Salmon farms are located in some of the most remote and beautiful places in the world, like British Columbia, Canada, so it’s not every day you get to visit one. Thankfully, Dean Trethewey, a salmon farmer and the production director at Grieg Seafood BC, a Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) member based in Campbell River, BC, Canada recently took time out of his day to tell us more about how salmon are raised, what the day-to-day of being a salmon farmer entails, and the processes in place to farm salmon to the highest environmental standards.
Dean found his calling in salmon farming from an early age following what he thought would just be a day helping a friend, into what has evolved into a neary 30-year career. He is one of the many people who help put GSI’s vision for sustainable aquaculture into action: farming salmon that’s raised to be better for ocean, climate, and communities, and he is the perfect person to answer some of the common questions we get about salmon farming. Read on to hear his thoughts below.
Q: First of all lets start with your day to day, what sort of activities does a usual day entail?
A: Just to get to our farms, you have to drive two hours from Vancouver Island and then get in a boat and go for another hour. Our sites are pretty remote which has its benefits for both our fish and our employees, and of course, its challenges. When we are at our farms, we are surrounding by beautiful scenery and we see all sorts of wildlife – seals, otters, eagles and occasionally we are lucky enough to be able to see whales or dolphins travelling by our sites.
Because the sites are so remote, the staff work and live out at our farms for eight days at a time. Our sites have floating homes, where the staff lives. There are usually only two or three people staying there at a time and we have our rotating crew. Caring for salmon is a fulltime, round the clock responsibility, which requires our farms to be staffed 24 hours a day.
To feed the salmon, we use an automated delivery system which uses air to puch the feed through the delivery system out to individual pens. This allows for precise monitoring of how much feed we are using. Before feeding can begin, our farmers look at water samples using a microscope to determine water quality and identify if there are any plankton or algae in the area. There are certain species that can be harmful to salmon and so we avoid feeding when these plankton are present in the water. We’re always looking at the oxygen level, temperature and other variables in each pen to properly care for the salmon.
Q: One of the questions we always get asked, is about what the salmon eat. Can you tell us more about what you feed your fish?
A: Just like us, salmon need good food to be healthy. Which is why our fish feed is incredibly nutrient packed, and we work closely with the feed suppliers to find the perfect balance of ingredients to give the fish what they need, the nutritional benefits for us as consumers, and to ensure we have minimal impact on the environment.
It’s clear that as the aquaculture industry grows we need to ensure responsible and sustainable sources of feed ingredients, and continue to look to using byproducts from the commercial fishing industry as well as alternate sources such as wheat, corn, algaes – even insects! This is one of the biggest areas of development in our sector, continuing to reduce the impact of the industry, including any potential impacts from feed ingredients, while still providing all of the nutritional and welfare needs of our fish. Grieg Seafood is currently exploring our approach in this area.
Q: We also hear a lot of confusion about dyes being added to the fish feed, can you clarify what that means?
A: Yes, dyes are not added to the feed. I think the confusion comes as salmon feed also includes all the vitamins and minerals the fish need for their diets and ones of those is an antioxidant called astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is found in shrimp, which when eaten by wild salmon, creates that healthy pink hue we associate with salmon. Astaxanthin provides important nutrients for salmon, which is why it is part of the nutrition profile we feed our fish. It also gives our fish that same healthy salmon color. We can see this same effect in other species who eat shrimp, such a flamingoes, who receive this natural coloration from eating large amounts of shrimp as part of their diet.
Q: Can you explain the pros and cons of different salmon farming methods?
A: Absolutely. Aquaculture is a really innovative industry and that innovation has helped give rise to several methods of farming salmon responsibly. In Campbell River, we wanted to create a farming system that meets the highest standards and that’s why we got on board with Aquaculture Stewardship Council certification, in order to grow our salmon in a consistent and transparent way at all of our farms.
By using net marine pens, we’re using the ocean’s natural wave and currents to bring the water through the pens, bringing oxygen for the fish and replicating their natural environment. Initially, escapes were a concern, but as technology and experience as an industry has increased, the materials used at our farms have also improved, making escapes a very rare occurrence. We actively work to prevent escapes through a rigorous monitoring program at our farms, the use of divers to inspect the system regularily and a set net washing schedule to ensure the system remains in excellent shape. We also partner with local indigenous communities to protect wild salmon in the region where we operate which could be considered an advancement as well.
For land-based pen systems, you have to do it at a much more condensed density because of the cost of that equipment. You also have to use much more water, electricity, and other forms of energy like fossil fuels such as diesel and natural gas because you’ve got to operate all the pumps and the water flow for the fish. You don’t have to do any of that in the open net system.
Ultimately, the industry will continue to innovate and whichever direction we do move in, it is always focused on improving the sustainability of the sector, and minimizing our impact.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the technology you use at your farms?
A: Yes, the tech is pretty cool. For example, we have underwater cameras in every single one of our pens and we can control where they are in the pen and zoom in or out to monitor the fish. With this we have one of the most advanced environmental monitoring systems which runs 24 hours a day. We collect so much ocean data, so we really understand the area that we’re farming in. That’s important for us because salmon are very sensitive to changes in the environment.
We also have systems in the pen that can control the upwelling of water and make sure the fish have a healthy flow of steady current water that’s always coming into the pens.
As a company – we are committed to continuing to look to innovation and technology to improve our operations, limit interactions with wild salmon and mitigate for any potential impacts of our operations.
Q: The salmon farming sector has struggled with public misperceptions over the years. How do you think we, as an industry, can overcome those?
A: As farmers, we haven’t gotten out there and shared our story with the public early enough. It’s new for us. And you know, with anything new, people are going to be hesitant. Aquaculture is the world’s fastest growing food sector and with that rapid growth comes a steep learning curve.
As an industry there have been poor practices in the past, but if you were to look at the farms of 30 years ago, even 10 years ago and compare them to the farms of today – you can see the improvements and the commitment to always improving how we operate. This has come about as we learn from our mistakes, and look for ways to operate in a sustainable way.
Certification is so important to help build public awareness and distinguish the good from the bad. We are still learning, and there is a lot more for us to learn. But we are confident that there is the expertise and the commitments across the industry, particularly within the GSI network, that we can farm salmon with the smallest level of impact.
Salmon farming is more than a job, it’s a calling
Dean also reminded us during our conversation, “All the men and women that work on their farms are really proud to raise these salmon. They spend more time with the salmon than they do with their family, unless of course you bring your family to work out there with you – like I do!”
GSI members are united in their efforts to provide healthy and sustainable options to meet the world’s growing protein demands. And they’re always open to continuing the conversation and sharing their stories, like Dean’s. Have questions for us or our farmers? Reach out and connect as we love sharing the work we do.