The Atlantic salmon Trust report that:

The purpose of the workshop was to update the audience on progress in developing alternative forms of salmon farming and to discuss the relevance of closed-containment technologies, especially the land-based options, to global salmon aquaculture.

The workshop was attended by 78 people from Canada, USA, and five European countries. There were 21 delegates from at least 18 companies actively involved in developing closed containment systems. There were also 16 representatives of US and Canadian federal and state governments, and strong representation from various charities and conservation bodies, including institutes, universities, First Nation lobby groups and angling interests. The high number of delegates, their diversity of interests, and the senior level of representation, made a clear statement about the perceived importance of the meeting.

The key message from the workshop was that the time for questioning the importance and viability of CC land-based salmon aquaculture is now past, as new technologies demonstrate their productivity, efficiency, and adaptability. There was also a consensus that the new technologies cannot replace existing open cage systems, but will work alongside them, providing a realistic alternative to salmon farms that are shown to be poorly sited, or for retailers wanting production units close to market.

A feature of the workshop was acceptance that, in the context of an expanding global population and demands of the market, aquaculture in all its forms has to be the main provider of fish and sea foods in the future. The extent to which demand outstrips supply is the commercial driver for the developing CC land-based industry. There was also an acceptance that venture capital institutions “are not yet comfortable with the new technology”, mainly because of the complicated equation of high capital costs versus lower running costs. More certainty will also be required on aspects of production, such as rearing densities, consumer acceptance of taste, texture and general appearance of the product.

The main issue for both the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Atlantic Salmon Trust is the extent to which CC technologies can provide a ‘biological firewall’ between farmed salmon and wild migratory salmonids. It may be thought that ideally all farmed salmon production should take place on land, where influents and effluents can be monitored and treated. However, reality is different from the ideal. The fact is that there is already a multi-million pound industry producing hundreds of thousands of tons of farmed Atlantic salmon in Norway, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and Chile. Nearly all production comes from marine open-cage systems. The range of CC technologies includes floating modules in the sea and, while these systems were seen as an improvement on existing open cage units, there was general agreement that land-based systems were more likely to reduce risks to a lower level than could be achieved by any system in salt water.

On the positive side there are obvious advantages of CC land-based salmon aquaculture; for example, production units can be sited close to markets, thereby minimising transportation costs and associated stress to the fish. Controls of water quality and temperature, bio-security, diseases, early maturation and the delivery of daily husbandry are much easier to manage in closed systems than in marine open cages.

Experiments in artificial manipulation of photoperiod (the amount of light to which the fish are exposed) have shown dramatic reductions in early maturation of grilse. Grow-out periods are much reduced, and of course segregation from wild salmon and sea trout is assured. For countries like China with a growing demand for quality protein foods the opportunity provided by CC land-based systems adjacent to large conurbations is obvious, which may explain why Chinese production of salmon already provides 5% of all US farmed salmon imports!

On the not-so-positive side the CC land-based prototypes have work to do to show that their high capital costs, which are about US $22 million for a 3000 ton annual production unit, can be justified. Costs of electricity, availability of fresh water supplies, obtaining the various permissions, and dealing with problems such as early maturation and consumer resistance will have to be overcome if the new technologies are to succeed. While the workshop dealt specifically with land-based CC systems, we should not ignore the range of CC technologies, including salt water systems in floating modules in inshore areas of coastal waters.

The positive points may reassure conservationists and anglers, but they do not necessarily persuade the investors or the markets. It became apparent that the Danish company, Atlantic Sapphire, is a potential market leader in developing commercially viable land-based CC systems. The company will build a 2,500 ton CC facility in the United States, and has plans to expand production to 16,000 tons within ten years. An aspect of company policy is to move towards sustainable feeds for farmed salmon in the near future.

There are a number of other companies in the UK, Canada, Norway, China and USA which are close behind them. The issue here is not the competition between these companies, because it is obvious that market demand can accommodate them all. The key point is whether these technologies can produce and deliver a high quality product at a competitive price.

One of the last presentations of the workshop was given by John Volpe of the School of Environmental Studies, Victoria, British Columbia, in which he analysed the use of the term ‘sustainability’ which he described as “the most popular and sought after of all seafood product adjectives”.

He talked about the 2010 Global Aquaculture Performance Index (GAPI) and its importance in assessing the position of farmed salmon in the context of global aquaculture and protein production. He emphasised the necessity of objective aquaculture standards and benchmarking. He concluded by making the point that the issue should be to compare the environmental and climatic impacts of salmon aquaculture with terrestrial protein production of e.g. the beef industry – “We need credible assessment tools capable of empirically separating leaders from laggards in the increasingly integrated animal protein marketplace”.

AST policy on open-cage salmon farms is based on the recognition that farms in the wrong site, or where husbandry fails to meet minimum standards, damage the environment and wild salmonids, in both fresh water and in the sea. AST’s solution is site specific, and involves placing the appropriate technology into a suitable location.

This approach can be summed up by a traffic light analogy of dealing with the risk of open cage farms in specific sites. In places where an analysis shows that risks to wild salmonids and the environment are unacceptably high, a red light applies; where mitigating the risk requires a strict regime of controls, an amber light. Where there is a limited risk, which still requires the protocols, monitoring and reporting of good husbandry, a green light applies. In this context the new technologies of CC systems can ensure that farmed salmon production continues, even when a marine site receives a red light risk assessment. The evolving range of production methods should give the salmon farming industry the opportunity to attain a sustainable status in all its locations under the most exacting demands.

The strengthening partnership between AST and ASF will enable the two charities to ensure that solutions to problems affecting wild salmon on both sides of the Atlantic are shared. By working together, and communicating best practice in areas such as salmon farming, protecting wild salmon migration routes, and contributing to knowledge of the whole lives of Atlantic salmon, the two charities can support fisheries managers throughout the North Atlantic seaboard. The workshop is an example of the benefits of this cross-Atlantic relationship.