A man stands smiling in front of a pool in the land-based fish farm.
Photo Credit: Taste of BC Aquafarms

Homegrown Fish Farms Do It Better

A homegrown salmon farming experiment outlives 100 other projects while Norway's Cermaq experiment failed

A tough little salmon farming start-up in Nanaimo is getting ready to go big

After almost a decade of trial and error for Taste of BC Aquafarms, the land-based closed containment fish farm in Nanaimo has taken a big step toward the big time.

Steve Atkinson is the managing director of Taste of BC. He announced recently that the company was bought last June by Miami-based Blue Star Foods Corp.

Their system grows fish on land, so they never come into contact with wild fish. As a result, there’s no risk of making wild fish sick or spreading sea lice.

But it’s a tricky system to maintain. First, you have to get the balance just right—and then keep it that way.

“What we thought would be a two- or three-year journey to get here was nine years, but we’ve outlasted, probably, 100 projects worldwide,” Atkinson told Nanaimo News Bulletin.

The pilot farm on Jameson Road has raised and sold about 100 tonnes of market-quality steelhead every year. They sell it under the Little Cedar Falls brand name. They even made a small profit in 2020.

Now the company wants to produce 1,500 tonnes of steelhead annually. But they’ll need a lot more land to do that. They’re currently closing a deal on a property and hope to stay within the Regional District of Nanaimo.

They also want to build other farms like it on VanIsle. According to Atkinson, each farm would directly employ 12 to 15 people, and another 100 people indirectly. They plan to replace the open-net factories that are getting closed down for being dangerous to wild fish.

“We now have that knowledge, and we can now build our full-scale roll-out based on good historical data,” he said.

The pilot farm in Nanaimo will stay open as a research and development facility. They’re also looking at farming other Pacific salmon species.

Meanwhile, in Clayoquot Sound, Cermaq Canada has pulled the plug on its experimental floating semi-closed containment fish factory. It turns out poor water quality killed a bunch of fish in the new pens.

Semi-closed containment means a big plastic bag surrounds the fish factory. But you still have to pump in freshwater from the deep ocean and keep the oxygen mix just right.

Cermaq started testing its new system in August 2020. It was built by the Norwegian company FiiZK at its Millar Site location. But a recent technical glitch messed up the water quality.

Cermaq wanted to see if they could use this kind of system in other parts of Canada.

In a news release, Peter McKenzie, Cermaq director of fish health, called their semi-closed fish factory “immature technology.”

“This was our first attempt to grow fish of varying sizes in a semi-closed environment, and unfortunately, due to water quality issues, fish performance was affected and resulted in fish mortality.”

That’s a pretty cold way to talk about living things that just died because your computer messed up.

Maybe Cermaq and its billion-dollar parent company need to take a few pointers from Taste of BC. They started small with one goal, and they worked until they got it right.

Maybe that’s because the little guys in Nanaimo care more about where they live than they do about their offshore shareholders.