Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture (SEAfood) System being developed by North Island College researcher Stephen Cross involves creating a sustainable ecosystem of a variety of life within the farm.

NIC researcher innovating in aquaculture

One local researcher is trying to change the way fish are farmed on our coast.

Stephen Cross, industrial research chair for sustainable aquaculture and developer of the Aquaculture Technician program at the Campbell River campus of North Island College (NIC), is working with west coast salmon farmers to explore the feasibility of co-culturing kelp and other forms of seafood around established fish farms and diversifying the production at those facilities.

The goal, Cross says, is to create a more environmentally sustainable farm, “that mimics natural ecosystems and produces additional seafood products within each individual operation. Once we discover the right species mix and production balance, we could create an entirely new way to produce seafood.”

The approach is dubbed the Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture (SEAfood) System, and it layers sablefish with oysters, scallops, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and sugar kelp within the same farming operation, creating one ecosystem where the various species all thrive due to the presence of each other, and has been gaining international recognition.

“Generally, how it works is you have some kind of fin fish – a sablefish or even a salmon – which would be your primary ‘fed’ species, and then all the other species would be using either the waste from that species or whatever comes with the currents, for sustenance,” explains Naomi Tabata, manager of the Centre for Applied Research, Technology & Innovation at NIC. “This is world-class innovation and research and we are so pleased to be able to share Dr. Cross’ expertise with Campbell River businesses.”

Basically, the fish is fed by humans; the oysters, scallops and mussels downstream from the fish feed on their waste, then long lines of kelp – used in sushi and bioethanol – then filter the water further. Lastly, way down on the sea floor, sea cucumbers vacuum up the leftover organic waste missed by the other organisms in the chain.

Cross is currently testing infrastructure, manufacturing prototypes, assessing alternative energy systems and exploring cost-effective business models for commercial production.

Part of that testing and research involves the hiring of students from both the Aquaculture Technician program in Campbell River and various students and researchers from other disciplines and programs in other schools, such as the University of Victoria.

“Given the inherent multi-disciplinary nature of our approach we typically have engineering, marine biology, physics, electronics, oceanography, business, economics, and governance students engaged in our projects,” Cross says.

Another facet of Cross’ current research, fittingly, is exploring B.C.’s potential for kelp production.

Kelp lines being installed at more than 30 different farm sites off Vancouver Island – just this week, in fact – are part of the largest ever study of its kind.

“Last year, NIC started preliminary trials at a test site near Tofino which showed good growing potential for a commercial seaweed industry,” Tabata says. “This year, the study is much more extensive – with test lines going in near Tahsis, Baynes Sound, Tofino, Port Hardy and Kyuquot and more.”

The study will analyze how water clarity, salinity, temperature and various marine conditions affect kelp growth. It will look at regional production performance, commercial-scale infrastructure and operating needs, as well as the market potential for Saccharina (sugar) kelp grown at salmon farms along British Columbia’s coast.

If successful, the study could broaden the commercial viability of B.C.-grown kelp for food, vitamin-rich pharmaceuticals and natural cosmetics. In 2015, the U.S.-based Ocean Sciences National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota estimated the global value of primary and intermediate seaweed products at $10 billion a year.

More information on Cross’ work can be found in a recently published feature in the MacLeans 2016 Colleges Guide, which is on news stands now, or at nic.bc.ca/research