The essentials of fish farming

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Michael Wood of Integrated Aqua Systems experienced fish farming when the industry was taking it on the chin.

"I met a fellow from the East Coast who worked for a fisheries department of a First Nation. He was on a fact-finding mission toward a business study. His main purpose was researching the environmental impact of the fish farm industry. The talk around the industry was so negative at the time that he said, "If I find out it is good news, basically I am fired."

Wood says the industry has created conditions for acceptance. "We have done it. We have played political low-ball while we went worldwide with regulations that make it a viable investment in the environmental sense."

Integrated Aqua Systems has been operating for 12 years. "Observation from the outside interests was the key," Wood said. "We had to let everyone see what happens with fish farms. That is not an easy task, considering the best farming conditions are often in the remotest areas."

IAS is an innovator in creating awareness. It designs and installs automated feeder systems and video monitoring systems for fish farms.

"The auto feeder systems save the tennis elbow that occurs from tossing feed to thousands of fish," he said. "The system is light and durable to move around the pens. The feeding process is carefully monitored by underwater video cameras. We have created a great advantage in getting feedback on fish activity. We have eliminated the problems for ocean bottoms, for the shellfish and marine life. We have ended waste of feed. No feeding occurs when the fish stop eating."

IAS provides farmers with another advantage, Wood said. "We equip them to monitor the health of the fish. The technology is able to supply an accurate look at fish behavior. We have a basic, grass-roots philosophy about raising the fish in pens. Humans should always be involved in animal husbandry. It is essential to monitor behavior and activity at all times and they can do it with this system."

The philosophy in practice won them the first Innovation Award presented by the Society for the Positive Awareness of Aquaculture. "It was nice to get recognition for our small but effective team," Wood said.

Doug Louvier works for Wavemaster. In the early 1990s Wavemaster began building the physical floating structures for fish farms, primarily the non-skid steel deck that allows farmers to walk around the sides of the pens.

"It looks like the bottom of an egg carton," he said.

Louvier said the industry used to put plastic walkways around pens until the number of accidents reversed the practice. "Plastic came and went. The workers need to service the fish without performing a balancing act in the middle of the ocean."

Wavemaster builds foam-filled poly-floats about the size of a business desk and float about a foot and a half above the surface of the water.

They surround the large pens, eight or more pens to a farm, each pen housing 10,000 fish for 18 to 20 months. Wavemaster also builds a smaller two-pen unit. "These are two concentric circles of poly-pipe bolted together with a reverse u-bar that stands about five feet above the water," Louvier explained.

Brian Hirsch works at Point Four Systems, a service company in the Canadian and international fish farm industry.

"We are a supplier of electronic-based applications that put oxygen in water," Hirsch said. "We monitor and measure the oxygen levels. Our work is mostly in hatcheries. We also service the business of live fish transportation."

Point Four Systems is another Canadian company with the majority of its operations abroad. "Only 25 per cent of our business is in Canada. We would like it to be more. It is up to the politicians. It is an export that helps the balance of payments. Unfortunately today it is a small market for our service. We hear forecasts that call for expansion of the number of hatcheries."

Meanwhile Point Four fills a niche in aquaculture industry. Hirsch said it's quite a simple device, a defuser of small bubbles and a meter-long probe to monitor oxygen levels.

"The problem we solve concerns the way fish crowd together, especially in the hatchery. They must be monitored and oxygen must be added under certain circumstances. Our product range is specialized in a biologically oriented market for sustaining future harvests.