By Bob Tkacz
Pollution, escape and drug-free Chinook salmon farming has begun in China.
"Our objective is, within a couple of years, to be up to 5,000 tons of (annual) production in our existing sites around our Benxi hatchery," said Richard Buchanan, president and CEO of AgriMarine, Inc. at the second China Sustainable Seafood Forum, in Dalian, China, Nov. 1.
Located in the Guangmanshan Reservoir, outside of Benxi and about 200 miles north of Dalian, the AgriMarine farm is the result of almost a decade of research started to find a solution to the lice, pollution and other problems facing traditional net pen salmon farms in Canada.
Headquartered in Campbell River, British Columbia, AgriMarine began putting the results of its research to work in China in September of 2009 when it began farming Steelhead trout in Guangmanshan.
Steelhead, which are native to China, were chosen because of their existing markets and because feed formulations were readily available. AgriMarine began selling its Steelhead in Beijing and Shanghai this fall, one year after they were planted in the Guangmanshan tanks, Buchanan said.
"Our first harvests commenced this September and we've harvested between 30 and 50 tons already since the beginning of September," Buchanan said at the forum.
"Our main market so far has been the five-star hotels that are already using Norwegian salmon. The Norwegians have done a good job of marketing for us and we're providing an alternative that is one day from the pen to the hotel," he added.
Chinook, which are expected to take about 15 months to reach five kilogram-and-up market size, will be AgriMarine's main product, with coho and Atlantic salmon joining its menu in the future as the company targets a more lucrative Chinese audience. Each tank is projected to yield 250 metric tons per 15-month cycle.
"The China market is used to the Norwegian salmon being very large and the trout are only half the size. It limits our market for them and even though it may be a wider market, but the market we're targeting with the hotels is size," Buchanan explained.
"This year we'll import one million Canadian-sourced ova to our hatchery in China which represents about 4,000 metric tons of production when they become whole fish," Buchanan said during my exclusive tour of the Benxi farm, Oct. 29. The first eggs to arrive in China, raised for some seven months in its Benxi hatchery, were being planted at the Guangmanshan farm as each of what will eventually be ten tanks is completed.
"A year from right now we'll be harvesting our salmon," Buchanan said. What has been a research and development facility at Campbell River was also on track to become a commercial Chinook farm with tank construction expected to be completed by the end of November. A second farm in China, about 200 miles north of Benxi in another reservoir near the city of Siping, is also in early development.
Buchanan said overall expansion will be measured and is limited mainly by the 24-hour limit on transport of fingerlings from the Benxi hatchery, and by the availability of fresh, cool and clean water. Guangmanshan Reservoir is several miles long and boats are not allowed on it so that the water is "pristine" according to Buchanan. The farm does not filter the water before sending it into tanks, nor does it use pesticides or antibiotics.
The reservoir freezes over in winter and the colder weather will slow fish growth, but AgriMarine operations will continue year round because the water in the tanks, maintained at a temperature of 39° Fahrenheit, is continually circulated. In summer water is pumped from the depths of the 150-foot deep reservoir to keep tank temperatures sufficiently cool.
"It's a perfect environment to grow fish in a closed-containment system," Buchanan said.
Fish eggs are the only part of the AgriMarine operation not produced in China. The 24-meter diameter, 7-meter deep fiberglass composite tanks are produced in Shenyang, an hour's drive from Benxi. Tanks comprise 24 pie-shaped wedges with a central floor drain that collects feces and minimal amounts of unconsumed feed, which will be pumped to shore for use as fertilizer in this corn-growing region.
Tanks are neutrally buoyant. The first two were assembled onshore and lowered into the reservoir with cranes, but Chinese commercial divers convinced AgriMarine they could assemble the units in the water, which produced a 20 percent construction cost savings.
All the tanks are held in place with a dock system, linked through buoys to anchors, which also contains control and mechanical units for water circulation and oxygenation pumps and subsurface cameras that monitor feed consumption. The three million liters (792,516 gallons) of water in each tank is refreshed every hour and water circulation speed is increased as fish age.
"Hydraulics is very important in closed containment to make sure oxygen is distributed and that the swim speed is perfect for the fish. (It) also provides a healthier flesh because the fish are exercising. The flesh is much firmer than what I've experienced in net cage farming," Buchanan said, based on his ten years of net pen farming.
Including mechanical systems, each tank cost about $300,000 to build. For year-round production a farm will require eight grow-out tanks plus two more where salmon ready for market will be held without feeding for two days for final conditioning that eliminates feces and excess fat.
AgriMarine has partnered with distributors in Beijing and Shanghai that import Norwegian salmon for the five-start hotels. "We've established contractual relationships with these distributors so they're introducing the home-grown large finfish, trout and salmon grown in China, alongside Norwegian fish so the buyers, the hotel chefs can see the difference," Buchanan said.
The buyers, he said, "notice the difference between Pacifics and Atlantics. The feedback we're getting is in the freshness and taste... They say it's got a much more flavor and freshness than the Norwegian fish."
Among the differences they noticed was the absence of the white fat stripes that are a hallmark of Norwegian salmon. "We had some feedback last week from some restaurants in Beijing that tried our fish. They wanted to know why there weren't stripes in them," Buchanan said in October.
Norwegian farms, and a New York investor that owns Puget Sound farms have taken note of AgriMarine's technology, which could become the world standard. "We're talking to Norway because Norway owns BC farms so there's a fit," Buchanan said.
AgriMarine is also in the early stages of marketing what Buchanan called its "eco-salmon" in British Columbia and wrestling the issue of how to distinguish its new system from sustainably certified net pen farms.
"World wide, we are the only company with this type of technology that can convert a net cage production to large scale closed-containment production ... The question is, if net cages can comply with aquaculture guidelines what distinguishes closed containment ... Is there a higher standard if you have closed containment and still meet the world standard for aquaculture?" he asked.