New resource approaches build a better future

Stephen Cross and Jack Littlepage

Left to right: UVic geography professor Dr. Stephen Cross, who specializes in the environmental impacts and management of coastal aquaculture, and Dr. Jack Littlepage with a lantern net, used to culture shellfish including oysters, clams and mussels.

November 2008

Research at the University of Victoria puts expertise and knowledge to work on Vancouver Island, across Canada and around the world.

Fishing for answers

Aquaculture can raise questions no matter which side of the plate you're eating from: concerns ranging from human consumption of fish treated with antibiotics to the transfer of disease from farmed to wild fish are lined up against interests in re-energizing local economies and satisfying an increasing worldwide appetite for seafood. UVic marine scientist Dr. Stephen Cross thinks he might have one kind of answer.

Cross spends a good chunk of his time in Kyuquot Sound off northwestern Vancouver Island, and has been specializing in BC aquaculture issues for more than 20 years. After receiving a British Columbia Innovation Award in 2006 for his research on water quality and seafood safety as it relates to multiple-species aquaculture, Cross developed the SEA-system (Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture) on Vancouver Island. Its premise—polyculture—has been used for thousands of years in Asia and China and is the basis of research being conducted by Cross and his team at UVic: the old technique of growing one thing from another has a very modern application off our shores. Cross uses sablefish (black cod) in the first licensed SEAfarm in Canada, with these fish the only ‘fed’ component of the SEA-system. The organic waste from the fish is captured and used as a food source by shellfish (scallops, mussels, oysters, cockles), kelp (Kombu, Nori), sea cucumbers and sea urchins. Each serves a unique function within the ecosystem and all are commercially viable.

An economic and ecological solution

“The science is getting the correct balance between the number of fish—typically in the thousands in each fish farm—and the type and quantity of other species that will naturally consume and hence mop up any waste,” says Cross. While costly closed containment systems have been developed in an effort to remove these wastes, according to Cross the SEA-system views these wastes as a resource, and is designed as an ecological rather than technological-based system to address the environmental effects associated with them.

Cross wants to see aquaculture systems that are self-sustainable in terms of environmental, economic and social criteria. Along with Dr. Mark Flaherty, a UVic geographer, Cross founded an intra-disciplinary Coastal Aquaculture Research and Training (CART) network to link the academic world to real-world use. Under CART, Cross and Flaherty have joined a five-year national research initiative funded by the Natural Sciences Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to explore the environmental and socio-economic issues related to integrated aquaculture (SEA-systems) on the east and west coasts of Canada.

The University of Victoria is taking the lead on this coast, with the SEAfarm facility in Kyuquot Sound being proposed as the platform for the Pacific Region research. The other farm is located in New Brunswick and uses a circular grid system, which is different from the consolidated steel square cages used on this coast. The structural systems of aquaculture are just one component open for investigation in this national initiative.

“The project is a good mix of marine research and social science,” says Flaherty. “It is highly unusual for NSERC to fund social science research, so this is an exciting chance to learn more about the social science side of aquaculture.”

The CART research team is also investigating the possibilities of energy alternatives to operate the SEA-system facility, integrating wind, microhydro and ocean thermal energy. There is also potential for creating bioethanol from the kelp and then using this clean fuel in the operation of the SEAfarm.

Aquaculture is not an industry devoid of controversy. Primary concerns are issues of sea lice and interactions with wild fish, antibiotic and pesticide use, and the need to use fish meal and oil food pellets to feed the farmed fish.

“Our research doesn't address all of these concerns,” says Cross. “Instead, we see a growing demand worldwide for seafood. This method of aquaculture can help enhance production, diversify the seafood industry and evolve best practices. It's in all our interests to design food-production systems to be ecologically sustainable.”

Casting the net far and wide

It’s not just BC or Canada where UVic’s aquaculture expertise is being felt. Dr. Jack Littlepage, an oceanographer with UVic’s Centre for Global Studies and a member of CART, helped shore up a multimillion-dollar shellfish industry in Brazil by developing community aquaculture projects in partnership with five Brazilian federal universities. The instructional programs and short-term training have allowed small-scale family-run aquaculture in Brazil to thrive, and sustainable shrimp and mollusk farms are now addressing issues related to food security and poverty reduction. Littlepage, who co-directs a Canadian program with Flaherty, is now among a group of Canadian and Brazilian professors establishing similar courses in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world, at the campus of Eduardo Mondlane University on the southeastern coast of Africa. UVic is the lead institution in this initiative; funding for the Brazil and Mozambique projects was provided by the Canadian International Development Agency. “Small-scale aquaculture does makes sense in these regions because the shellfish farms are inexpensive to develop,” says Littlepage, “and they can have a profound impact on these communities.”

But what are we drinking?

UVic researchers are not just looking at what swims in the water or feeds in its depths, but also at the quality and safety of this essential resource. UVic aquatic ecologist Dr. Asit Mazumder, NSERC Senior Research Chair in Environmental Management of Drinking Water, is leading our local communities and our country in protecting safe drinking water. In fact, he is a world leader in identifying indicators of contaminants in drinking supplies. Well known in Victoria for his successful work with the Victoria Capital Regional District helping develop land practices that have kept Victoria’s water supply pristine, Mazumder is hoping to help reduce chemical and microbial contaminants in Shawnigan Lake, just as he has in over 20 other BC communities and 16 Canadian Aboriginal communities, as well as in Bangladesh, Haiti and Cambodia.