A salmon-farming rush churns the fjords of British Columbia

The bathtub, deep and old-fashioned, sits out on the rocky beach. ``When it comes to comfort for the fish or comfort for the people, the fish have won,'' says Norman Bradburn Hope, who with his wife, June, and son, Kenneth, manage a salmon farm here at the end of a mountain-lined inlet 70 miles north of Vancouver. Until recently, the fish farm lacked indoor plumbing facilities for its workers.

The trio are pioneers on the Canadian west coast in what is being called a ``marine gold rush'' -- a stampede to get into the business of raising salmon in ocean pens.

By the fall of 1984, the provincial government had granted some 15 leases of shore waters for fish farms. By the middle of last November, the fisheries branch of the Ministry of Environment had approved 81 licenses and had 68 more applications awaiting approval. By now the equivalent numbers are 117 and 75. Thirty more prospective salmon farmers are scouting for sites.

About 39 lessees actually have fish in the water, destined mostly for what is termed the ``white-tablecloth trade'' -- for sale to restaurants willing to pay $3.20 to $3.40 a pound for the red- or pinkish-flesh fish. Perhaps 30 or so more farms will start raising smolts -- baby salmon -- in the spring.

``The whole business is in a state of flux,'' says Mr. Hope, who expects to sell some eggs and smolts to some of the new fish farms, as well as grown fish for restaurants.

The excitement in the new industry makes provincial officials anxious. Some of the Canadians lining up for leases to use the cool, relatively clean waters of British Columbia's fjord-lined coast for salmon farming have some experienced Norwegians as partners. Other prospective fish farmers, however, are looking for a romantic life style and may not realize the risks and investment of time, work, and money needed for success.

``A lot of people will go belly up,'' one official says.

To get a farm into production, it takes a minimum of $300,000 and as much as $1 million Canadian ($719,000 US) and about three years.

Usually, fertilized chinook eggs (a type of salmon) are raised in freshwater hatchery tanks for about eight months. Then they go through a natural process called ``smoltification,'' which modifies their gills and kidney functions so they can adapt to salt water. These young salmon, about two inches long and weighing perhaps a quarter of an ounce, are moved to ocean pens. The pens are about 20 feet across, with a webbed nylon mesh net suspended from floating wood logs kept buoyant by foam floats or metal drums.

The pens can hold about 1.5 tons of fish. Up to five times daily, they are fed with a meal made of ground herring mixed with vitamins and minerals. It takes another six months or so to grow a smolt to one pound, the ``pan size'' that fits easily on a plate. Or they may be grown until they are two or three years old and between two and five pounds, providing salmon steaks. Feed accounts for some 40 percent or more of the cost of raising the fish.

The advantage of the pen-raised fish over their ``wild'' cousins is that they are of an assured quality, fresh rather than frozen, and available reliably in specific sizes at all times of the year -- not just when the fish are in season for fishermen.

Here at Tidal Rush Marine Farm, Brad Hope and his small crew are raising chinook, coho, and steelhead (the latter is actually a saltwater trout). They're also starting to raise hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon smolt, in a freshwater tank carefully quarantined against any diseases, to enter the $1 billion-a-year Pacific coast business of wild salmon.

For the fish farmer, the Atlantic salmon has the advantage of being already ``domesticated'' through years of being raised in Scotland and Norway, and thus less likely to suffer from the ``stress'' that sometimes causes fatalities. When an individual feeds them, the fish come toward that person rather than fleeing to the other end of the pen like the Pacific salmon. More important, they reach marketing size in two rather than three years.

Hope's farm is now part of Pacific Aqua Foods Ltd., the first British Columbia fish farm to go public. Last April this company raised $810,000 through a public offering of 600,000 shares. Since then it has raised $1.5 million more through the exercise of director and employee stock options.

With a small portion of that money, Hope has just constructed a small building here that houses an egg hatchery on the first floor and, upstairs, modern living quarters, including an indoor bathroom that will make obsolete the outdoor tub and nearby toilet facilities. As there are no roads here, all material and workers must come in by boat from the end of the ``Sunshine Coast'' road.

Last fall the crew obtained an estimated 1.5 million or more eggs from a few hundred female salmon, who are killed in the process. (In nature, the fish die soon after spawning in the shallows of freshwater streams.) Some 4,000 to 5,000 eggs are taken from each female. These eggs are fertilized by the battered-looking male salmon swimming in tanks here.

The orange eggs are kept in glass tubes or tanks with fresh water constantly flowing over them, its acidity carefully regulated. Depending on the temperature of the water, the eggs hatch in six weeks to two months. Records are kept for the eggs of each fish.

Pacific Aqua, which the Hope family controls together with businessman David Saxby, expects to market about 400,000 pounds of salmon this year and 1 million pounds next year, Hope says. The company also raises oysters artificially at other coastal locations.

In 1984, the west coast fish farms marketed about 100 metric tons of salmon (1985 numbers aren't available yet). Based on the business plans of those applying for leases, the farms should be marketing 15,000 tons by 1995, says Gordon Halsey, manager of the marine resources section of the fisheries branch in Victoria.

As to the size of the farm salmon market, Mr. Hope says, ``As long as you have good quality and the right sizes, you can market everything.''

Mr. Halsey notes that the Norwegians in 1984 flew some 7 million pounds (over 3,100 ton) of Atlantic salmon to the United States with no promotion whatsoever. To ensure quality, the fish are transported in foam containers with a measured amount of ice that is absorbed by a ``diaper'' when it melts. The cost is $1 a pound for the West Coast of the US.

Altogether, the Norwegians are selling 27,000 tons to Europe and the US, worth more than $100 million (US). The Norwegians have also just sold a complete salmon farm to the Soviet Union.

``There is the appearance of a large but undetermined market,'' Halsey says. The British Columbia government would be delighted if aquaculture became a sizable industry in this high-unemployment province.

It remains to be seen whether this ``marine gold rush'' will come to marketing grief as production skyrockets.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hope is awaiting delivery of 10 new pens due here soon. And Pacific Aqua has plans for building a new hatchery and for acquiring a fish processing plant for both ``wild'' and ``tame'' salmon.

``It is really exciting,'' he says.

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