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Pen farming fish has two sides

David Groves works for Sea Spring Sea Farms which operates fish farms in the Inside Passage of the British Columbia coast using proven methods of net pen farming.

A moratorium on the process was lifted with certain restrictions. The practice of fallowing (moving existing farms to different sites) is allowed to resume but any new farms must employ a closed containment system of fish pens.

"The closed containment pen is a bag instead of a net," Groves said. "It is not economical. It is too expensive and we think it fails to solve any perceived problems. The waste leaves the bag untreated, or the cost of treatment is too high. Unconsumed feed is a problem that accumulates at the bottom of the bag."

"Net pens have become very cost efficient with the use of TV monitoring," he continued. "They waste no feed and now we are seeing incredible savings in doing business. We stop feeding the fish when the fish stop feeding. We use better technology for examining the surface. We employ survey boats, map water columns and currents, and improve conditions at existing farms sites. We reorient the sites to make use of currents, which dispose of annual aerobic breakdown quickly. It becomes a nutrient to the sea."

Groves said the closed containment system has far more fish in it. Disposing of more waste involves expensive machinery. "Future Sea Pens are closed containment systems. They are effective on lakes. They are installed on the Brador Lakes and The Great Lakes," he explained. "They contain rainbow trout, which run at higher density. In the ocean environment they will be technically viable later. It is in development, but it is not commercially viable."

He looks forward to initiatives in growing black cod and halibut. "We will see the BC coast in a very competitive global market. We are a bit player. Norwegians and Chileans are huge and they control the industry."

As for the future in the BC coast, Groves feels the winds of change. "When it began the First Nations were never consulted," he said. "They were busy in the commercial fishery that thrived at that time. It is a shame to say they were overlooked. That is the difference today. The First Nations referrals are a key part of the licensing process."

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Phil Andrew works at Future Sea Technology in Nanaimo, British Columbia, which has researched and developed the closed containment fish pen for the past 10 years, gradually bringing it to a state of commercial viability.

Andrew explained that the government has said new sites will use closed containment pens for the next year or so to evaluate new technology. The release given to the industry in November '99 "fits well with our business plans.

"We have been anxious to see the climate change for business and the future of this industry. We have sold a few pens in the province. We have sold internationally to the U.S. and Australia. We have sold to eastern Canada."

He said the company has excellent results in lakes. "We have the capability to remove solid waste from feed and fish waste. The company developed and patented a waste trap."

Andrew agreed the technology is more expensive than net pens, adding that closed containment can operate in places where net pens are inappropriate. "We have reductions in feed costs, which is the number one operating cost of fish farming. Our future is across Canada and therefore we are speaking to First Nations fisheries across the country."

The typical pen holds 10,000 fish, he explained, and the company provides different sizes. "We grow the salmon to four kilograms in about 18 to 24 months. We have one in Departure Bay under the supervision of the DFO at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. We provide the pen and the operators. They monitor a set of experiments and publish the results."

Future Sea Technologies operates in Nanaimo and Port Moody.