Aquaculture Science


The three great oceans that surround Canada form one of this country’s greatest assets.  Ensuring the sustainability of their aquatic resources is the challenge that scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada take on every day.  Through their laboratory and field work, researchers in the Department’s Science Branch are contributing to a new level of sustainable aquaculture development, through collaborative Research and Development with the sector’s many stakeholders. This is a cross section of their work.

Sylvain Paradis, Ph.D.
Director General, Ecosystem Science Directorate, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa  ON

Over the last couple of years DFO started to deal with a broader perspective on aquatic science. Historically, we had a number of like, you know, stovepipe programs, some on fishery, some on aquaculture, some on habitat, but it became very clear in the last couple of years that all those things blend in like, you know, spatial areas, and that you need to look at them all at the same time, from different angles to get the real picture of what you’re dealing with.

I think the reality is we get, really have to get out there in the field to see like, the high level of quality, the expertise, and the savoir faire of our scientists.

One of the most important tasks of DFO scientists is to study the interactions between aquaculture operations – fish farms - and their surrounding environment... and then to provide scientific advice on how best to measure - and to limit - impacts on the habitat.  Hydrographic research like this helps scientists determine where, and how closely together, aquaculture sites can be located – for example, in the Bay of Fundy and along Newfoundland’s south coast.

Fred Page,  Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Director, DFO Centre for Integrated Aquaculture Science, St. Andrews Biological Station,  NB

One of these, the programs or projects we’ve been involved in is specifically looking at the water circulation and exchange of water between fish farms and within bays where fish farms occur.

The Province of New Brunswick, in conjunction with the industry and Fisheries and Oceans, has used that information to design aquaculture bay management areas for fish health management, and the aquaculture industry has used the information to help decide when to stock and harvest fish,and the governments and industry have used the information to help decide where to place sites. We deploy instrumentation to measure the water flows, using various technologies, we take that information into the lab, and use computer animation to try and predict and model the water circulation, and then we use those animations to help to support the management decisions of water exchange between sites.

Fred Page’s research on environmental management of aquaculture is expanding to other areas of Canada, such as in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gehan Mabrouk, B.V.Sc, M.Sc.
Section Head, Aquaculture, Aquatic Animal Health and Biotechnology, North Atlantic Fisheries Centre, St. John’s  NL

Recently, we’ve experienced, in Newfoundland, a very fast growth of the aquaculture industry on the south coast of Newfoundland, and, in turn, my section’s main goal is to make sure that this expansion’s happening in an ecosystem-based approach and an environmentally sustainable way. It is a huge challenge, just the fact that we are covering a huge geographic area, the remote place where the expansion is happening.

We’re trying, of course, in addition to the oceanographic need, to address the biological impact of the environment on the fish, as well. So, we are trying to, it’s a balancing act between the field and the laboratory component.

Canada’s aquaculture sector annually generates two billion dollars worth of positive benefits, including employment and a major source of seafood... but public concern about its environmental effects remains high.  Here in West Vancouver, research to address these concerns includes examining what happens with the waste products of fish farming.

Terri Sutherland, Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Marine Ecosystems & Aquaculture Division, CAER, West Vancouver  BC

My research program is called The Coastal Ecosystem Research Program, and it spends most of its time focusing on the interactions between aquaculture and the environment. Specifically, we look at tracking waste within the environment, and find out its fate within the ecosystem.  We do spend a lot of time in the field, on site, at fish farms, and we do section-up the aquaculture and environment process into different modules. The first one is what happens within the fish net pen. And we do culture fish here, too, look into that in a finer resolution.

We also set out sediment traps underneath the farms, to find out what’s raining down below the farms, so it could be uneaten feed, or fecal, or fish poop. We like to examine the footprint below the farm, and that, the size of that will depend on currents, the size of fish feed pellets, the distance between net pen and sea bottom. The size of the footprint will also depend on what kind of critters are in the seafloor, and how much they can assimilate, and chew on the material riding down. Then, the final step that we look at, in determining the fate of waste material, is what happens on the next tide, or storm events, how much of that footprint is picked up and dispersed to other areas of the ecosystem.

The sustainability of freshwater aquaculture in Canada also depends on understanding the interactions between aquaculture and the ecosystem.  At the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists like Cheryl Podemski are studying freshwater ecosystems, and how they respond to aquaculture operations.

Cheryl Podemski, Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Freshwater Institute, Winnipeg, MB

In this project we wanted to look at the, the impacts of freshwater aquaculture, and we did this by building our own fish farm in a, in an otherwise pristine lake in Northwestern Ontario. We operated the farm for five years, using as close to commercial methods as possible, and then both, both before, during, and after fish farming, the research team would study the lake very carefully to see how it was reacting to the activities on the lake.

Some of the results were not quite what we anticipated. We added, added a lot of nutrients in the form of fish manure to our lake, and, in fact, we increased the nutrient loading by close to nine times normal, surprisingly enough, we did not get a huge growth of nuisance algae, the lake did not go green.

The other thing that we have seen is that the wild fish in the lake actually have increased their growth rates, and their reproduction, and the wild lake trout population doubled in size over the time that we had the farm operating.

Before we started this work in 2001, there was really very little known about the impacts of freshwater aquaculture on lake ecosystems. We have a lot of fresh water in Canada, we don’t have a lot of freshwater aquaculture, so there’s a potential for the industry to grow,but there is uncertainty, unease amongst regulators, the NGOs, general public, they want to know that the industry is growing sustainably, so I think our work is making a difference there, because we’re helping to, to make science-based decisions, or make regulators able to make science-based decisions.

The sustainability of aquaculture also depends on maintaining optimal fish health in cultured stocks... for both the health of the environment, and for productivity of the fish farms. Concern about sea lice on farmed fish like salmon - and for possible interactions with wild fish populations - is taken very seriously by DFO scientists like Simon Jones, at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.

Simon Jones, Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Pacific Biological Station, Nanaimo  BC

The parasite that we’re working with in Nanaimo is called the sea louse. And sea lice are parasites on the skin of fish, they’re parasitic crustaceans that are related to copepods.  So, they do occur naturally on, on many species of wild fish.

When fish are put into these net pens in the, in the ocean, they come from a freshwater hatchery, so the salmon are reared in freshwater, and so they have no sea lice when they, they first enter the marine environment. And within a year, it’s, it’s not unusual that you’ll find sea lice on these salmon, so it, it’s, it’s, it’s, seems to be quite common not just in Canada but in many parts of the world where salmon are kept in an aquaculture environment. So, the challenge for the fish farmer is to monitor the, the, the farmed fish, and to take appropriate action when they see lice on these fish.

The purpose of our research is to, is to really understand what risk to wild fish are posed by sea lice that may be coming from farmed fish. Every year we’ve discovered something new.

Since 2003, we’ve been monitoring levels of sea lice on juvenile pink and chum salmon in the Broughton, for two or three months after they first enter the marine environment, while they’re very small fish.  And in 2004 and 2005, we saw quite high levels of lice on these fish – 40, 50 or even 60% of the fish had had sea lice infections on them. 

But as we monitored these fish in subsequent years – 2005, 2006 and 2007 – we noticed that the levels of infection began to decline... so that by 2007 and 2008, there were no longer 40% or 50% - we were seeing low teens; 15 or 14 % of the fish were infected.  In 2008 and 2009, most recently, we are seeing less that 5% of the fish with sea lice infection.

Here on Canada’s East Coast, there’s a risk to the health of entire ecosystems and aquaculture operations posed by certain Invasive Species.  DFO has been working closely with industry and provincial governments to control the spread of aquatic invasive species - such as tunicates, which are native to Asia, but have likely been transferred here, to P.E.I. on the hulls of ships.

Luc Comeau,  Ph.D
Research Biologist, Gulf Fisheries Centre, Moncton, NB

I’m part of a research team at DFO and the Atlantic Vet College, working on Tunicates.

Now, these Tunicate pose a serious threat to the mussel industry. They attach to the shells and, of the cultivated mussels, and basically increase the labour cost associated with the production of these mussels. We’re trying to determine if mussels and Tunicate compete for the same food resources.

Presently, DFO and the mussel industry is co-managing this, the control of the spread by imposing transfer restrictions between infested bays and non-infested bays.

Canadian aquaculture increasingly depends on developing sustainable aquaculture feeds.  DFO scientist Ian Forster is working on a project to provide farmed fish with the best nutrition and performance, while ensuring that the feed ingredients themselves are from sustainable sources.

Ian Forster, Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Marine Ecosystems & Aquaculture Division, CAER, West Vancouver   BC

I try to find ingredients in feeds that are, meet the needs of the animal for nutrition, for good growth, for efficiency. Many of the fish that we raise in aquaculture are carnivorous, so, traditionally, we’ve used fish meal, which is made from other fish, which are, in many cases, harvested for that purpose. Well, we’ve been moving towards using other protein sources and lipid sources, oil sources, and to do that we have to be able to establish the quality of those products. And one of the, one of the things that we look at, in, in addition to the nutrient concentration of these alternative ingredients, is things like digestibility, how well are the nutrients taken in by the animal, and used in their body. Many of these ingredients that, we’re looking at plant proteins, for example, are a lot more cost-effective than fish meal, and so if we can find that they are able to supply the nutrition that the animal needs, and in a digestible way, then we can use them, and reduce the cost.

DFO researchers at the St. Andrews Biological Station are also helping develop an aquaculture production system that is not only environmentally friendly, but even self-sustaining.  It’s called Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture.  IMTA involves caged aquaculture species (like salmon) that require feeding... and combining them with certain other species like seaweed and shellfish, which can extract nutrients from the fish waste and fish feed. What it creates is a more balanced, productive, and sustainable, system.

Shawn Robinson, Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture, St. Andrews Biological Station, NB

Sustainability is really the ability of a system to maintain itself for long periods of time with no degradation to the associated environment, and that’s sort of what we’re doing. We’re taking a, basically a very simple principle within aquaculture, it, it’s, it’s basically recycling, you know, the way Mother Nature would do.

We started this project, and with, you know, by linking together the salmon, the mussels, and the kelp, and it exploded from there. I mean, the, we got all sorts of wonderful results. We found that everything that we put on the site was, was growing quite a bit faster than they would in normal conditions, because they were utilizing the resources, which was the point of putting them there in the first place, right? And then we started finding all sorts of other things that were going on, where it seemed like we were providing habitat for a whole bunch of other species, for example, some of the wild species actually would come in, and the juveniles would use some of the mussel rafts, ‘cause there were strings of mussels that hung down, and they would use that as shelter. So, now we’re providing sort of secondary habitat for those, and the biodiversity of the site goes way up because we’re effectively creating a, a hanging reef.

So, you can see that we’re working at scales now that, that really start to come into the whole realm of, of what happens in nature, it’s not just a little scientific experiment, with a half a dozen mussels sitting in a bag somewhere, I mean, we’re really looking at what’s happening out there with systems.

Speaking of mussels and systems... at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont Joli, Quebec, DFO scientists like Marcel Fréchette are working with producers on ways to reduce the labour costs involved in raising mussels.  

Marcel Fréchette, Ph.D.
Chercheur scientifique, l’Institut Maurice-Lamontagne, Mont Joli  QC

Self-operating collectors are a new method of mussel farming that has been developed by Eric Bujold, a mussel farmer from Carleton University. He wanted to develop a technique that would allow him to grow mussels on a part-time basis relying on a faster, easier method than raising mussels the classic way.

The traditional approach entails  “socking” which consists of gathering seed mussels in cylindrically shaped nets and suspending those nets in water during their growth. With self-operating collectors, this step is skipped. Farmers let the seed mussels attach to ropes and the mussels then grow on these suspended ropes. There is no “socking” involved. Skipping this step saves farmers a considerable amount of time.

Also at Mont Joli, scientists like Denis Chabot are studying other species which can improve the diversification of the industry and increase the sustainability of aquaculture in Canada.  The Spotted Wolfish is one of those alternative species being investigated for aquaculture development and it shows some promise.

Denis Chabot, Ph.D.
Chercheur en bio-énergétique, l’Institut Maurice-Lamontagne, Mont Joli  QC

I’m involved in two complementary projects. Both have to do with the Spotted Wolfish. It is a species with great aquaculture potential in Quebec. Most species suitable for fish farming are held in underwater sea cages.But this type of aquaculture is difficult to set up in Quebec because of the presence of ice during winter.

So we have designed two complementary projects: We set up the first one under conditions that are as close as possible to a commercial fish (tank?) farm. Our aim is to measure the growth rate of the Spotted Wolfish under these conditions to find out if it would - or would not – be a profitable venture.

Our second project is designed to help us evaluate the results of the first one. We’re trying to assess the market characteristics of the Spotted Wolfish. I’ve heard that it tastes great! Its leather can also be marketed and there is growing interest in the bio-molecules that are being found in fish which may be useful in curing certain diseases, or just to stay healthy.

On the East Coast of Canada, there has been a great deal of interest in Halibut as an alternative species for aquaculture. In fact, commercial production has already begun, thanks to some significant research and support from scientists like Debbie Martin-Robichaud at St. Andrews Biological Station.

Debbie Martin-Robichaud
Research Scientist, St. Andrews Biological Station, NB

The reason I’m in, in this funny little get-up here, and with a hat on and everything else, is because I’m going to get into the halibut tank, and lift up some of the halibut on the table, and check their, their spawning condition, I’m going to see if the males are, have running milt and that sort of thing.

And we are doing research to develop technology, brood stock technology to support industry, and so that they can develop in an environmentally sustainable and economic, economically sustainable fashion.

And recently we’ve made some very phenomenal success with developing brood stock that are capable of producing all female stocks of halibut.

Now, this is extremely relevant for the industry because Atlantic halibut females grow a lot faster and get to a much bigger size than males!

So, since all this research has been done, we want industry to use it.And they are, at this point in time... they’re using those brood stock, and producing all female juveniles, and marketing them worldwide.

These examples of scientific research you’ve seen today are enabling the Canadian aquaculture sector to ensure environmental sustainability, to employ the best production practices and to maintain optimum fish health for both consumers and the industry. 

In this video, you’ve met a cross-section of the many researchers, and the projects, being lead by Fisheries and Oceans Canada today.

But the fact is that aquaculture research in this country has been ongoing for decades.  While many industry improvements have resulted, as the industry evolves, many more improvements are anticipated.

And, to a significant degree, that progress will continue to be firmly based on sound scientific research lead by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and their research partners.”