For centuries, perhaps millennia, the Namgis First Nation fished a wide and glassy river that barrels into the straits separating Vancouver Island from mainland Canada. According to legend, sockeye salmon were so plentiful that the Namgis could simply redirect the river and trap seemingly endless runs of fish in ponds outside their homes.
Today, sockeye have all but disappeared from the Nimpkish. But a stone's throw away, a warehouse brims with hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon. The fish crowd into pools the color of jade, swim against a steady current, eat pellets that rain down from metal pipes above, and grow plump.
This $7.6 million (U.S.) warehouse is called Kuterra. Owned by the Namgis, it is one of the few commercial-scale, land-based salmon farms in the world. Considered a model for sustainable aquaculture, Kuterra recycles its water, converts its waste into fertilizer, avoids use of pesticides and antibiotics, and relies predominantly on grains and soy for fish food.
"The one word that best describes what we're doing here is 'control,' " says Jo Mrozewski, a company spokesperson. "You control the environment, you control the growth parameters. You can control so many things because you're not exposed to the vagaries of nature."
Roughly 600,000 pounds of Kuterra salmon have been sold since the company's first harvest 14 months ago, and after receiving the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Best Choice" sustainability rating in October, consumer demand has surpassed supply. The fish respond well to the highly regulated system: They grow nearly twice as fast as other farmed Atlantic salmon, and they eat much less food.
Experts are calling Kuterra the fish farm of the future. And it allows the Namgis Nation to try to preserve its past while embracing its own future. The nation has a strong cultural connection to salmon, even though the region's wild species—sockeye, coho, and Chinook—are in peril.
Every summer, Namgis receive their annual allotment of free wild salmon, caught and distributed by the aboriginal government. After the fish are dispersed, a celebration begins. Ferries en route to the 1.5-square-mile Cormorant Island, which houses the Namgis reserve, are packed with people, white clouds billow into the air as residents cold-smoke their catch, and families cut and can the fish for days on end.
"You'll find this in every house," says Brian Svanvik, a technician at the Namgis Nation, holding a bag of salmon jerky. "Doing fish with my family, that's part of my childhood: packing firewood, sharpening knives, cutting fish, watching fish as it boils overnight. I can't imagine someday having to tell my father or grandmother that we can't do it anymore."
The Last Generation to Fish the Nimpkish
As a teenager, Debra Hanuse, the Namgis's elected chief, used to navigate with friends and family up the Nimpkish, which the Namgis call the Gwa'ni, in a flat-bottomed boat, and set up camp on a remote riverbank. When someone spotted a bright red fish leaping from the water, they'd yell, "Jumper!" They would then run to shore, toss out a beach seine net, and pull scores of sockeye from the rushing waters.
But Hanuse's generation was the last to take salmon out of the Nimpkish. "It would be wonderful if we could go back to the river and harvest in the traditional ways," she says.
Numerous factors contributed to the decline of wild Pacific salmon, including climate change, overfishing, and logging. Fish farms, though, receive the brunt of the blame from some scientists.
More than 120 salmon farms operate in British Columbia, many in the small coves and remote bays surrounding Vancouver Island. Unlike Kuterra, these farms are in net pens just off the shoreline that can spread parasites and disease to wild salmon, pollute waterways with solid waste and chemicals, and occasionally release Atlantic salmon—a non-native species—into Pacific ecosystems.
"The conditions of traditional salmon farms can only be compared to a floating pig farm," says the University of British Columbia's Daniel Pauly, a renowned marine biologist. "Some people argue that every farmed salmon has a wild counterpart that's dead."
Although salmon aquaculture in British Columbia has reduced its environmental impacts over the past few years, some scientists, including Pauly, are pushing the $800 million (U.S.) industry to move onto land.
Kuterra is the only land-based Atlantic salmon farm selling its product, but about a dozen other facilities around the world—from the high desert of Nevada to Nova Scotia—are either being developed or are raising their first pods. Some predict it's only a matter of time before salmon are harvested near San Francisco, New York, and Singapore.
"We're actually seeing a real market for this stuff. It's just a matter of getting the systems more and more efficient," says Brent Giles, a research director for the tech consulting firm Lux, which predicts that land-based aquaculture like Kuterra will increase nearly ninefold over the next 15 years.
"We're just starting to farm the oceans rather than hunt them … and we have the opportunity to build a better mousetrap."
But such a transformation wouldn't be easy. Inland salmon farms require nearly three times as much start-up capital as net-pen farms, and continuously cleaning and recirculating water uses a lot of energy, which can leave a relatively large carbon footprint.
The Namgis built Kuterra with more than $6 million (U.S.) in grants and donations, and while sales are good, the company still isn't turning a profit. (It expects to start making a profit next spring, and hopes to build a second facility later.) Pioneering an industry is challenging. Any hiccup can push the company further into the red, and problems can be tough to solve.
"It's an ambitious undertaking to try and grow a new industry, but it's worth every penny," Hanuse says. "Salmon is so vital to our way of life. Our identity—our survival—is at stake."
A Factory for Fish
An overwhelming smell of fish food wafts in the air when visitors enter Kuterra. Unlike many salmon farms, Kuterra's food is mostly soy, grains, and chicken; only 8 percent is wild-caught forage fish. An empty room separates the food-storage area from the aquatic feedlot. There, visitors must slip on sanitized footwear, step into a puddle of disinfectant, and rub their hands with Purell. If a disease and parasites enter the pools, it could be disastrous. "I don't know what we would do, quite frankly," Mrozewski says. "There's no way to cut off one tank from the rest, so the whole plant might go."
Inside it feels like any other factory: Machinery hums, computer screens flash, and a handful of workers mill about. Six tanks are packed with 40,000 Atlantic salmon each. Five have lights fixed to the bottom that produce an emerald glow and promote growth. The sixth is dark; the salmon inside have already matured and are waiting for harvest.
Adjacent to the fish tanks is a large, L-shaped pool partially covered in a caramel-colored bio-filter of sand and bacteria. The filter converts ammonia into nitrates, then drops the cleaned water into an underground chamber, where it's stripped of carbon dioxide and later pumped full of oxygen and piped back into the tanks.
In less than an hour the system cleans close to 800,000 gallons, making roughly 99 percent of Kuterra's water reusable. "When things are going well, it's brilliant," says Cathal Dinneen, the company's operations manager. "It feels like we're at the forefront of aquaculture technology."
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch steers consumers away from farmed Atlantic salmon, but it praises land-based operations like Kuterra. The risks of environmental impacts "from pollution, escapes, and diseases are all low," the aquarium's website states.
Kuterra farms Atlantic salmon instead of Pacific species because its main goal is to persuade the rest of aquaculture to move onto land. "If we're trying to catalyze change in the industry, we need to be farming the same species so we can do an apple-to-apple comparison," Mrozewski says.
All of British Columbia's salmon farms could move into a plot of land roughly one-fifth the size of Central Park, Mrozewski says.
"Part of Kuterra's mission is to reduce the risk for others," says Catherine Emrick, senior associate of aquaculture innovation at Tides Canada, a nonprofit that gave a $3.2 million grant to Kuterra. "I foresee that [land-based salmon farming] will take over, and that's great."