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General · 7th November 2010
Ray Grigg
Dr. Andrew Wright has an energetic gait that exudes confidence. He is an alert man, perhaps in his 40s, with a crisp English accent he still retains after having been in Canada for 20 years. Within moments of beginning his power-point presentation on a land-based, closed-containment salmon farming system, his earnest commitment to modernize the industry is obvious and unquestionable. And he speaks with the technical expertise and assurance of someone who is intimately familiar with both the industry and the complex biology involved in growing farmed salmon.

His background, however, is neither in salmon farming nor biology. His doctorate is in electrical engineering, in designing computer chips. He came to Canada with this expertise, joined two companies that subsequently went bankrupt, so decided to form his own. About 15 years later he sold it for a "ridiculous amount of money". Since then, he has been devoting his time, energy and financial resources to conservation issues, including a "substantial sum" to the $60 million that was raised to fund the ecological security of the Great Bear Rainforest – a place, he says, that is as powerful, dramatic and globally significant as Africa's Serengeti and its migration of wildebeests.

It was the Great Bear Rainforest and its massive migration of wild salmon that prompted his concern about open net-pen salmon farming. As the case against the ecological wisdom of growing fish in the ocean continues to mount, he became convinced that the only real solution was a land-based closed-containment system. When supporters of the industry – and even members of the provincial government – told Dr. Wright that such a system was not technologically or economically feasible, the challenge was irresistible. This, remember, is the man who has made a fortune doing those things that, apparently, could not be done.

So, for two intense years, he focused on solving the salmon farming problem, summoning his inventiveness, energy, engineering skills and expertise as a systems analyst – designing a land-based, closed-containment aquaculture system, he contends, involves the same set of skills as designing and building computer chips.

The result, Technologies for Viable Salmon Aquaculture, has been presented to the federal government's Standing Committee for Fisheries and Oceans and has been reported in the Globe and Mail. Indeed, his work is not so much a study as a complete design for a module that would produce 100 tonnes of salmon per year, and could be coupled with the hydroponic production of food. When connected to agricultural and other aquaculture processes, it could grow crayfish and a wide variety of farm crops – the waste from growing each 200 kg of farmed salmon would also grow 3,000 heads of lettuce. The objective is the total utilization of all materials in the system using simple and elegant technology that already exists and is being manufactured in BC.

Dr. Wright's concept would allow the salmon farming industry to expand to meet its potential, while solving all the disease and waste problems haunting the industry and environment. Such a land-based system would also bring the industry within reach of cheap electricity and road transportation for the easy movement of people, supplies and product. The need for tanks and equipment would generate a whole new manufacturing and maintenance sector in the province, benefitting employment, communities, families, governments, the environment and the industry itself.

A 100 metric tonne module would cost about $1.2 million to build, by Dr. Wright's calculations, not excessively more than present open net-pens. But each module would have lower maintenance costs, would last for decades and would end predation and fish escapes. Temperatures could be regulated for optimum fish growth and health. A central treatment plant that removed carbon dioxide and waste would add oxygen and circulate water. Ten surrounding tanks would hold fish of staggered ages, growing in a continuous cycle so the treatment plant could function at a fairly constant demand. This would also regularize production. One entire module would need a modest 400 litres of fresh water per minute – all species of salmon can be grown to maturity in fresh water which can be filtered and sterilized to eliminate all parasites and diseases. The waste stream could then service hydroponic gardens, feed other aquatic animals such as crustacea, generate fertilizer or energy, or irrigate land with nitrogen-rich nutrients.

Modules could be added together to best fit each location, taking advantage of markets, land availability, crop growing capability and other factors. The flexibility of the system invites innovation and creativity. A 1,000 tonne per year collection of ten modules would cost about $12 million and offer substantial profits. Dr. Wright estimates that the energy consumed by 2-3 pulp mills could grow the province's entire farmed salmon production in land-based closed-containment systems. Each site could be integrate smoothly into the economic and social fabric of each community, augmenting and even creating new production opportunities. A prototype is now being built and Dr. Wright's intention is to offer, for free, complete sets of construction drawings and operating instructions for anyone wanting to undertake this system of farming salmon and growing food.

Quality salmon, grown in an environmentally responsible way, is extremely popular with consumers. Dr. Wright affirms that a Washington state company, AquaSeed, is successfully and economically growing coho in a system similar to his, with a contract to sell its entire production to a BC supermarket chain. The product, free of controversy, is in such demand that the chain has committed to buy all the fish AquaSeed can produce, a guarantee that is inspiring a ten-fold increase in production.

This has to be the future of salmon farming in BC. As science continues to render open net-pen "feedlots" less and less defensible, Dr. Andrew Wright's land based, closed containment system seems ever more opportune. It provides a solution that is sensible, practical, elegant and profitable. And it is offered for free. Perhaps it's time to trust the fresh and clear ingenuity of an industry outsider whose generous heart has been inspired by the Great Bear Rainforest.