B.C. aquaculture giants pump millions into new technology and sea vessels to strengthen commitments with First Nations partners and coastal communities
By Fabian Dawson
If you think that salmon farming in Western Canada’s oceans is a sunset industry, think again.
The big three in British Columbia’s aquaculture industry – Marine Harvest, Cermaq and Grieg Seafood – are spending tens of millions of dollars in sea vessels and barges, bringing new technology to improve their operations and boost the local economies of coastal communities.
“These new investments are proof that salmon farming has a viable and sustainable future in B.C.,” said Dean Trethewey, Seawater Production Director for Grieg Seafood.
“Our new vessels and barges strengthen our commitment to our First Nations partners and to the coastal communities we work in,” Trethewey told SeaWestNews.
Grieg Seafood has two new $2-million state-of-the art feed barges, a new net cleaning workboat, a new workboat to support ongoing harvesting projects, and will take delivery of a $50 million well boat that will employ enhanced technology to combat sea lice infestation.
“It’s an exciting time to be at Grieg,” said Trethewey, a Vancouver Island native, who has been in the aquaculture industry for over 25 years.
Grieg Seafood’s two new feed barges, designed by Simone Cook and constructed by the Campbell River-based Pacific Marine Construction company, are to be located at the Noo-la fish farm, located in Clio Channel, northwest of Vancouver Island and near Gore Island in Nootka Sound.
“Wherever possible we use local contractors and skills,” said Trethewey.
The barges have remote feeding systems with underwater video cameras that allow technicians to observe fish behaviour and adjust the flow of food accordingly. In addition, technology on the barges, provide real time ocean data which can be used by scientists around the world studying climate change impacts.
The 12-bedroom barges are like floating resorts providing all amenities for workers, who spend rotational eight-day stints on site. They have a shared living area featuring an open-concept kitchen, fireplace and big-screen television.
The barges have the capacity to feed between 750,000 to one million salmon while technicians monitor fish behaviour and adjust the flow of food, using “precision farming” protocols.
“It’s a far cry from when I first started where we had to live in an old run-down trailer in Quatsino,” said Trethewey, adding the barges will be decorated with First Nation’s art to recognize that their operations are in traditional territories.
John Smith, the elected chief of Tlowitsis Nation, where the Grieg Seafood farms operate in Clio Channel, told local media recently that rental fees and revenue from fish farm harvests provide a stable source of funds for the community.
“We’re very pleased with the agreement,” he said, saying the partnership with Grieg Seafood is positive. “They do a lot to make our relationship strong and happy.”
In addition to the barges, Grieg Seafood has deployed a new net cleaning workboat and a Croatia-built workboat to support ongoing harvesting and site projects.
But the pride of its fleet is a $50 million well boat that is due to arrive in B.C. next year to enhance the company’s anti-lice treatments. The vessel will provide both freshwater and hydrogen peroxide anti-sea lice treatments for salmon farms.
Hydrogen peroxide is applied as a diluted bath to salmon transported into the well boat. It is found naturally in the ocean environment, and in many living creatures, and breaks down in the environment to form water and oxygen.
“100 percent of the sea lice on this well boat will be captured and disposed of…It will be the biggest of its kind in B.C.” said Trethewey.
Marine Harvest Canada which raises about 45,000 tonnes of sustainable Atlantic salmon each year off B.C.’s coasts, is also expecting its $35 million well boat, which will draw fish into a tank equipped with a desalinator. Sea lice die after a few hours in fresh water.
The well boat uses a method of organic sea lice removal that ensures stress on the salmon is minimal.
This is in addition to its ‘hydrolicer’ barge, which this month successfully completed a chemical-free method for controlling sea lice at one of its net-pen Atlantic salmon farms near Campbell River.
The ‘hydrolicer’ barge uses pressurized water to dislodge sea lice from fish in a holding tank. The lice are then collected by filters for disposal, said Jeremy Dunn, the director of community relations and public affairs at Marine Harvest Canada.
“It’s the first time the ‘hydrolicer’ has been used on the West Coast,” said Dunn, adding it is the company’s fourth tool to fight sea-lice and avoid being reliant on treatments that can lead to resistance.
Cermaq is also expecting to take delivery of its $12-million, custom-built ‘hydrolicer’ early next year.
The company has been dealing with unusually high levels of sea lice at its operations in B.C.’s Clayoquot Sound region, off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The sea lice here have shown resistance to the commonly used drug treatment approved for use in B.C. called SLICE.
Studies have shown that, in B.C. regardless of the presence or absence of salmon farms, there is wide variability in sea lice prevalence in coastal locations. Research over the past decade shows lice levels are significantly linked with ocean conditions and variations in wild hosts.
Other than the Clayoquot region, only three other sites in B.C. had relatively brief and minor periods where lice levels where over the threshold this year, said Dan Bate, a spokesman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) Pacific Region.
Bate said DFO has been actively monitoring and analysing sea lice data for indication of SLICE resistance since 2011 and first noted concerns at Klemtu in 2015, Esperanza Inlet in 2017, and now Clayoquot Sound in 2018.
“Prior to 2017, more than 95% of SLICE treatments in the Clayoquot area were considered to be effective,” he told SeaWestNews.
He said the new hydrolicers and well boats in B.C. are part of an Integrated Pest Management approach, “which has been demonstrated to reduce the need for drugs/pesticides, and prevent the development of resistance.”
In an earlier interview with SeaWestNews Dr. Simon Jones, lead scientist in the finfish parasitology program at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station said the prevalence of sea lice in the waters of BC’s central coast is dramatically lower this year than in previous years thanks to mother nature and proactive measures taken by fish farmers.
“We are seeing dramatic reduction in sea lice especially on the central coast of B.C.,” said Dr. Jones.
“The proactive sea lice management techniques adopted by the fish farming industry and difference in temperature are the main reasons for this,” Dr. Jones told SeaWestNews, adding; “this is a good news story for both wild stocks and the aquaculture industry”
Dr. Jones said that when compared to Norway and Chile, which are global aquaculture giants, B.C.’s sea lice issue is miniscule.
“In B.C., the salmon farms are managing the sea lice issue effectively to reach global certification targets that includes continued reduction of medicine use,” said Dr. Jones.
Sea lice are a naturally-occurring parasite of the marine environment and have evolved to attach to migrating salmon as they travel through the ocean.
Salmon farm employees in B.C. are required by regulation to examine their fish every two weeks, at a minimum, for regular sea lice counts during March 1 to June 30, to coincide with ‘Out Migration’ of wild salmon.
If those counts show an average of three motile lice per fish, companies are required to take action to reduce the absolute lice count over subsequent weeks. This means either treating the fish or removing them, if a harvest is planned.
During the rest of the year, salmon farmers are required to conduct sea lice counts at least once a month.
There are 118 marine finfish aquaculture farms and 20 land-based farms operated by the 59 member companies of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA). About 60 to 70 salmon farm tenures are active at any one time.
Farm-raised salmon is B.C.’s highest valued seafood product, the province’s top agricultural export, and generates over $1.5-billion towards the B.C. economy, resulting in over 6,600 jobs.