Aerial view of a fish farm with six square and circular pen

What role will semi closed containment system fish farms have after 2025?

(Part 2 of 2, click here for Part 1)

The fish farm industry does not want to leave British Columbia’s coastal waters in 2025. 

In a recent press release Andreas Kvame, CEO of Grieg Seafood, said, “Our industry is in continuous development with new technologies and innovations, and in Grieg Seafood we are committed to improvements that strengthen biological control and reduce interactions with wild salmon.” 

David Kemiele, Managing Director of Cermaq emailed Cortes Currents, “Our new protocol extends to the end of 2025 and we are using that time to refine what our operations will look like moving forward beyond 2025 and definitely innovation plays a critical role in that plan.”

Dan Lewis, executive director of Clayoquot Action, explained, “They call it a SCCS (semi closed containment system) and what we’re seeing with the consultation that DFO is running, is  the wording the ministry is using. Things like ‘we want the industry to lead the way with technological change.’ It is becoming more and more clear that what they’re talking about is these semi-close containment systems in the water.”

Cropped image from the Millar Channel fish farm – Photo courtesy Clayoquot Action

Stan Proboszcz, senior scientist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, added, “There aren’t any proven semi-closed containment projects that I know of anywhere that work. I know a few of the companies have been trialing that technology in British Columbia over the last several years and all I’ve heard about are failures. If they’re talking about it,  I honestly believe having worked on this issue for so long that it is just talk to maintain the status quo, which is open nets.”

“When you think about it, semi-close containment really  is still an open net farming. Still open to the ocean.  In my own opinion, it’s a fantasy that the industry tries to promote and convince people that it may happen someday.”  

After an allegedly successful trial off the Sunshine Coast, Grieg installed semi-closed systems at all three of their farms in Esperanza Inlet.

Cermaq’s trial of this technology at its Millar Channel farm in Clayoquot Sound was terminated early in the third stage (out of four) because iof technical issues

Dr Peter McKenzie, Cermaq director of Fish Health explained, “SCCS is immature technology under development, therefore it is not surprising when you are trialing new technology you will run into challenges.”

Kemiele added, “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.”

Lewis said, “The industry doesn’t want to move onto land and so they’re going to do anything they can to keep their farms in the water. So Cermaq opened this thing in 2020. It cost them $5 million to do this experimental fish farm. Taxpayers footed the bill for 1 million of those dollars, we chipped in a million dollars.”

“It is an experimental system. They have, I think, one or two of them running in Norway, but they’re unable to grow the fish to full size in these semi-close containment systems. They have to have an open net pen to put the fish in when they get to a certain size. So when Cermaq launched this semi-close system in the Fall of 2020, they announced that they were going to try to grow the fish to full size.”

“So they put a cohort of fish in and at a certain point in time, they pulled a third of them out. Grew them to a certain size, pulled a third, then they grew them to a bigger size. I think they were trying to grow the final third to full size and there was a technical fault resulting in fish health problems.”  

“They ended up pulling the fish, but we did an ATIP, an access to information,  and what we learned was that the fish were being exposed to high levels of ammonia. In other words, they were breathing their own urine and it was probably burning their gills and causing serious problems for the health of those fish.  That’s just a horrible way for any kind of animal to die, an animal in captivity to be kept in its own urine.” 

“We’ve examined that system very carefully. We dove under and there’s just a rain of fish poop coming out and fish pellets.  They’re pumping seven Olympic size swimming pools an hour in and out of this thing. There’s no filtration of that water, so that’s where the viral particles are coming out. It’s a viral super spreader, just like any other fish farm, except that the semi-close system has more fish in it then an open net pen.” 

Aerial view of the semi closed containment system (SCCS)

While all of the fish farm sites in the Discovery Islands are currently inactive, this could change very quickly. 

Cermaq Canada has reoccupied its Raza Island site, off the northern tip of Cortes Island, and is ready to restock it with fish if DFO gives them the green light. 

Kemiele emailed, “We believe there can be a future in the Discovery Island region. Again working with Nations interested in the economic benefits of aquaculture and potentially salmon farming, while using innovation and science to minimize and/or eliminate risk to wild salmon as per the Ministers considerations.”  

Cortes Currents asked both candidates for Regional Director in the Discovery Islands, during the upcoming election, what they thought about introducing semi closed containment systems into their area.

Marc Doll said, “It concerns me that it looks like we’re heading in a direction that is opposite to the ministerial letter, and what we have been told is the direction for sea farms.”

He added, “So the understanding is that the ministry letter doesn’t apply to semi-contained netting? This issue is contentious and it gets more contentious when people play with wording, like what seems to be happening here.” 

Robyn Mawhinney said, “I believe it’s incumbent on all coastal dwellers that we are working on prioritizing wild salmon health and that includes the industry that is here on this coast, because if they want to be here, they are going to need to prioritize wild salmon. Having closed containment systems with super filtration is one way. Putting them on land and having ultimate control and responsibility for the parasites and the effluent is an even better step.”

Underwater shot from a open net pen in 2016 – Photo courtesy Ian Roberts, Marine Harvest Canada (now MOWI Canada West)

Lewis said, “So Cermaq is now trying to reboot this semi closed system. They’ve been very clear it is experimental and it is innovation and that technological innovation takes time. However, wild salmon are on the brink of extinction and they don’t have time.” 

“If the Department of Fisheries’ vision of the future is that we’re going to have these semi closed containment systems, that means that we have to have open net pens as well — to grow those fish out in. So it looks like the vision for the future is not a transition from open net pens, but rather some kind of a slowly phased in transition towards ‘in water’ semi closed containment. And semi-closed means it’s semi-open.”

DFO approved Cermaq’s application to expand three farms in Clayoquot Sound.  The farms at Bawden Bay and Millar Channel can increase their biomass by 50%. Dixon Bay can go up 25%.  

Lindsey McDonald, of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, emailed Cortes Currents, “The Government of Canada is fully committed to developing a plan to transition away from open-net pen salmon aquaculture in British Colombia. Work on that plan is underway.”

“While Cermaq has requested amendments to three specific sites, the company’s overall production limits in Northern Clayoquot Sound remain unchanged, and only four of the six farms in the area will be allowed to operate at any given time. Additionally, new conditions of licence will now require the company to stock only a single year class of fish, contributing to a more coordinated approach in the area with the aim of disrupting cycles of pathogens and disease.”

Dan Lewis added, “One of the things that DFO was saying is that if the companies do technological innovation, they might be rewarded with increased biomass.  What we’ve seen happen at the Miller Channel farm, in Clayoquot Sound, is they started with an open net pen with 10 pens. Then they went down to six open net pens with the semi-closed system, which had more fish in it than the original open net.  Now they have permission to keep the semi-closed system, plus the original 10 pen farm. This is what I see coming for the future of salmon farming in BC. We would, we could conceivably end up with more fish farms in the water, more Atlantic salmon being reared in BC than when we started.”

“That is completely the wrong direction to go. It’s really an important time for people to let the minister know that what we’re looking for is a transition of fish farms out of BC waters to protect wild salmon. ”

Top image credit: Aerial view of Cermaq’s Millar Channel Farm. The square pens use an open net pen system. The circular pen is Cermaq’s semi-closed containment system. Photo by Sam Chen, courtesy Cermaq Canada

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