Free Issue! Try Saltscapes Magazine before you buy. Download Now

Aquaculture may be the future of commercial fishing-or are we playing with fire, and about to get burned?

Inside a sea cage at Kelly's Cove off Deer Island, in New Brunswick's Bay of Fundy, swim the fish that some believe could save the Atlantic fishery. The cage belongs to Cooke Aquaculture, Atlantic Canada's largest fish-farming company. Inside this cage are thousands of three-year-old Gadus morhua-Atlantic cod: codfish to you and me. The fish that helped settle North America.

In fact, schools of this one strain of fish made up the largest and most valuable cod stocks in the world-until it was harvested to near commercial extinction, and in 1992 subjected to a moratorium, bringing the economy of coastal Atlantic Canada to its knees. In 1981, 53,000 fishermen worked the Atlantic coast, sustaining the 1,339 communities that were dependent on the fishery for their survival. Now, the men of those communities have gone west to find work, often taking their families with them. If cod farming is the way forward, it has a long way to go.

At first glance, it seems like a promising solution, but it's far from a perfect solution. There are challenges.

Stocking sea cages with wild juvenile cod is a hit-and-miss game: one individual might adapt to a short life in a sea cage; others will not. Obviously, wild cod didn't evolve to live in cages. They evolved-complete with antifreeze in their bloodstream-to survive the cold, open North Atlantic and all its dangers. Randomly selected wild juvenile cod, like those in Cooke's sea cage, will never reliably satisfy the requirements of aquaculture.

Enter the science of genetics, and the optimism of Dr. Sharen Bowman and Dr. Jane Symonds, who have recently embarked on a project to establish selective breeding programs in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. They hope to map the cod genome, or genetic material, with the intention of domesticating the Atlantic cod.

Bowman and Symonds are the leading researchers on a new $18 million, four-year Atlantic Cod Genomics and Broodstock Development project. Symonds, director of aquaculture at the non-profit Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews, NB, says she and her fellow researchers are out to "improve growth, fillet quality and yield for individual partners in our project." Those partners include Genome Canada, Genome Atlantic, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), several universities and three private aquaculture companies, including Cooke.

Cod is about as close to perfect fish as there is. At seven to 10 per cent fat, 18 per cent protein and 80 per cent water, it is ideal for drying and exporting. Its low fat content made it a good trading commodity, and helped settle this continent with the Europeans who fished it; then it drove an economy for five centuries. Cured codfish became such a ubiquitous food that many cultures didn't even develop a name for fresh cod-the Spanish, Italian and Portuguese among them. Those who came to depend on cod as a primary source of protein used every scrap of the fish: the flesh, tongues, cheeks, roe, tripe and liver; the sound or air bladder, the britches or female gonads, the milt or sperm, the stomach, the skin and even bones softened in sour milk.

Domestication may seem a redundant exercise when it comes to the 120 million-year-old, near-perfect wild cod, but improvements over wild stocks are thought to be possible-especially when it comes to growth rates. Wild cod can double in size in a year; domesticated, farmed cod can quadruple.

Symonds and Bowman want to adapt the wild cod for aquaculture by December 2009. To do so, they will have to get to know cod at a genetic level. The cod genome is like a book: 900 million pairs long, as compared to three billion pairs in humans. The scientists are sequencing thousands of genes to identify the traits they're looking for, such as fast growth, late sexual maturity and tolerance to sea cage stress factors, to create superior breeding stock. Hatcheries will follow. Cod farms will become the underwater equivalent of a dairy farm or poultry barn. Cod will be born, raised and slaughtered in captivity, just like chickens, cattle, hogs and, more recently, salmon.

"It all boils down to domestication," says Bowman from her office at Genome Atlantic, based in Halifax. Genome Atlantic is one of six genome centres across the country financed in part by Genome Canada, a six-year-old non-profit organization with a portfolio of more than 100 large-scale research projects, with total investments in excess of half a billion dollars. As a consultant with Genome Atlantic, Bowman is responsible for the genetics component of the project. "We domesticated cows and pigs quite a long time ago and it's acceptable," she says. "Nobody would think of it any other way now."

Symonds points out the economic repercussions. "There are obvious benefits to developing new species for aquaculture in rural areas of New Brunswick and Newfoundland that have lost a lot from the collapse of wild stocks," she says. "Those communities have built a lot of expertise in harvesting and processing cod. We can help those communities."

Beyond regional economies, cod farming could very well play a role in feeding a hungry planet, adds Bowman. "We need protein and crops. Food production is a problem; domesticated production is part of the solution." She says a shift has been going on for millennia-"a shift from hunter/gatherer to agriculture/aquaculture"-and this project is just the latest manifestation of that shift.

The idea of domesticating fish isn't new. Five thousand years ago, the Chinese discovered they could collect carp stranded by floodwaters and raise them in ponds, fattening them on the by-products of silkworm farming. Egyptians and Romans tried their hand at aquaculture too.

Nor is the idea of farming cod new. Scientists, fishermen, politicians and others have tried and failed to farm cod. More than a century ago, the Newfoundland government hired a Norwegian, Adolph Nielsen, to establish a fish hatchery in the eastern part of the province. During a six-year period, Nielsen's facility on Trinity Bay hatched 833 trillion cod eggs and released the young into local waters (in what is known as fish ranching, rather than farming). By 1895, Trinity Bay was abundant with cod while the numbers in neighbouring bays remained low. Just two years later after Nielsen was forced to return to Norway due to illness, the government shut down his cod hatcheries, along with 23 lobster hatcheries he'd also established.

Since then, others in Scandinavia and Scotland as well as Atlantic Canada have taken up cod farming on a small scale, but none of it compares to the hope and vision of scientists Bowman and Symonds. When Bowman looks into a future where cod farms line Atlantic Canada's shores, she sees "cod as a sustainable, well-managed species in domestication," meaning a greatly expanded aquaculture industry and more jobs in rural communities.

But it's not a future that looks inherently attractive to all, especially Mark Butler, marine co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre-Nova Scotia's oldest environmental organization. For a short time in the '80s Butler worked at Huntsman Marine, where Symonds is now located. Later, he worked for six seasons on lobster and hook-and-line boats as a deckhand, then graduated from Dalhousie University with a master's degree in environmental studies. For the past 20 years he has written about ocean conservation, including the impacts of aquaculture. His experience, research and activism have led him to some conclusions about aquaculture, which he does support, but only under certain conditions. Selecting his words carefully, he says, "If you want to grow fin-fish, do it in a closed system. And shellfish aquaculture-as long as the densities aren't too great-should be part of the mix."

By a closed system, Butler means a system in which domesticated fish-or their waste-could never escape to mix with wild stocks, contaminating them with disease, parasites or manipulated genes. "The worst-case scenario is a genetically modified fish. That would be totally unacceptable," he says. For example, if a genetically modified cod lacked the trait to produce the antifreeze protein, then escaped, it could pass on this trait and endanger wild stocks. "Once they're out there, you never get them back."

Bowman, the geneticist, reassures: "Cod farmed as a result of this project will not be 'genetically modified.'" She refers to the process of selecting cod based on genetic markers as "directed breeding using natural variation," and says the cod used at each breeding site will come from nearby waters.

In addition, she and Symonds believe the dangers of domesticated cod escaping are minimal. "Working with our industry partners, they'll make sure they use the best practices for containment and to ensure minimal escape," says Symonds. "Obviously, it's important for their business to keep fish from escaping."

Of disease and waste issues, Symonds-originally from New Zealand, where she created a Chinook salmon breeding program to improve the quality of the breeding stock there-puts her faith in the farmers and the scientists. "Issues of cod farming are really the same as salmon farming. The companies we're working with have a long history, and they know the issues of sustainability, so I don't see it as a problem." Regarding the possibility of creating ideal conditions for disease or parasites, so far, they've had really good results, Symonds says. "Good health is really important to us. It's something we'll be monitoring closely. It's a bit of an unknown right now."

Butler has concerns about the unknown. "When you're talking about 100,000 fish, say, in close quarters, put into situations they've never been in before, [with] all the waste and the feces in the water, I don't know. You have bird flu and mad cow disease, etc. I don't see how anyone can say disease won't be a problem. A fish farm is equivalent to a small town discharging raw sewage. You wouldn't pump your manure from a dairy farm directly into the bay, untreated. When you put fish in cages, you have disease and fish waste problems."

Disease and waste aside, the areas of resource allocation and the setting of priorities by government are what Mark Butler finds the most troubling. In Canada, he says, "Aquaculture policy is about expansion and growth, and little about paying attention to the environmental impacts of that expansion."

"DFO expectations are very clear about their hopes for continued growth of aquaculture in Atlantic Canada. They want to generate jobs and wealth, but they don't understand the limits of growth."

Not understanding the limits of growth in the wild fishery is, according to Butler, exactly why many have turned to aquaculture as the only solution. "We're doing this because we have failed," he says simply. To Butler, the failure is of immense proportions. "We had one of the biggest and most productive fish farms in the world right off our coast, and through mismanagement, we severely degraded the quality of that operation." Butler continues to see signs of mismanagement, and little interest in changing things. The first sign is the failure to ban dragger gear, a type of fishing equipment that scrapes the ocean bottom, levelling everything in its path. "We're destroying the habitat. We're out there knocking it down. The habitat management branch [at DFO] used to have a motto on mugs and caps that said, 'No habitat, no fish.'"

The second sign is the practice of dumping fish overboard-fish killed by pressure change or by crushing in nets-because they don't match a boat's quota. "You talk to the draggermen working the banks, and they'll tell you fish are still being dumped. We're pumping a lot of taxpayer money into fish farming while we have a wild fishing fleet that is dumping cod…" Butler's voice trails off. "Why are we trying to do what nature has always done well? A hundred miles away from the fish farm, fishermen are putting 1,000 pounds of cod over the side."

"There's still a lack of political will to deal with the fundamental collapse of the fishery and to deal with those causes."

One potential cause that Canada has failed to consider is a theory known as Darwinian debt. Matthew Walsh, a researcher at Stony Brook University in New York state, tested the theory on fish. When applied to cod, it leads to some sobering conclusions.

During our 500-year fishing history, we have selected and removed the largest cod off Canada's East Coast. As Walsh's study demonstrated, when the largest individual fish are culled over generations, those that follow are smaller, produce fewer eggs and are less willing to forage for food. The theory might help explain the collapse of the cod fishery as well as its failure to rebound. Ultimately, it suggests the cod population has crossed an evolutionary line from which it might never return.

The theory of Darwinian debt points to the need to carefully consider human intervention in the breeding of wild fish. We become a force of evolution as soon as we decide to alter any species of animal at a genetic level, whether through selective fishing practices, genetic engineering or directed breeding programs.

"Let's look after the ocean," Butler says. "Let's manage our fisheries wisely. Let's see what the ocean can produce before we put our resources into growing the same fish the ocean can grow. You could spend a lot of money, take a lot of risk and take three years to raise a fish, or you could go out there on a nice sunny day, put your hook in the water and bring up a 10-year-old, 70 pound cod. Which would you rather?" 

But we may no longer have a choice between fishing cod or farming it. Just 500 years after John Cabot returned to Europe with news of the New World's abundance, scientists are searching among the few cod that remain for the genes we need to keep Gadus morhua around at all-at least in domestication.

Notable dates in cod history

A staggering 8 million tonnes of northern cod is landed in 15 years, the same amount landed in the 250-year period starting in 1500.

Canada gives Russia a 266,000 tonne quota of offshore spawning caplin, the favourite food of the northern cod. Three years later, there aren't enough caplin left to fish.

The Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association's suit against the Canadian government for an injunction to stop bottom dragging fails; in 1991 fishermen are only able to catch two-thirds of the now tiny northern cod quota.

July 1992
Fisheries Minister John Crosbie announces a moratorium on northern cod; in December 1993 Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin extends the moratorium indefinitely, and to all Atlantic cod except a small stock off southwest Nova Scotia.

The quota for cod in the Barents Sea off Norway is set at an enormous 850,000 tonnes, the result of timely action by Norway in the 1980s to save the fishery.

Other Stories You May Enjoy

A Train Runs Through It

As Via Rail's Montreal-bound train Ocean descends into Nova Scotia's picturesque Wentworth Valley, it enters a leg of the 1,346-kilometre trip that has been promoted as a tourist attraction since...

Salmon Salar

For two centuries of European settlement, and 10,000 years before that, the annual spawning runs of millions of leaping silver salmon to natal rivers constituted a spectacular natural event, from...

A Slice of Life

By noon, the loaves are lined in rows like kernels of Indian corn. The crisp brown crust varies in shades of golden brown to mahogany. To do the bread justice, it should be cut thick while still...