Rob Walker is the Director of Operations for Agrimarine Industries Inc. in British Columbia.


Why are you trying to grow salmon in these tanks?

We're fascinated with the experience. There are a lot of issues with net cage farms in this province and also around the world. There are a lot of environmentalists, as I'm sure you and your audience are aware of, but there are issues beyond just the immediate environmental impact. Predator issues are a big one. We are being separated, physically separated, from the marine environment. We don't have to worry about airborne or marine predators.

There are a lot of disease issues as part of the environment that we're concerned with. You've probably heard lots of stories recently of the IHN outbreaks in Atlantic salmon farms? We hope to be able to avoid those disease outbreaks by being able to filter, in some way, the incoming water, by probably using technology such as ultraviolet rays to clean the water and sanitize it. There are opportunities here in British Columbia to distinguish our farming systems from what goes on in the rest of the world.

There are not many land-based farms going on. There have been a few experimental farms in seawater, lots of freshwater land-based farms but not seawater. With the number of salmon being grown in the world right now, British Columbia has been declining for a number of years because of the moratorium. How do we catch up? Well, let's look for a market niche, and this happens to be a very good one. We can promote both salmon farming and new technology land-based farming at the same time.

This really isn't commercially viable as yet, but what is the process here? Is there a learning curve?

Absolutely. This farm is a pilot project and as such has provided us with a very steep learning curve. As I mentioned earlier, the land-based farm systems are really not prevalent in the world of aquaculture. Information from other farms is not really available to us so we're relearning or recreating the wheel in a lot of cases, but it's been exciting from day one here. Every day brings a new challenge. Things like oxygen usage, water flow, water temperatures, what's in the water, the incoming water, and what were putting out there. All these questions need to be answered.

There are a lot of challenges for us. We've learned a lot, but we really feel like we have a long way to go as well. In terms of economic viability, we are too small here to really make any money, but I think we can take what we've learned here and expand it to a commercial size. That is the next step for us, designing a commercial scale facility. As a pilot, first of all, one large tank would be very helpful for us to learn more about how to make me commercially viable, but that will be what we'll do next to try and make the economics work.

You expressed frustration with other countries that are working on this because they are not sharing the information. What would ideally create the most cooperation?

In the best case, it would be wonderful to have an association where we could meet two or three times a year and discuss what each of us has done and what progress had been made. We could try not to repeat the same mistakes. I think it would be terrific. There are probably a number of academic groups that get together, but as far as commercial salmon farming, generally a lot of this is proprietary information and businesses don't like to share that sort of thing very often. We're all better off if we do share and we don't have to repeat the same mistakes. We don't lose economically that way and we can all progress together.

This is a pilot project, but how many years down the pipe might this be for Agrimarine in terms of being a commercially viable output?

We're mandated; we have a five-year project here. The provincial government granted us a five-year approval to run this facility, but the economics will probably drive us towards developing a commercial system much more quickly than that. We are working on it right now. We're working with a number of design teams to put this together. We would dearly love to have a commercial facility by this time next year. I shouldn't say a commercial facility, but rather a commercial scale pilot. I need to stress that because we're really not to the point where we could go full scale commercial yet, but if we could get a pilot project commercial scale in the water by this time next year, we would be very happy. So we're looking for money.

Are we talking five years or ten years off?

If we get through a commercial scale pilot successfully, I would suggest that we could be building, or operating, a full-scale commercial facility in five years. That's if things move in the right direction for us. There are a lot of hoops to jump through, of course, we just don't know enough yet about citing criteria. For instance, you don't just plunk a salmon farm down wherever you want to. There are a lot of regulatory hoops and also a lot of environmental concerns. We need to know what is in the environment; what sort of impact we're going to have. We also need to know what's incoming; what's in the water out there? Is it full of disease-causing pathogens? We don't know about that or things like oxygen levels. All those environmental tests need to be run way ahead of time before we're sure that we have the right site. So that work needs to be done. A lot of feasibility work needs to be done ahead of time.

Once you do this new commercial scale pilot project, might you look into ultraviolet to treat the effluents before they return to the water?

Water quality is a huge issue in any salmon-farming endeavor, and particularly in a closed containment system such as we have here. We need to protect our fish from anything that comes in and we need to protect the marine environment from whatever we generate within our system. In a commercial facility, we would be looking at treatment of incoming and outgoing water, probably using ultraviolet technology for things like pathogens. In terms of outgoing water, we want to get involved with filtration of some kind, probably mechanical because of the high water flows we are dealing with. For instance, swirl separators or rotary filters are the kinds of technologies that are available now. We need to be working with waste management people who are used to dealing with very high flows such as a city flow of water. The volume of what we're talking about here is very, very large. So there are some pretty large technological challenges to make our way through before we are there.

How are you going to compete with a bunch of net cage operations, with the salmon world market flooded with salmon, when you have an overhead like this?

You have to look at cost with a wider view. There are economic costs, definitely that we have to deal with, but there are also large environmental costs, and you have to bring those into the equation. Environmental issues are widespread. People are becoming more and more aware of human impact on this earth. If we can protect the environment in some way by doing this, that is a reduction in cost. It's not a dollar cost, but in terms of what we're giving as a legacy to our grandchildren, a big cost. We want to make sure that we reduce our impact as much as possible. That will have an economic cost.

We have to address that through education of the buying public. People need to know what their food source is all about, what food chain is involved. Actually we're seeing more and more interest that way. People are freeing up their pocketbooks a little bit more to buy quality food products. We're heading for a clean food chain, in terms of agriculture using fertilizers and so on. We don't use fertilizers and we don't use growth hormones. There are lots of rumors about that. We stay away from that sort of thing, but we want our fish to be as clean as we can make them. You and I talked earlier about the antibiotic usage, and I spoke to that as a very interesting issue. We need to protect our fish's health. That is paramount to the success of a place like this.

We can say we'll save the environment by not feeding our fish antibiotics, but at the same time if we destroy a lot of fish that destroys our economic well-being which means we cannot continue. So in the short term, we need to protect that. In the long term, maybe through selective breeding programs, we can grow fish that have better resistance to outside pathogens or outside disease vectors, whatever they happen to be. There are a lot of environmental acts or protective acts that we can do on our own to really help the long-term viability of this sort of facility. Once we get the public on site, and they're already starting to roll there, then I think it will continue. People will start to pay a higher price for something that comes from an environment such as this, compared to other areas like net cage farming for instance.

You should address that issue. The net-cage farming itself is getting better and better at protecting the marine environment. We talked about Creative Salmon earlier. They're doing a fabulous job on organic salmon. They're feeding only organic and they are also really low density in the fish cages. That will bring a much higher cost because they're not growing as many fish. The economies of scale aren't there, but the quality of fish and the environmental protection is there. Their fish is going to be somewhat higher priced, just like ours. We're both heading in the same direction and the costs are going to go up until the industry switches over. Then the economies of scale kick in again and the cost will come down.

Why do you grow the fish in tanks?

It's not for money. Agrimarine is all about chasing sustainable aquaculture. We're really interested in prolonging this industry and we see land-based farming as one really good route to go toward sustainability. We love the concept of having control over the environment in which we grow our fish and that's really key to proper husbandry. The more controls you have, the better the product you can put out. We feel that we're working towards that and taking a lot of steps before we're really comfortable saying we're there, but I think we're headed in the right direction.