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In the Future, We Might Farm Fish on Land Instead of in the Sea

This summer’s fish escape has anti-fish farm advocates saying it’s better to farm salmon in tanks, on land.

November 29, 2017

This is the final part in a series on the future of fish farming in the Pacific Northwest. Read part 1 here.

Inside a chilly warehouse on the north end of Vancouver Island, eight giant tanks are lit with swimming pool lights. These are fish tanks — some of the biggest fish tanks around. Every so often the glistening back of a fish surfaces.

This is Kuterra, an Atlantic salmon farm that operates on land. That land belongs to the Namgis First Nation.

The Namgis First Nation is farming salmon on land for two primary reasons. First, its founders wanted to prove that it’s possible to farm Atlantic salmon without having a big environmental footprint. And they wanted the Namgis  to regain some of the prosperity salmon once provided.

Bill Cranmer, a hereditary chief of the Namgis First Nation, was one of Kuterra's founders. Eilis O'Neill, KUOW/EarthFix

For centuries, the Namgis depended on the Nimpkish River and its bounty of wild fish.

“Our people were considered very rich because of the river that had all of these resources in it,” says Bill Cranmer, a hereditary chief of the Namgis.

Now, there are hardly any wild salmon left. Fishermen have lost their jobs and the salmon cannery has closed. Alert Bay, the town off the north coast of Vancouver Island where many Namgis make their home, is in poverty.

Cranmer says fish farms are part of the problem.

Kuterra grows Atlantic salmon in giant tanks. Eilis O'Neill, KUOW/EarthFix

“The fish farms are a real breeding ground for sea lice,” says Cranmer, one of the hereditary chiefs of the Namgis First Nation. “And when the chum salmon leave the river, they’re just little fish. If they’re attacked by sea lice, they don’t survive.”

Sea lice are just one of Cranmer's concerns when it comes to farming salmon in open seas. Fish farms in open water spread viruses and antibiotic resistance. And then, of course, there are fish escapes and the potential problems they bring.

Raising salmon on land comes with its own set of problems. In marine water bodies, tides move fish waste away from fish farms. In tanks, pumps, filters, and bacteria clean the water.

The cost of pumping and cleaning the water means salmon farmed in tanks are more expensive than salmon farmed in bays and inlets. In fact, Kuterra salmon was the most expensive fish for sale on a recent trip to Victoria’s Thrifty Foods, a Canadian grocery chain that stocks the land-raised salmon.

The Hidden Cost Of Farming Fish

Washington state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, says there’s also a cost in raising salmon in places like Puget Sound; local people and the ecosystem end up paying the price of the pollution fish farms leave in publicly-owned water.

“We’re subsidizing an industry that is dramatically impacting other industries and an ecosystem that we all care about,” Ranker says.

Conservationists agree that farming salmon in tanks is the better option. Kuterra salmon has a certification called OceanWise, which grades seafood according to how sustainable it is.

That’s why the OceanWise chef, Ned Bell, cooks with Kuterra salmon.

“How are we going to continue to have people being able to eat responsible seafood and also, you know, to protect wild stocks?” he asks. “We need to look towards aquaculture as an opportunity to replace that protein.”

Kuterra salmon is the most expensive fish for sale at Victoria’s Thrifty Foods.  Eilis O’Neill, KUOW/EarthFix

The Northwest grocery store chain Haggen used to carry Kuterra salmon, but they don’t anymore because of the extremely high cost and logistical challenges of getting salmon down from the north end of Vancouver Island.

But if Ranker gets his way, we’ll soon have Atlantic salmon farmed in tanks a lot closer to Pacific Northwest grocery stores.

Kuterra CEO Garry Ullstrom hopes those farms can learn from his experiences.

“All that we’ve learned is posted on our website to share with the world,” he says, “cause our goal is really to accelerate the adoption of this technology.”

In the meantime, some Northwest grocery stores, including Portland-based New Seasons, already carry Atlantic salmon farmed in tanks and flown in from Denmark.

This is the final part in a series on the future of fish farming in the Pacific Northwest. Read part 1 here.


Ned Bell is the OceanWise chef and the author of a sustainable seafood cookbook.

Eilis O'Neill, KUOW

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