At least eight thousand football fields.
That’s approximately how much land would be needed to develop closed containment systems for Atlantic Canada’s farmed salmon production. It’s also about 50 times more space than we need in the water to grow our fish to market size.
And the price tag?
Well, the capital cost to develop land-based facilities for all of Atlantic Canada’s farmed salmon production would be more than $1.5 billion – and that does not include the cost of finding and purchasing the enormous amount of land required.
While closed containment is often touted as an easy option for Atlantic salmon farmers, the fact of the matter is, at this point and time, raising fish in closed systems for their entire life cycle is neither viable nor as ‘green’ as it’s cracked up to be.
The costs would be astronomical, and the carbon footprint would be exceptionally high.
A 2008 study led by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans examined 44 closed containment trials conducted around the world, including one in New Brunswick. All failed. To date, no closed system has successfully grown Atlantic salmon on a commercial scale.
Even if farmers could find and purchase the huge tracts of land necessary to support the buildings, tanks and other equipment needed to grow their fish and even if they could find a way to pay for all that, they would also need access to a consistent and abundant water supply as well as to a consistent electrical supply and backup generators. The amount of continuous electricity needed to run closed systems would leave a huge carbon footprint by producing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
And where would the water come from for these land-based tanks? Locating these operations close to shorelines wouldn’t likely be an option, so the water would have to be pumped from the ground at a time when many areas are already facing freshwater shortages that are expected to get worse.
Some have pointed to a new floating salmon-farming tank installed earlier this year in the Middle Bay of Campbell River, B.C. as the magic bullet for aquaculture, but the technology - which still allows the bay water to flow through the system - is far from proven and only recommended in areas with very low wave action.
In addition to cost and environmental concerns, closed containment systems are not the best option in terms of fish health because the salmon would have to be cramped into tanks in order to make the systems viable. A 2010 DFO economic study shows that to make closed containment marginally viable, farmers need to grow fish at a biomass of 50 kg/m3. Our fish are stocked at 15-17.
It’s somewhat baffling to me why a small faction is asking salmon farmers to move our production to an unnatural feed-lot style farming method. Atlantic salmon raised on east coast farms are healthy, native stocks that swim in their natural environment, contained by a system of nets, cages and mooring systems that are designed to meet the challenging, high-energy environments of the Bay of Fundy, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Maine. Fish are not crowded into their net pens. On average, salmon take up less than four per cent of their pen, which gives them plenty of room to follow their natural schooling instinct.
Why would we want to grow salmon in an unnatural closed system when we can grow them in a natural environment, uncrowded and using minimal energy?
Our farmers are experts in closed containment technology. Our fish spend the first third of their lives in land-based hatcheries where recirculation is used. We also know that it simply is not commercially viable to use these systems to grow our fish to harvest.
Our industry believes we have demonstrated that we can grow Atlantic salmon in their natural environment with minimal impact on wild stocks or habitat. We have many tools – such as government-audited ocean floor sampling and underwater cameras and sophisticated feeding management systems to prevent waste – to minimize any potential impact on the environment.
Atlantic Canada’s salmon farmers are committed to building the most responsible and innovative aquaculture industry in the world, and we’re leading the way in research and development in our industry. We’re wholeheartedly supportive of new ideas and improved technology, but at this point in time, closed containment farming may work for specific niche markets but at the commercial scale necessary to meet the growing demand for one of the world’s most heart-healthy foods, it is not economically viable or environmentally-friendly.
Pamela Parker is the Executive Director of the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association (formerly known as the New Brunswick Salmon Growers Association), an industry-funded organization that works on behalf of the salmon farming industry in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.