Aquaculture industry showcases life on the farm

Even though this net cleaner is old technology

From a control room at a salmon farm in Phillips Arm, a worker watches the fish in each pen as they are being fed.

The salmon at the Philips Arm farm, located 57 kilometres north of Campbell River and owned by Marine Harvest, started out in the Dalrymple hatchery, just south of Sayward. When they weighed around 30 grams they were vaccinated by technicians at the hatcheries. Each of the 546,000 fish that are now at the Philips Arm farm were caught and given two needles.

When the fish weighed around 130 grams they were put in the ocean and then transferred to Phillips Arm, and have been fed from sun up to sun down ever since. At the moment they are around 2.5 kg, half of their market size, and they have only been in the water for one summer.

In the control room where the worker watches the fish being fed, you can see a camera in each pen, marked with a yellow buoy. It can turn 360 degrees, move across the pen and go all the way down to the bottom. Typically the cameras are around seven metres down. The goal is for the fish to feed in the top four metres. At seven metres, if the workers see pellets that haven’t been eaten, they stop feeding.

“We watch to make sure the fish are eating the pellets. We watch to make sure every pellet finds a mouth to make sure we get the most growth out of our feed, we don’t want to send anything to the bottom, to waste any of our feed,” said Ryan Wogan, assistant manager on site.

On the screens, the fish swim as a group in circles. Wogan said they typically school around the feeder. As well as looking for spare pellets, the worker in the chair is watching for sluggish movements, which indicates the fish are stuffed, and watching in case the fish are spooked. In all of these cases, they turn the feeder off.

None of the crew wants pellets to hit the bottom. The farm is subject to environmental exams and external audits.

“These guys, if they screw up and dump feed on the bottom of the ocean, we won’t be able to start the farm again,” said Ian Roberts, Marine Harvest director of public affairs.

The feed for the fish is also the most expensive part of the operation. Wogan said a barge brings them feed every other week and, at the moment, they are feeding between eight and 10 tonnes a day.

At any given time, when the sun is up, food is being shot into four of the pens. Right now they are feeding in 45 second bursts. The type of pellets the fish are given, as well as the feeding cycles, differs as the fish grow because they need different nutrients at different sizes. Wogan said that when the fish weigh 3 kg they will change up the feed again. Altogether they will go through 10-12 feed changes during their two years on the farm.

At Philip’s Arm, the salmon are growing one kg for every 1.16 kg of food they eat. Roberts said that in Norway, the fish farms have conversion rates of 1.02, and that the end goal is to reach a one to one rate.

On the farm the health of the fish is top priority.

Before entering the storage room, on the main floor of the barge, all shoes are sanitized. Paul Pattison, the manager on site, said that any time he or his workers handles dead fish, they use completely different equipment, he even changes his boots so there is no cross-contamination. At Philips Arm there is an eight percent mortality rate.

The crew living and working on site is in charge of raising the fish. Wogan has been working with Marine Harvest for four years. He started off as a technician in a hatchery and worked his way up. Pattison has been with Marine Harvest since 1997. One of his buddies got a job on a fish farm and brought Pattison around to check it out. He said he was working on the farm the next day.

“We live for the fish,” Pattison said.

Marine Harvest has other crews come in to take care of everything else.

In order to adhere to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s certification guidelines, the company had to stop using nets coated with copper. They recently invested in high density polyethylene nets that are stronger, but have to be manually cleaned. A crew visits the site every couple of weeks to take care of that.

There is also a dive team that goes underwater to check the nets once every 60 days, and there is a fish health team that regularly visit the site and send samples to the Ministry of Agriculture’s lab.

“This is a pretty good performing site, generally we are legally allowed to restock right away,” said Katherine Dolmage, certification manager.

As certification manager, Dolmage visits each of Marine Harvest’s sites and goes through the environmental certification checklists. She said she thinks she has the best job in the company.

Dolmage grew up in the fish farming industry and has seen many changes since it first came to B.C. She remembers running around the farms when they were still hand feeding the fish and there were no bio-security measures at all.

“I think the biggest change, it’s come a long way already but there is still a long way to go, is with our feed,” she said. “We are relying a lot less on wild fish [as a feed ingredient].”

The salmon will be in the water for about another year and a half, until they reach the market size of 5 kg. At that point they will be harvested and Philips Arm will lie fallow for a few months. During that time the crew will prepare the site for the next round of fish, cleaning, sanitizing and repairing. Some workers will help on other sites and some will take holidays but Hogan and Pattison will be happy to get back out of the barge and continue their careers in feeding people.