Way back in the early days of salmon farming in B.C. farmers experimented with growing practically every kind of fish.
During the first salmon farming “gold rush” in the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of people saw dollar signs and thought they could make a fortune by throwing some fish in an old fishing net and tossing feed at them. There were some successes, but there were a lot more failures, as the old-timers will tell you.
One big set of failures were the attempts to grow sockeye to market size in net pens.
It didn’t work out very well; sockeye are highly susceptible to disease. This is simply a fact farmers and enhancement facilities have encountered when they have tried to culture sockeye. In salmon enhancement facilities in Alaska, where they raise hundreds of millions of sockeye to smolt size and then release them, nearly half of the cultured fish routinely died from IHN virus and other diseases in the 1990s, before hatcheries were finally able to get a better handle on biosecurity.
Other attempts to grow sockeye bigger than smolt size have met with dismal failure.
Today, only Atlantic salmon and some Chinook salmon are raised in ocean pens, because of the farming expertise that has been developed for those species as well as the high-quality broodstock that has been developed to pass on farm-friendly genetics from generation to generation.
Because it’s the dominant salmon in the marketplace, many people have tried (and failed) to grow Atlantic salmon in tanks to market size.
But not everyone’s given up on sockeye.
One farmer in Langley has managed to raise sockeye in tanks to 1.5 kilograms and has the capacity to produce 25 tonnes of sockeye and trout per year. This is very interesting and encouraging and any good news story about salmon farming is good for all salmon farmers. There is a photo gallery posted with the story that gives a good look at his farm and his fish.
There is one small problem with the story, however.
This is not the “world’s first land-based” sockeye farm.
Way back even before salmon farming caught on, back in 1974, J.R. Brett at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo did extensive experiments with growing sockeye salmon in tanks. His research showed something that all salmon farmers have to struggle with — the bigger the fish get, the slower they grow and the more feed they eat. This is something all salmon farmers, in the sea and on land, still have to deal with.
We will be watching this Langley farm with interest and wish Don Read all the best as he works to make this a viable business.
Why has one group of sockeye salmon from the Fraser River system experienced a growth in productivity over the past decade while other Fraser River stocks have declined?
Storytellers playing scientist have tried to convince people Harrison River sockeye don`t pass salmon farms when they migrate north, therefore they are doing well simply because they don’t pass salmon farms. This explains everything if you’re already predisposed to blame salmon farms for everything and accept simple answers to tough questions.
It’s true that at least some Harrison sockeye migrate out of the river delta and go along the West Coast of Vancouver Island, unlike most other stocks which generally migrate along the East Coast of Vancouver Island.
However, as usual with activism-driven science claims, there`s a lot more to the story.
But the most important piece of the puzzle is that Harrison sockeye have a very different life strategy than other salmon stocks.
Unlike other sockeye, which feed and grow in lakes for several years before going to sea, Harrison sockeye go to sea shortly after they emerge from the gravel where they hatched. They are in the ocean nearly a year earlier than other sockeye stocks. This may give them an advantage in early marine survival growth, occupying a niche that few other species do. They may enjoy better feeding conditions as fry and juveniles, less competition for food and less threats from predators.
Let’s say that again. A significant amount of Harrison River sockeye winter off the West Coast of Vancouver Island when they are very small, young and vulnerable.
There are approximately 30 active salmon farms on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, from Quatsino Sound south to Alberni Inlet. Clearly they are not having any negative impacts on wintering Harrison sockeye, not even when they are at a young and vulnerable stage.
The Harrison sockeye appear to have developed a very successful survival strategy, and it appears it co-exists very well with salmon farms. More research is needed to explore this connection.
More resources: This map shows all the registered salmon farm and hatchery tenures in B.C. However, many of the sites on the list have been inactive for years or have been rescinded by the provincial government. Typically, there are about 70 active farms in British Columbia.