Sharing science, caring about wild salmon and tech innovation drives veteran fish health expert, Dr. Diane Morrison, in her new role as managing director of Marine Harvest Canada West.
By Fabian Dawson
As the new Managing Director of Marine Harvest Canada West, Dr. Diane Morrison brings 25 years’ experience in salmon health and production, to helm one British Columbia’s largest food producers. Marine Harvest Canada operates salmon farms and processing plants in B.C. where 600 people raise 45,000 tonnes of sustainable Atlantic salmon each year. In a Q & A with SeaWestNews, Dr. Morrison shares her vision for the aquaculture industry in B.C.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: “I grew up in Ontario and was trained as a veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinarian College at the University of Guelph, graduating in 1992. Upon graduation, I was lucky enough to get a job here in Campbell River, so my husband and I re-located. We have been in Campbell River ever since, raising two children who are now both in university. I consider myself very lucky to have started my career here and live in this beautiful community for the last 25 years”.
Q: What is the most interesting experience you’ve had in the last quarter of a century in aquaculture?
A: “I have seen tremendous changes and improvements in the way the farms are managed, and the fish are reared and looked after, as well as the amount of health monitoring and proactive veterinary medicine and intervention that is used to maintain the health of the fish. When I went to school in veterinary medicine it was all about terrestrial farming. We didn’t have the health or herd management textbooks for salmon that we had for beef or poultry production, though they exist now. I used the principles we learned for terrestrial farming and applied those to salmon farming. I sometimes sit back on a quiet day and think, it would be nice to capture all those memories and lessons from the early days because we have made countless improvements. It would be great to document where we came from and where we are now”.
Q: What is a typical day like in your new role?
A: “Well, my day has certainly changed. Before I would have been primarily focused on analyzing metrics that are based on the health of our fish and results from our health screening. Now, as Managing Director I am looking at the whole picture of the business, ensuring we maintain our high health and safety standards, building meaningful relationships in the communities where we operate, as well as improving the health, productivity and growth of our fish. I am making sure that I am doing everything I can to support our great team at Marine Harvest and doing the best job we possibly can for our staff and for our fish. I am learning to curb my tendency to dig down into the nitty gritty details, as I would as a veterinarian. It’s a good challenge for me, I am enjoying it, certainly my days are filled, there’s no question about that.”
Q: What innovation, in your opinion, has the most potential to improve the aquaculture industry?
A: “I have been working in the industry for 25 years, and it is constantly innovating and changing. Sea lice are often raised as an issue for farmed salmon and the wild salmon alike. What we are seeing now is a roll out of management options in use in Norway. Many different non-medicinal, mechanical or physical interventions that can be taken to remove and capture the lice so they are not returned to the environment. I see that as a big opportunity for British Columbia given the sentiment of using green technology is very strong in BC. Being able to take advantage of the knowledge and development in Norway and bringing it to B.C. is a priority for us.
Integrating innovative in-sea closed technology for raising fish into our production is another big area for Marine Harvest Canada. The other focus is genomics, specifically for our breeding programs and being able to select the best fish with the best qualities for health, growth and possible sea lice resistance. That whole field is growing at a rapid speed. A genetic test that used to cost a couple of hundred dollars for one fish is now less than 20 dollars. This technology is becoming much more accessible to the individual companies. This is an area that is really going to drive some big improvements and changes.”
Q: From Marine Harvest’s perspective, are you looking at closed containment or semi-closed containment in ocean or on land?
A: “Currently, we are looking at in-ocean (technology) because that is where we have seen some successes based on the Norwegian experience. There is the (on-land) facility down in Miami that everybody is watching as they build out and start to get into production. But currently we feel the technology and the energy demands to put that volume of fish onto land is a little too extreme.
We are certainly looking, we are always looking, that is what I love about this industry. Aquaculture is full of innovators, we don’t stop looking for different and better ways of doing what we do to address production, environmental and societal concerns. We always will be innovating; we are not closed to the on-land technology, but currently we are seeing good successes with the in-sea technology. That’s where we are putting our focus right now.”
Q: What is the timeline for some of these Norwegian in-sea technologies to hit BC oceans?
A: “Minister Wilkinson has announced that a feasibility study will be undertaken to better understand some of the challenges to both land and in-sea technologies, we’re looking forward to being involved in that. One complication to the technologies we are looking at is we need available and sustainable shore power, and a location suitable for the structures. We’re looking for the right places to do that. We will be discussing this with our First Nations partners, or new partners to see if there is any interest”.
Q: As a woman in aquaculture, can you tell me what advice you would give women looking for careers in this industry.
A: “There are never enough women in aquaculture, in my opinion. This still is a very male-dominated industry, but as a woman I couldn’t have asked for a better career for someone who is into science, technology, environmental issues, animal husbandry and rearing of fish. There are so many possibilities for women in this industry. I would strongly advise any woman who has interests in any of those fields to investigate for themselves, to look at the industry and to come do a work placement with us. There is a wide diversity of jobs, experiences, education and skill sets that are needed in this industry. It is only going to get more and more technical and science based. Yes, I would strongly encourage any woman to consider aquaculture as a career.”
Q: Is there a skills shortage in the aquaculture industry in B.C.?
A: “Yes, there is a skills shortage for sure especially when it comes to tradespeople. We are addressing some of that by offering apprenticeships with Marine Harvest Canada. It is a big concern for us because tradespeople are in very short supply. We offer a fulfilling career and the ability to stay on Vancouver Island or the smaller communities on the coast. I think, all industries in British Columbia are as concerned about this as we are.”
Q: There is a lot of talk, especially from Campbell River, for a Federal Aquaculture Act. What is your view on that?
A: “I have to say, I am not as well versed on that today as I will be, being only three weeks into the position. But I know my colleagues feel very strongly that an Aquaculture Act would be a benefit to our industry, and I do know that we need to find a better way to ensure that rules that govern aquaculture are more clear for all Canadians.
Q: Can farmed salmon and wild salmon co-exist?
A: “I strongly believe that the two can co-exist. As farmers, we are providing the fish that the North American market, and to a smaller degree, the Asian market, is demanding on a year-round basis. There is a lot of demand for salmon, I see us taking the pressure off the wild fish. Our staff know a lot about salmon and they really value salmon, farmed and wild. Ideally, we will continue to build closer ties with the enhancement hatcheries and their staff; sharing of knowledge and perspectives. I think it would really go a long way to show that we are all concerned about the wild salmon and we all want them to survive and be prosperous. I see farmed and wild salmon existing together.”