This is the first part of The Narwhal’s three-part series on the future of sustainable salmon.
Damien Claire stands inside an industrial complex on the outskirts of Miami, watching thousands of salmon fry dart this way and that in a circular tank. At nine weeks old, the youngsters are the size of paperclips and learning to feed. Instinctively, they school, turning into a swirling dark ball in the lime green light.
Claire wears a bright safety vest and a white hardhat stamped with the logo of the company he works for, Atlantic Sapphire. It’s a brand that pops up frequently these days in seafood industry publications with names like Salmon Business and Intrafish.
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Founded by two Norwegian cousins with an environmental ethos, Atlantic Sapphire got its start in Hvide Sande, a windswept Danish fishing village on the North Sea, where the company raised small batches of market-ready salmon that never dipped a fin in the ocean or a river. Today, the company is poised to become the largest producer of land-based Atlantic salmon in the world.
Claire, originally from France, is Atlantic Sapphire’s chief sales and marketing officer. He’s clean-shaven, has a movie-star accent and waves his hands around when he speaks. His enthusiasm is palpable, even through Zoom and a wonky internet connection.
The fry, he explains, were transferred about two weeks earlier from an onsite hatchery, where they spent the first weeks of their lives eating their yolk sacs. In another 18 to 20 months, after moving through five more tanks that mimic the natural stages of their life cycle, from freshwater to saltwater, and something in between, they will be ready for the grill.
“It’s a little bit faster than in net pens because the fish always have ideal conditions,” says Claire, who previously worked for a large distribution company selling Chilean farmed salmon. “There is no winter here, there are no diseases, there are no sea lice. We optimize everything the fish needs.”
More than three million Atlantic salmon, in various stages of development, are swimming and schooling in what Atlantic Sapphire calls a Bluehouse. Think of a greenhouse, only for fish. The Bluehouse, a name trademarked by the company, is an hour’s drive from downtown Miami and 25 kilometres from the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay near the Florida Keys. From the air, the complex appears as a blaze of white bobbing in a sea of fields. The flotsam and jetsam of small farm buildings and plant nurseries fleck the surrounding landscape.
As global demand for protein grows, and wild fisheries collapse or reach peak harvest, Atlantic Sapphire hopes to help fill the gap with land-based salmon from the Sunshine State. The Bluehouse is close to major U.S. markets, avoiding the carbon footprint of farmed salmon flown in fresh from countries like Canada, Chile and Norway. Raising salmon on land side-steps the controversy that continues to entangle the open net pen salmon industry, which has been marred by mass escapes of Atlantic salmon into the Pacific Ocean — where it’s feared they could displace dwindling native salmon stocks — and accused of spreading disease and parasites to wild salmon.
Atlantic Sapphire markets its salmon as ocean safe and planet friendly. “All natural,” the company advertises. “No hormones, no antibiotics, no parasites, no pressure.”
First Bluehouse harvest goes to market
In late September, the Bluehouse completed its first commercial harvest of salmon. The fish were packed whole on ice and dispatched to an initial 120 grocery stores by truck, where they were sold with a “USA raised” stamp and an American flag. It took 48 hours for one truck to drive to Quebec, where the sushi-grade salmon — rated a “best choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch certification program and recommended by Ocean Wise — are sold at IGA stores.
Johan Andreassen, an Atlantic Sapphire co-founder who calls himself a salmon entrepreneur, tweeted a photo of an empty U.S. grocery store tray behind a Bluehouse Salmon label, saying, “When you raise truly sustainable Bluehouse Salmon that is super fresh, mild and delicious in the USA this is what can happen. SOLD OUT!” One commercial customer, Acme Smoked Fish, heralded the harvest as a “seismic shift” for the global seafood industry.
By January, Atlantic Sapphire, which currently harvests salmon several times a week — selling Bluehouse fish in grocery stores as far away as Texas and California — plans to send fish to market every day. The industrial complex continues to mushroom over a former tomato field as the company adds more capacity.
Ten years from now, Atlantic Sapphire plans to harvest 220,000 tonnes of salmon annually — more than one-half of all farmed salmon consumed in the U.S. in 2018. That’s more than twice B.C.’s yearly farmed salmon production.
“In the near future,” the Bluehouse salmon website says, “it will be as natural for consumers to prefer salmon from Florida as it is for them to seek lobsters from Maine and potatoes from Idaho.”
For British Columbia, which sells 95 per cent of its farmed salmon to the U.S., the repercussions are enormous. Claire says Atlantic Sapphire doesn’t intend to displace open net pen salmon farming. Rather, the company says it is helping to conserve dwindling populations of wild fish populations by decreasing demand for wild fish, thus protecting threatened habitats. But Atlantic Sapphire offers a shining, even glaring, example of what the B.C. salmon farming industry says it cannot do — raise commercially viable salmon on land instead of in the sea.
As the Trudeau government promises a transition away from open net pen salmon farming by 2025, the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, representing some of the world’s largest salmon farming companies, is hooking itself to a large part of the status quo: raising Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean. An animated video released by the association in October, as part of a new “Deeper Dive” platform to correct what it calls “misinformation and disinformation,” says the technology does not exist to successfully replace all of B.C.’s open net pen salmon farms with land-based operations.
“Lots has been said about land-based salmon farming, that it’s the future,” says the video’s deep-voiced narrator. “But the reality is B.C. is considered a world leader in innovation and responsible farming, today.”
Today, virtually all B.C.’s farmed salmon — 99.4 per cent — are raised in open net pens up and down the coast, in sheltered bays where the tide flushes away part of their waste.
Some, like those in the Discovery Islands, are along migration routes for Pacific salmon, where scientists like Alexandra Morton have raised the alarm about the transfer of sea lice to vulnerable wild juveniles leaving their natal rivers. Sea lice are a parasite that feed on fish, causing stress and damage to their immune systems and making them more vulnerable to disease.
Only a smidgeon of the province’s farmed salmon production — 0.6 per cent — comes from land-based operations. Kuterra, on northern Vancouver Island, owned by the ‘Namgis First Nation, produces Atlantic salmon while West Creek Aquaculture in Agassiz raises coho sold in the Prairie provinces.
Elsewhere in the world, land-based salmon farming is revving its engines for take-off. Investors are sinking funds into land-based containment systems close to markets, slashing transportation costs by avoiding air travel and offering a lower carbon product that doesn’t require antibiotics, pesticides or elaborate attempts to vanquish harmful sea lice, such as a barge with a “hydrolicer” that pressure washes lice from farmed salmon on Vancouver Island’s west coast.
At least 75 land-based salmon farms are operating, planned or in construction around the world. In the United Arab Emirates, a short drive from Dubai, salmon are raised in the desert, in a facility that has environmental controls to create tides, sunrise, sunset and automatic currents that mimic a river or ocean. Sea water is cleaned and filtered for the tanks, and the company plans to install solar panels for energy. “It’s the realization of a dream — it fits perfectly within the UAE’s drive for food security,” Nigel Lewis, the technical manager at Fish Farm UAE, a company backed by the Crown Prince of Dubai, told Salmon Business.
One salmon farm in a Swiss mountain village caters to the luxury food market, advertising “pure alpine salmon,” while Poland’s Jurassic salmon, three kilometres from the shores of the Baltic Sea, uses filtered saline geothermal water to fill its tanks, converting fish faeces into fertilizer for nearby agricultural operations.
Land-based salmon farms are also causing ripples in countries like Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Japan, Chile and South Africa. China has jumped into the land-based salmon business with a splash, planning to produce 130,000 tonnes over the next decade, making it the world’s largest land-based salmon farming country after the U.S., in the top spot, and Norway. At the end of November, the Norwegian company Norsal unveiled plans to build a $400 million land-based salmon farm in Yantai, China, an industrial city in Shandong province along the country’s northeast coast.
Across the U.S., land-based salmon farms are in the works from coast to coast. In Wisconsin, a state not normally associated with ocean products, Superior Fresh is off to such a promising start with land-based salmon production that it’s boosting capacity. Nordic Aquafarms, a company already raising salmon on land in Norway, is building two massive closed-containment projects “close to large markets,” one north of San Francisco and the other in Belfast, Maine — where other land-based salmon farming companies are also setting up shop.
As demand for protein climbs in tandem with the world’s growing population, expected to top nine billion before 2050, investors are becoming ever more creative. It might stretch consumer imaginations to source salmon from the land instead of the sea but, as Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of the wildly successful plant-based protein company Beyond Meat, puts it, a new idea is only “crazy until it’s not.” Beyond Meat, which makes vegan burgers that seep red juices to mimic blood in meat, is now valued at US$12 billion, while Atlantic Sapphire’s share price has increased by 280 per cent over the past three years and continues to inch upward despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic, if anything, has given land-based salmon farming even more of a boost as it disrupts the global supply chain and the air freight sector takes a hit. But even before 2020, Claire says consumers were turning toward more locally made products and home-grown foods. “Having a shorter value chain and a fresher product is really a big driver.”
Seafood customers searching for eco-friendly products
Daisy Berg, the first seafood buyer in North America to source Atlantic Sapphire salmon, says consumers are also increasingly looking for products that have a minimal environmental impact. “This customer base is willing to pay a little bit more … I’ve always believed that seafood customers vote with their forks.”
Berg, who prefers her salmon grilled, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, is the seafood program and category manager for 18 New Seasons Market grocery stores in Portland, Oregon, and six New Leaf Community Markets in California.
In 2017, she was tasked with trying to find Atlantic salmon for the Portland stores that met the company’s desire to source as much healthy, eco-friendly food as possible. New Seasons hoped to offer fresh salmon year-round, and that meant searching for alternatives to frozen wild salmon in wintertime.
“From day one, we said we were not wanting to carry farmed salmon until there was a change in the industry that aligned with our mission for seafood sustainability,” Berg says in a Zoom interview from Portland. “That’s always been a concern — the waste getting into the ocean and having an impact on the environment.”
Heading off to the Seafood Expo in Boston, North America’s premiere seafood event of the year, Berg was skeptical she would find the right product. She lined up meetings with four farmed salmon suppliers, including Atlantic Sapphire. All were eager to show they were taking concerted steps to mitigate the environmental impacts of their operations. But Berg couldn’t help feeling she was just going through the motions.
“I’d been digging in my heels for years,” said Berg, who grew up in New Mexico, far from the ocean, working at her parent’s fish market, selling fresh seafood flown in from the east and west coasts. “I’ll look to see if there’s anything,” she thought at the time, “and at the end of it there’s not going to be, and so we can just move on and stick with wild salmon.”
At the seafood expo, Berg partook in blind tastings of farmed salmon from the four companies, cooked without any flavourings: “a very blank slate, just to get the true flavour.” The Atlantic Sapphire salmon was comparable to chinook salmon, but milder, she says. “It has a pretty buttery, rich consistency.”
A tour of the Bluehouse sealed the deal. Berg and other seafood buyers saw the first batch of silvery smolts schooling in tanks that recirculated 99 per cent of the water they used. “It just became a very obvious choice,” Berg says. “It just really hit me that this literally has zero impact on the ocean. None of it comes from the ocean. None of the waste will go to the ocean. There’s no chance for the fish to escape. It was really, really amazing.”
The subtropical Miami location, far from the natural range of cold-water Atlantic salmon, offers three things that are indispensable for land-based salmon production: fresh water, salt water and a place to dispose of waste. The fresh water comes from the Biscayne aquifer, the first of three subterranean water layers and also the source of Miami’s drinking and irrigation water. Only five per cent of the water used at the Bluehouse is fresh, according to Claire. And he says the facility uses less fresh water than the former tomato field, he says, because 99 per cent is recirculated — every 30 minutes throughout the facility — following filtration.
Next in the underground pancake layer comes the Floridan aquifer, a body of saltwater that stretches all the way to the Carolinas. The salmon are moved to tanks with saltier water in the smolt stage, when they would naturally spend time in estuaries where fresh and saltwater mix, and are kept in Floridan aquifer water for the year-long “grow-out” stage — the food industry term for fattening up. “There’s no commercial use for it, nobody wants saltwater,” Claire says.
The Floridian aquifer has another advantage; its salty water has burbled there, untouched, for many thousands of years. “There are no viruses, no bacteria, no nothing. And because it’s so ancient, there is no man-made contamination.” As more microplastics wind up in fish, Atlantic Sapphire advertises its salmon as pollutant free.
A boulder zone, 1,000 metres below the earth’s surface, forms the third layer. Here, along with the city of Miami, the Bluehouse injects its waste, once solids and particles are filtered out. “We think it’s the most sustainable way to get rid of our wastewater,” Claire says.
The Bluehouse has ambitious — some would say visionary — plans to become ever more environmentally friendly. Local farmers are starting to use its wastewater solids for fertilizer. Atlantic Sapphire aims to use fish by-products, such as guts, head and bones, to make calcium and protein powder. Eventually, the company plans to power its operations by installing solar panels on the ample roof of the Bluehouse. It hopes to do away with the single-use Styrofoam used by the farmed salmon industry to ship fresh fish, replacing it with compostable packaging. It also sends fish to market by truck instead of by air, simultaneously shrinking both its carbon footprint and transportation costs. “One of our missions is that we do not put fish on airplanes,” Claire says.
The Bluehouse salmon sold in New Seasons Market stores starting in 2017 were a temporary exception. Berg was so keen to sell land-based salmon that, following her trip to the Boston Seafood Expo, she brokered a deal with Atlantic Sapphire to buy Bluehouse salmon from the company’s upstart facility in Denmark, which flew the fish to the Pacific Northwest. In early October, the Danish fish were swapped for the first order of 2,500 pounds — or 250 fish — from the Florida Bluehouse. The Florida fish will arrive by truck on an ongoing basis.
At first, Berg fretted that New Seasons customers wouldn’t accept any type of farmed salmon. “There was a lot of fear [about] introducing this fish into our market because of the bad rep that farmed salmon has had. But we put a lot of effort into the marketing piece of it.”
Yet, she needn’t have worried. Soon, customers were asking for Atlantic Sapphire or Bluehouse salmon by name.
“I truly believe that the entire [recirculating aquaculture systems] industry was waiting for Atlantic Sapphire to either succeed or fail,” Berg says. “I think the success they’re seeing right now, with the first harvest out of the Miami facility, is starting to get those other companies to really ramp up.”
Challenges for land-based salmon farming
Recirculating aquaculture systems is the technology used in land-based salmon farming. Water is pumped through special filters to prevent disease or contamination, or treated with ultraviolet light. Atlantic Sapphire is not the only company that recirculates 99 per cent of its water; it’s an industry standard.
But as the boom in recirculating aquaculture systems gets underway, Trond Davidsen, deputy managing director of the Norwegian Seafood Federation, cautions that land-based farming is still in its infancy, noting it’s challenging for companies to turn a profit. The multinational corporations — such as Mowi and Cermaq, two major players in B.C. — that have dominated the industry since it began to expand in the 1980s, are notably absent from land-based ventures, he points out.
“Someday, we will succeed with land-based production,” Davidsen says in an interview. “But we’re not there yet.”
Land-based fish farming is very capital intensive, and the financing, planning, construction and farming of the first generation of salmon can take five years or longer, Claire says. “These systems are also not plug and play. It takes a lot of experience to raise delicious five-kilogram salmon on land.”
The spurt of investments in land-based salmon farming are largely driven by rising demand and higher prices for salmon worldwide, according to Davidsen. And as global demand for fish increases, salmon farming companies are finding it increasingly difficult to get access to ocean production in countries that have traditionally welcomed them, including Canada, Norway, Ireland and Iceland. In August 2019, for instance, the Danish government announced a ban on new aquaculture projects, including expansions of existing projects, saying any new production would have to take place on land. Washington State has banned net pen Atlantic salmon farms as of 2022.
According to the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association’s video, land-based salmon farming is ten times more expensive than ocean farming, with extra costs passed on to consumers. But Berg says Bluehouse salmon retails for US$15.99 per pound at New Seasons Market stores, on par with wild sockeye and wild coho. Farmed salmon raised in open net pens, by comparison, generally sells in the U.S. for US$7.99 to US$9.99 per pound, she notes.
Land-based salmon farming also faces some of the same challenges that confront ocean-based open net pen farming. One major issue is how to source ingredients for salmon feed.
“Already, the salmon has become a vegetarian,” Davidsen jokes. Up to 80 per cent of salmon feed is now derived from products such as soybeans or corn, a huge shift from the early days of salmon farming when pellets were manufactured from small wild fish such as herring, anchovies and capelin. Feed companies are now experimenting with insect proteins and microalgae as ingredients.
“Feeding the salmon with fish that can be eaten by humans is not very popular,” Davidsen says. “We need to find some new raw materials to produce fish feed in the future if we’re going to expand production.”
Aquaculture feed giant Skretting, which supplies Atlantic Sapphire’s operations, estimates that another one million tonnes of salmon feed will be required to keep pace with the boom in land-based salmon production. Skretting has developed a special food for salmon raised in recirculating aquaculture systems, which it calls Nutra RC. While the list of ingredients is proprietary, Skretting says Nutra RC binds faecal matter, “making it easier to filter and remove solid waste particles.”
The Zoom video clicks off as Claire walks to another section of the Bluehouse facility, where 450,000-gallon tanks, as deep as a two-storey building, hold salmon for the salt water “grow-out” phase. (An Olympic-sized swimming pool, by comparison, holds close to 660,400 gallons of water.)
There are 36 grow-out tanks in the Bluehouse, which has six separate systems, each taking salmon through seven different stages, from eggs to harvest size. The six systems, which Atlantic Sapphire plans to double to 12, are completely separate from one another. If something goes wrong in one, others are likely to remain secure.
“Every single stage is using the same technology,” Claire says when the camera comes back on. “The only thing is that as the fish get bigger the tanks get bigger; we have more water and more filtration power.”
“It takes about one year for the fish to go from egg to smolt, about 300 grams. And then it takes another year to grow from 300 grams to five kilos, like the ones you’re seeing in the tank.”
Dark shapes flit past in the foamy, sea green water: fully grown salmon, up to one metre long, that will be harvested that week.
Asked what he would say to people who doubt that land-based salmon farming is viable, Claire chuckles and gestures beside him.
“Here is my response,” he says, “right there, swimming in the tanks.”
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