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 operation.

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?

Yellow Island 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 these conditions.

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 out there.

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.

Yellow Island 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?

Disease, as 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 is waste.
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.

It’s a 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 “organic grower”.

Using 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?

The special 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.

With organically 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 place.

Organically, 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.

But, we’re 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?

I’ve mentioned 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?

The consumer 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.

It’s probably 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?

The fulfillment 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 aquaculture system.