Can Prairies capture slice of global aquaculture boom?

Let’s take a break from the drought and talk about fish farming and prairie prospects for aquaculture.

The concept is not as crazy as it might appear at first glance.

The spark for the idea of this column came as I read about an innovative renewable energy project in southeastern Saskatchewan.

Deep Earth Energy Production Corp. in June completed a feasibility study for a 32 megawatt geothermal electricity generating project.

The Saskatoon-based company has been drilling wells and conducting trials of its technology for more than a year and the success of those tests allowed it to propose a project larger than its initial projections.

The company capitalizes on Saskatchewan oil sector expertise in horizontal drilling to access hot water at 120-125 C from formations 3.5 kilometres deep. The hot water is used to generate base-load electricity — that is power all year, 24 hours a day, almost carbon-free.

New carbon-free baseload power will be important because SaskPower must retire three coal-powered plants in the coming years.

But aside from that, this geothermal plant, and others that could follow in the region, have the potential to spin off other industries using their reliable, carbon-free waste heat, such as greenhouses and aquaculture.

Globally, aquaculture is booming as seafood demand grows, but traditional wild fisheries are under pressure from overfishing, pollution and climate change.

We are seeing this dichotomy play out on British Columbia’s coast, home of a wild fishery and many of Canada’s fish farms.

An argument in favour of these coastal farms, which produce mostly salmon, is that they take pressure off of endangered wild populations.

Indeed, Fisheries and Oceans Canada last month closed most commercial salmon fishing in B.C. coastal waters to preserve what is left of the resource after years of falling catches due to habitat destruction, overfishing and climate change.

However, the B.C. fish farms also have critics who say the pens are breeding grounds for disease and parasites that spread to wild populations.

In 2012, the final report of the Cohen Inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River did not pinpoint a specific cause for the decline but issued 75 recommendations to improve protections.

One recommendation was to end fish farming in the Discovery Islands between Vancouver Island the mainland, a key bottleneck on wild salmon migration routes.

This December Fisheries and Oceans ordered the end of open water fish farming in that area by June 2022. The announcement affected 19 operations out of about 130 fish farms in B.C. waters.

The government said it would work with industry on a fair transition to sustainable aquaculture.

One alternative to open water fish farms is land-based closed systems and these appear to be a hot new business around the world.

The publication Salmon Business in December identified proposals for 73 land-based salmon farms around the world that if built would be able to produce almost 1.8 million tonnes a year. Currently, global farmed salmon production is 2.7 million tonnes, mostly in open water.

Advances in technology make this possible. Called “recirculating aquaculture systems,” they control water temperature as well as salinity, pH and oxygen. They fine-tune currents in the tanks and light levels and remove waste and impurities.

They are expensive to build, but proponents say they don’t pollute rivers, lakes or oceans and can raise fish without the use of hormones, antibiotics or pesticides.

Of course, they too have critics, including animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that say indoor fish farms are cruel.

But land-based aquaculture appears to be on the upswing and salmon are not the only fish species raised indoors. There are also tilapia, barramundi and shrimp to name a few.

The Canadian Prairies already have a great local information resource at Lethbridge College’s Aquaculture Centre of Excellence.

One of its areas of expertise is aquaponics where fish and plants are raised together.

As the centre’s website describes it: “The waste created by the fish becomes a food source for beneficial microorganisms, which convert into mineral nutrients for the plants. The plants act as a natural filter, cleaning the water for the fish. It’s essentially zero-waste agriculture.”

Hmmm. You take that environmentally positive story and couple it with an environmentally positive geothermal electricity generation project and you have a super attractive pitch to consumers looking for sustainable, locally produced food.

I have no idea whether this will work, but I think that in the coming years we will see entrepreneurs and governments on the Prairies take more interest in capturing a slice of the rapidly growing pie that is the global aquaculture industry.

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