In another life, Steve Atkinson was a preacher. As the founder of Taste of BC Aquafarms, a land-based steelhead salmon operation in Nanaimo, the ability to spin a tale and sell an idea has served him well.
A dozen years ago, Atkinson and his family embarked on a bootstrapping journey of research and development that would result in more ups and downs than a fairground roller coaster.
Rather than preaching to the choir, Atkinson preached to the skeptics who didn’t believe you could make any money growing salmon into full-sized, market-ready fish, in tanks sitting on land, known as a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS).
Atkinson proved this idea was not only feasible but that it could be wildly successful as well.
In 2020, Taste of BC turned its first-ever profit and hit its target annual production of 100 tonnes under the brand Little Cedar Falls Steelhead. Then, early in 2021, Atkinson got a knock on the door from a representative of Blue Star Foods — a Florida-based company in the business of selling crab meat.
The timing was perfect. Blue Star was looking to diversify into farmed fish, and, according to Atkinson, he shared with them that he had “proof of concept.”
“We can grow steelhead salmon from egg to two kilograms in 12 months, two to three times faster than in the wild,” he says.
Negotiations with Blue Star Foods moved quickly, and last June Atkinson inked a deal to sell his family fish farm for $4 million. Taste of BC is now a subsidiary of Blue Star Foods, with Atkinson as managing director and his son Benjamin stepping into the role of president and CEO.
Under Blue Star Food’s ownership, Taste of BC is poised to scale up production. The company is undergoing due diligence on a possible land lease and purchase in Deep Bay to build its flagship $40-million, 1,500-tonnes-per-year steelhead fish farm. This will be the first step in an eight-year plan that includes a $500-million investment to build more farms for a total annual production of 21,000 tonnes.
“We hope to be breaking ground by the end of 2022,” says Atkinson.
Last year, in a press release, Blue Star Foods CEO John Keeler called RAS: “The future of our industry and a win-win for all the stakeholders involved in a seafood supply chain that is sustainable over the long term.”
However, nothing is certain in this environment.
When Blue Star Foods went public last fall and started trading on NASDAQ, the company was still weathering a tough few pandemic years that saw revenues drop by more than 40 per cent in 2020 alone. With the crabmeat market saturated, Blue Star is betting heavy on Taste of BC and the future of land-based RAS.
Conventional open-net pen salmon farms — basically floating fish farms — have been beset with controversy and environmental challenges including sea lice epidemics and to diseases like PRV, that have the ability to infect wild salmon populations.
Many populations of Pacific salmon are already in precipitous decline due to a host of other reasons, including climate change and warming oceans, the destruction of freshwater habitat from decades of careless river valley logging, not to mention the pressures of sport and commercial fishing. (Last year former minister of Fisheries and Oceans minister Bernadette Jordan announced the closure of more than 60 per cent of B.C.’s commercial salmon fisheries as an emergency conservation measure.)
Nowhere has the debate around the merits of fish farming burned more fiercely than in the Broughton Archipelago, a knot of islands west of Port McNeill between Vancouver Island and Knight Inlet. Hundreds of thousands of wild salmon migrate annually from coastal rivers and past fish farms in the archipelago where they have been infected by well-documented sea lice epidemics.
Things came to a head in 2020 when the three First Nations with traditional territories in the area — the ‘Namgis, Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis and Mamalilikulla —negotiated with the provincial and federal governments for the closure of 10 farms in the Broughton Archipelago by 2022.
Another seven fish farms were put on notice that if they are unable to demonstrate zero impact on wild salmon, they too will be closed. In December 2020, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced that all 19 fish farms in the Discovery Islands, which includes Quadra, Sonora and dozens of other islands, will also have to be out of the water by June 2022.
It goes further.
Last fall, the newly minted minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard, Joyce Murray — the first westerner to hold that portfolio — doubled down on a previous federal government commitment to phase out open-net pen fish farms by 2025.
But it could prove to be a perfect aligning of the stars for advocates of land-based fish farming.
The elevator pitch for RAS has always been convincing, at least from the perspective of marine ecology and wild salmon conservation. Disease and parasites, originating from a land-based fish farm, are completely contained within a closed system, and water polluted with fish waste can be treated on site.
It sounds simple on paper, but the economics are not as crystal clear.
Pioneers like Atkinson were not starting from scratch. B.C. has a long history of rearing young salmon in hatcheries, then releasing them into the wild or stocking floating fish farms with them. But, as Atkinson and others have learned the hard way, when growing fish to adulthood in land-based tanks, there are countless technical challenges to overcome, from the cost of energy to how to mimic and control ocean conditions.
“When we started out in 2010, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” says Atkinson.
For years it was one problem after another. And when one was solved, two others would appear.
“We need to ask: what can government do to help with the transition to closed containment? Access to land is key and that means dealing with multiple agencies.” — Steve Atkinson
Everything from lighting conditions to swim speed, water chemistry and temperature had to be studied and adjusted in a painstaking process of trial and error. Along the way, Taste of BC benefitted from collaborations with several Vancouver Island University (VIU) scientists; Atkinson estimated they published close to 30 papers on various aspects of research and technological innovation.
He’s also quick to credit Community Futures Central Island, which came to the table early on with a $250,000 loan when nobody else would put a nickel behind the venture. At the same time, Atkinson says they had to fight in court for Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credits, which Canada Revenue Agency had denied them (eventually they won retroactive credits to the tune of $1-million).
In 2018, when Atkinson was confident that all the technical hurdles had been overcome, the experimental farm was hit with a catastrophic bacteria. Over a single weekend, they lost 18 tonnes of fish.
“We considered quitting,” says Atkinson.
And, if it wasn’t for a financial lifeline from Community Futures, they might have.
Jolynn Green, executive director of Community Futures Central Island, says the fact that Atkinson had skin in the game, and was partnering with VIU experts, was important when they weighed whether or not to initially support the startup. When Atkinson knocked on the door at Community Futures again in 2018, this time to request that they inject much needed cash flow after the big die-off, Green says it was a case of, “in for dime, in for a dollar.”
“Steve was willing to take the risk when nobody else would,” says Green. “I think we made the right call, and I’m happy for them.”
Taste of BC may be in the spotlight these days, but it’s not the only RAS pioneer on Vancouver Island.
A Tectonic Shift in Sustainable Aquaculture
In 2013 the ‘Namgis First Nation, whose territory includes Alert Bay on Cormorant Island and the Nimpkish Valley, opened a land-based Atlantic salmon farm near Port McNeill called Kuterra, backed by a combination of governmental and environmental non-governmental organizational (ENGO) funding.
From the outset, the ‘Namgis saw it less as a commercial venture and more as a pilot project to move the needle on RAS technology and add momentum to the effort to get floating fish farms out of their territory.
“I think we proved that you can do it,” says Don Svanvik, chief of the ‘Namgis First Nation.
But scale was always the challenge at Kuterra; the operation never did more than break even. Hopes by some that the fish farm would turn into a money-maker for the ‘Namgis were tempered by a lack of resources, both financial and human, to invest in and scale production.
It prompted the ‘Namgis to start looking for a buyer. In 2019, a potential suitor, Whole Oceans, made an offer. But, when it was put to the community in a referendum, the ‘Namgis turned down the Maine-based seafood company’s offer.
“The community didn’t like the terms,” says Svanvik.
Instead, they negotiated a 15-year lease with Whole Oceans. Following the deal, in an article published in December, 2019, in Aquaculture North America, CEO Jacob Bartlett said Whole Oceans plans to “gain valuable insights and synergies to advance the company’s workforce training and will also benefit from the technological and marketing expertise of Kuterra.”
Large scale land-based fish farming is no longer just a pipe dream. From Florida to the northeastern U.S. seaboard and coastal B.C., big money is getting behind the technology.
The recent pulse of interest in Vancouver Island-grown RAS technology from seafood companies like Blue Star Foods and Whole Oceans points to a tectonic shift in sustainable aquaculture. Ottawa’s bold promise to get all fish farms out of B.C. waters by 2025 is helping the shift.
“That’s the $64-million question — whether or not they will deliver on that promise,” says Chief Don Svanvik.
Given it’s just three years away, he believes the federal government will more likely announce a plan for removal. Either way, it’s a loud warning to the big players in B.C. fish farming. Despite this, companies like Mowi seem to be taking a deer-in-the-headlights approach.
In a recent interview for the Norwegian online publication iLaks.no, Mowi boss Ivan Vindheim dismissed the role of closed containment in the company’s future.
“Personally, I have no faith in this,” said Vindheim, responding to predictions that all fish farms will have shifted to closed containment pens by 2030. “We simply can’t afford it. Nor is it proven technology, so it’s unrealistic.”
Atkinson says he has 12 years of data-driven research that begs to differ. And so does the ‘Namgis First Nation.
If Not Now, then When?
Dr. Muhammed Oyinlola, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Quebec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique after two years at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, studies the impact of climate change on fisheries and aquaculture around the world. He says, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” salmon aquaculture will shift to on-land.
There may be no other choice in a world of the near future. In a report published in February 2020, Oyinlola predicted that climate change could wipe out as much as 84 per cent of the area on B.C.’s coast currently suitable for farming Atlantic salmon.
“We believe we can be more efficient at a smaller scale, and more versatile.” — Muhammed Oyinlola
Not surprisingly, a warming climate will have an equally devastating impact on wild fisheries. Even the most optimistic modeling predicts a future in which Pacific salmon will vanish from rivers and streams in the southern reaches of our coastline. In 30 years, tropical countries could see their seafood catch drop by 40 per cent.
At the same time, Oyinlola says the global demand for seafood protein is only going one direction — up. He believes the demand will be increasingly met by land-based fish farms.
“We have the technology already,” says Oyinlola. “You need power, you need clean water and the operations have to be large in scale to make a profit.”
B.C. is positioned well, thanks to relatively cheap and clean hydro-electricity and abundant freshwater. However, land-based fish farming is not a simple panacea. The Achilles heel of fish farming — on land or in the ocean — has always been the fish feed side of the equation.
Traditionally, fish farms in the northern hemisphere have relied on feed made from rendered anchovies, and other species low on the marine food chain, that are caught in massive commercial fisheries off the South American coast and elsewhere.
The carbon and ecological footprint of this protein transfer is deeply problematic from an ecological and sustainability perspective. That’s why Oyinlola says a shift to RAS aquaculture must go hand-in-hand with the development and adoption of plant- and insect-based fish feed.
“We need a viable and sustainable aquaculture industry,” says Oyinlola. “It’s important for a lot of communities and also for our food system.”
Back at Taste of BC’s headquarters in Nanaimo, you’d think Atkinson would be taking a breather after his company’s sale to Blue Star Foods. Ten years of sweat equity was like a marathon with a finish line that kept getting farther away. But now that he’s crossed that line, he’s still running, this time to get ahead of the transition from controversial open-net pen to land-based fish farming. Government approvals can’t come fast enough.
“We have a bona fide solution to a problem that government helped create,” says Atkinson. “There’s a real opportunity now to take advantage of existing supply chains, skilled staff and infrastructure.”
Catching the Market
The world needs fish and is going to need a whole lot more in the coming years.
Globally, demand for aquatic foods is set to double by 2050. A research paper, published in 2021 as part of the marine-focused Blue Food Assessment, projected global consumption across all fish and shellfish categories will increase from 80 million tonnes (live weight) to almost 155 million tonnes in the next three decades.
Aquaculture is among the fastest-growing food sectors. As demand for food grows, the sector has an opportunity to steer expansion toward sustainability.
“There is still significant room for expansion in the production of blue foods, and we are only just scratching the surface of how sustainable this can be,” said Rosamond Naylor, co-author of the report and founding director at the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University.
B.C. is the world’s fourth-largest producer of Atlantic salmon — with Atlantic salmon exports totalling $566 million in 2021 — but has remained embroiled in a decades-long dispute about open net-pen salmon farms. Habitats and species are destroyed by disease and sea lice spreading from farmed to wild salmon; mass escapes risk compromising the genetic integrity of native species; a reliance on feed produced from wild-caught fish and agricultural crops has negative environmental impacts in and out of the water.
Ninety-five per cent of B.C.’s farmed salmon are exported to the U.S. where land-based farming innovations are ramping up. To stay competitive by keeping or redistributing its share of the market, the province needs a cohesive plan to transition to sustainable alternatives.
“Given the geographic patchiness of production, trade-in blue foods will likely grow. As it does, blue food exporters will need to think carefully about the trade-off between export revenues and domestic nutrition,” says U. Rashid Sumaila, professor, co-author of the report with Rosamond Naylor and Canada Research Chair in Interdisciplinary Ocean and Fisheries Economics at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, at the University of British Columbia.