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Livestock Option With A Difference

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DAN WATSON

“Lots of people can learn aquaculture production, but marketing the fish is often the toughest part of fish farming

ALBERTA AGRICULTURE AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT

If Dan Watson has his way, Alberta won’t only be known from the farm products it produces on terra firma. With ocean stocks declining, and consumers demanding environmentally friendly suppliers, he sees great potential for fish farming.

At present, about 100 operators are selling fish worth around $10 million every year. Most fish are reared in self-contained recirculating systems so that it actually takes less water to raise fish than to produce other food animals.

In Alberta, fish farmers raise trout for stocking lakes mainly for recreational fishing, but some fingerling producers also grow grass carp for vegetation control in ponds, dugouts and some parts of irrigation systems. The aquaculture facility at Lethbridge College hatches the carp from sterilized eggs so they can’t breed in the environment and cause problems for native fish.

Other fish farmers are producing tilapia, which are mainly sold live in Asian specialty stores. The fish are sold live, but killed at the time of sale to protect the environment. Some tilapia are also sold processed, but the Alberta fish industry is too small to support a dedicated fish-processing plant.

Although the Alberta market is small – tilapia are small and bony, unappealing to most Canadians – Watson sees new opportunities. “World markets for healthy seafood are growing,” says the aquaculture researcher with Alberta Agriculture. “At the same time, wild fish supplies are declining. In Canada, there’s a move away from coastal net pens, which are linked to various environmental and other issues, to contained inland systems.”

Aquaponics

Watson is working to develop fish-farming opportunities. In the near term, he believes coho salmon production and aquaponics – growing fish along with soil-free greenhouse produce such as tomatoes – are the most promising ventures.

In aquaponic systems, water

circulates between fish and plants, complementing greenhouse production. The fish waste is used as nutrients by the plants and bacteria associated with their roots, which act as a biofilter, cleaning the water returned to the fish.

“Managing the filters and other equipment, as well as managing the fish, makes for a steep learning curve for greenhouse crop producers,” says Watson. “Once they have mastered the management and the equipment, the fish take up about 20 per cent of the covered area and produce about 20 per cent of the profits.”

Producing two products from a single facility is economically attractive and offers marketing opportunities – it may be possible to certify the system as organic.

It’s an ILO

Managing aquaculture is, to a great extent, much like managing an aquarium. There are filters, genation equipment to clean and maintain, sorting small from bigger fish and feeding. It’s ongoing, everyday work, like any other intensive livestock operation, says Watson.

Then, there’s marketing. “Lots of people can learn aquaculture production, but marketing the fish is often the toughest part of fish farming,” he says. “You have to work at marketing every week – getting the customer, keeping the customer happy and delivering the fish.”

Much of the seafood sold in Alberta is imported. Thailand exports huge quantities of shrimp and China exports catfish, sold here as bassa. Even fresh rainbow trout is mainly imported from Idaho where production costs are lower than Alberta’s.

“We have to go for niche markets, where fish farmers can be paid for quality,” says Watson.

That’s where he sees coho salmon fitting Alberta markets. All salmonids can adapt to fresh or salt water and some prefer fresh water. Salmon and trout do well in farmed situations and salmon grow faster than trout. Initially, coho could be produced for high-end restaurants. “Some chefs prefer farmed fish over wild fish, which can vary quite a bit,” says Watson. “They want to be sure that if they put salmon on the menu they have a supply of consistent, high-quality fish, always the perfect size.”

Watson notes that producing in a freshwater aquaculture system doesn’t raise the environmental issues of pen-rearing fish in coastal waters.

High feed conversion

It takes just under two years in an indoor aquaculture tank to grow a coho to four or five pounds, ideal for good-sized steaks. It takes little more than the weight of a fish to raise it. Fish are the most efficient of feed users with almost a 1:1 feed conversion rate.

At one time, fish feed was made from fish meal, made from fish that are important to ocean ecology, but vegetable-based fish food pellets are now available. Protein from peas, lupins or faba beans would be excellent for fish food, but demand in this region is too small to justify investment in a fish food plant. Watson is working on developing prairie crop-based feed to replace feed imported from other regions.

He is also working to develop rearing systems and find potential markets for a rainbow trout strain called Eagle Lake, which tolerates alkaline water, and barramundi, a high-value fish from Australia.

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