on a smaller scale. On a large
or a tremendously larger scale, the management becomes a little
bit trickier, and it still remains fairly intensive. If you want
to go to a lower stocking density you’re pretty much having
about half or 1/5th of what would normally be acceptable as stocking
densities in a more intensive culture. So to spread that out at
5-kg/cubic meter might seem a little unfeasible for a large corporation.
How about the brood stock?
the brood stock program at Yellow Island quite a bit. The advantage
of having an in-house hatchery program is that you can track the
parentage and the performance of the parents and the grandparents
from generation to generation. Over time, because we use all the
brood stock, we don’t cull even the diseased ones. In the
earlier years when we did have diseased adults, what Yellow Island
has done is instead of culling them; we actually used the gametes
from those fish. So that over time, we’ve developed a stock
of Chinook salmon that are naturally robust to the endemic pathogens
around this area. So, again that ties in with the whole operation
of Yellow Island; where you don’t have to rely on theraputins,
but rather we utilize the animal’s natural ability to adapt
their immune system.
What have you got to say about the consumer and the marketplace?
plays the most important role in all of this. We have a manager
who maintains the system, we have a whole group of farmers in BC,
but really it’s the consumer who drives the market. From an
organic standpoint, it’s to our best interest to know and
hear what the consumer is saying, because it’s for them that
we’re growing the fish that they demand. The BC salmon aquaculture
industry is now under a new set of regulations, new and improved
as of 2002. Those might be considered minimum requirements, but
again they’ve been improved to encompass the issues of escapement,
environmental monitoring, and farm siting criteria.
What the consumer
drives us to do is to go a little bit further and transcend those
regulations and ask ourselves: what are we voluntarily doing to
make our farm, our product, in terms of how they are produced, better?
From that standpoint, we need the consumers. There is demand for
organic aquaculture products out there, not just salmon. Salmon
is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Considering the uphill
struggle that Yellow Island has gone through in the last 10 to12
years, I really wish other aquaculture producers tremendous success
as they strive for similar production goals, should they decide
that that’s the route they want to go.
one of the most diverse. We talk about sustainability and biodiversity
in today’s world. As a research coordinator for Yellow Island,
it’s one of the most diverse jobs one can ever hope to have,
because in research you get to deal with people from all over the
world and from across the country researching different topics.
You might one day be conducting an experiment in immunology, and
the next day start to work on a physiology experiment, and then
plan another study for genetics or conservation biology.
Taking all that
into consideration, Yellow Island is unique in that we can incorporate
all these different areas of expertise and interest and use them
to our advantage to make our production system that much more sustainable.
We use scientific validation and continued connection with the industry
as well as with consumers.
Is it exciting for you to be cutting edge, trying to develop
an organic or sustainable type of aquaculture?
has come over time. We’re starting to see the fruits of the
labors of the last 17 years. Cutting edge implies that everyone
else looks to you as an example, which may be the case with Yellow
Island; we’ll wait and see. Some of the strategies that we’ve
adopted in the last decade have been counterintuitive, but we’ve
found that it’s the most successful way to go for our farm
here. So, what other producers decide to do is really up to them.
We’re a different fish altogether, and hopefully we’re
a fish that’s going to survive for a while. We’re just
a different species with the combination of a production and research
program. It’s just a different approach altogether for an