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Futuristic Fish Farms

Futuristic Fish Farms

Can wild Atlantic and Pacific salmon be saved from extinction if floating, net-pen fish farms are replaced by contained fish farms on land? The answer has always been a hopeful yes, but until now, economic and technological barriers made closed-containment systems just a pipe dream. Now, land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are proving they are not only economically viable, they are potential saviors of our ocean environments.

The first successful U.S. experiment with commercial closed-containment aquaculture occurred in 2013 at the Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Land-based farms like these may save our oceans — if consumers support them. Photo: The Conservation Fund/Kata Sharrer

In a nutshell, here's why floating open-net fish farms have failed: Although they have provided most of the Atlantic salmon sold to consumers in the past two decades, the farms have caused outbreaks of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) in the Bay of Fundy and Chile, been identified as potential contributors to recent declines of Fraser River sockeye runs due to pollution and parasitic sea lice, and lost the support of the consumer public because of the dangerous chemicals used to control disease and parasites and produce massive growth in farmed fish. [For a full accounting of these failures, and the magnitude of the threats they present to both Atlantic and Pacific salmon, read John Randolph's abbreviated history of the Bay of Fundy wild Atlantic salmon decline, and the coincidental contemporary decline of Fraser River sockeye at The Editor.]

Closed Containment

Virtually all the pen-raised Atlantic salmon produced in North America are raised in Canada — and until recently all were raised in adult-stage net-pens located in saltwater estuaries.

A March, 2013 "Report of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans" to the Canadian Parliament outlines what many in Canada (and the U.S.) are viewing as a possible solution to net-pen problems.

The report is the second of its kind. The first, conducted in 1999-2003 and called "The Federal Role of Aquaculture in Canada," contained just one recommendation pertaining to closed-containment aquaculture. But the new 2013 report says: "As a result of increased scrutiny on the environmental impacts of the aquaculture industry, closed-containment technologies have become a major focus of aquaculture research and development. The fact that this report focuses entirely on closed-containment aquaculture indicates how much the dialogue has changed over the last decade."

Since the 2013 report was submitted, two on-land RAS operations in Canada have begun raising and selling Atlantic salmon and Arctic char. Both operations are owned by Sustainable Blue ( in Nova Scotia.

In the U.S, the Conservation Fund's 20-year-old Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, partnering with the Atlantic Salmon Federation — and partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private endowments — finished a two-year experimental project growing Atlantic salmon smolts in an indoor recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) that recycles water for the fish and captures 98 percent of the waste material.

It was the first American project of its kind to successfully produce Atlantic salmon in a closed-containment system — and send them to market (20 metric tons of 8- to 10-pound fish).

The RAS operations offer the following advantages: Little use of, and no discharge of, antibiotics and pesticides into the marine environment; no amplification of or spread of sea lice; the ability to contain and control bacteria and viruses and prevent them from entering the marine environment; no discharge of fish waste into the environment; no fish culling and entanglement of marine mammals and birds in nets; no escape of nonindigenous species, thus avoiding invasive, competitive inbreeding with native species of salmon such as has happened in the Bay of Fundy.

The production benefits over net-pen aquaculture include: faster (year-round) growth; less feed required (a pound of feed produces a pound of salmon, about the same food/fish ratio as ocean net-pen farmed salmon); no loss of product due to disease or parasites; the ability to collect and use feces as aquaponics recycle-system fertilizer; and the ability to locate farms near markets.


The production costs are projected to be close to, or below, the net-pen cost of production — about $1.80 per pound. But capital RAS start-up costs are much higher: $30 million for construction of an RAS versus $10 million for a net-pen operation. According to Canadian restaurateurs who have served them, the taste and meat quality of RAS salmon are as good as ocean aquaculture salmon.

The Freshwater Institute brought 20 metric tons of Atlantic salmon to market at a competitive price, little impact to the environment, and use of 99 percent recycled fresh water. Photo: The Conservation Fund/Kata Sharrer

The science-based RAS systems forestall all the documented environmental threats that sea-based, open-net-pen systems brought to the salmon estuaries and rivers of the Northern Hemisphere and Chile. And they do so at much lower environmental costs.

According to the Freshwater Institute's Director of Aquaculture Systems Research Steven T. Summerfelt, Ph.D., and Director of Engineering Services Brian J. Vinci, Ph.D., the present and future of land-based closed-containment aquaculture is proven and inevitable. They say:

"U.S. farmers are first in cattle and poultry production in the world and second in hogs, with total terrestrial production of nearly 38 million tons per year, but the U.S. produces less than 1 percent of this biomass using fish farming.

"Simply put, fish-farm expansion in the U.S. has been constrained by limited water resources, site access, and regulatory limitations. Due to these constraints, to create significant new production we must develop technically advanced, environmentally compatible, and economically sustainable production systems and techniques for species with strong market demand, such as Atlantic salmon.

"The U.S. consumes approximately 300,000 tons of farm-raised Atlantic salmon annually, but farms less than about 20,000 tons.

"Arguably, all fish farms in the U.S. are CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). However, only pond systems and land-based, closed-containment systems can still be widely sited and permitted in the U.S. due to our water and regulatory constraints. Land-based, closed-containment systems use water recirculation technologies that continuously filter and recycle as much as 99.8 percent of the water flowing through the system, and have only minimal direct hydraulic interaction with the environment. During the recycling process, land-based, closed-containment systems can control and capture 99 percent of fish waste solids and phosphorous, plus much of the nitrogen.

"Therefore, large-scale fish-farm operations employing these technologies can be located in areas adjacent to major U.S. markets or with minimal siting restrictions, limited water resources, strict discharge regulations, or cheap electricity.

"In addition, land-based, closed-containment systems allow for much greater control of the rearing environment than ponds, flow-through net-pen, or floating-tank systems. Water temperature and quality can be maintained at optimum levels; multiple barriers can be used to prevent fish escapement; protection from storms, wildlife, and vandals can be achieved; implementation of biosecurity strategies can improve fish welfare by minimizing disease and result in healthy fish, and negligible use of antibiotics or chemicals.

"Nutrients can be concentrated into much smaller volumes, resulting in a manageable effluent (one that can be disinfected) and significantly less waste discharge to the environment; and phosphorus, nitrogen, carbon, and nutrients can be recaptured for reuse as a soil amendment, to feed vegetables and herbs in large-scale aquaponics systems, or for methane production."

How it Works

The Freshwater Institute system uses fresh water drawn (5 to 30 gallons per minute depending on the season) from a karst limestone spring creek and fed into a hatchery house containing a 40,000-gallon circulating growing tank, where thousands of healthy 8- to 10-pound Atlantic salmon swim, knifing into the cool (58 degrees F.) circulating current.

The harvested salmon began as fertilized, eyed eggs purchased from the West Coast. They were hatched into larvae in trays at the Freshwater Institute, and raised into 8- to 10-pound adults, four to nine months faster than in ocean pens. Photo: The Conservation Fund/Kata Sharrer

The population is mixed males and females. The males are harvested early — prior to maturation due to lower-than-premium (pale in color) fillet quality. Most commercial net-pen salmon operations use exclusively female salmon to eliminate problems with early-maturing males.

The adult salmon at the Freshwater Institute came from Cascade-strain fertilized (eyed) eggs purchased from American Gold Seafoods on the West Coast and shipped chilled overnight to the hatchery.

The two-year egg-to-adult growing cycle begins when the eggs are hatched into larvae in trays (one month hatching and incubation), and raised for six to seven months in a larval/juvenile rearing system, where they are photoperiod-manipulated to induce smoltification.

The smolts are then moved to a cleaner, freshwater "depuration" system for about a week, which allows their systems to cleanse of any bacteria that can cause a musty flavor in the fillets. Then they are raised for three to four months to post-smolt size.

The post-smolts are finally introduced to the large "grow-out tank," where they grow swiftly, fed fish pellets three to four times a day, to near 3-kilogram size in six months and finally, in the last six months, to 4 or 5 kilogram weights. Then they are euthanized instantly — to prevent buildup of lactic acid in their flesh — by a cranium stunning piston. Summerfelt says his operation can grow the salmon four to nine months faster than net-pen operations due to its ability to control the "culture environment," particularly the water temperature.

The harvested adult fish are shipped on ice swiftly to Albion Seafoods in British Columbia, where they are processed and marketed. The most expensive cost (both financially and environmentally) in the whole process is the fish pellets (made from ground-up menhaden and other saltwater baitfish.)

The fish excrement is separated at the bottom of the tank, which carries a small flow to a settling device. The nutrient-rich wastewater separated from the fish system is ready for use in growing various lettuces and other vegetables. (The Freshwater Institute plans to add an aquaponic veggie garden in the near future; the fish waste is currently shipped to a municipal waste plant.)

Summerfelt's system is entirely closed, except for a small amount of treated wastewater, tested as clean under a National Pollution Discharge Permit. It is entirely disease free, and it has never lost a salmon (smolt or larva) to nearby streams.

As Senior Research Associate John Davidson III says, "The system engineering design was created here by Dr. Summerfelt and our engineering team through extensive technological research. It's completely closed, and it can be recreated anywhere on land. All it needs is clean, cold water."

The Summerfelt-designed RAS is an elegant example of biochemical/technological innovation, proof in operation that science-based, reliable onshore commercial aquaculture is here. It is now the confirmed present and future of safe aquacultural fish products in North America. And it is the technology that should save our wild salmon.

However, as Summerfelt points out, the future of RAS systems in the U.S. depends on large-scale (40- to 100-ton) salmon productions being built, and — most important — showing that they can be profitable.

Is it the future of fish farming? Well, it could be, but only if consumers prefer or even demand salmon from these new, closed-containment producers.

Best New Freshwater Rod

Scott Radian $795
Sometimes it's major improvements to rod blank technology that set a new rod apart. Other times, it's little functional switch-ups and cosmetic changes that woo consumers. In the case of the new Radian, it's both. Jim Bartschi and his crew at Scott Fly Rods have hit a home run.
The Radian uses Scott's X-Core design to create a wide, stable tube with thin, sensitive walls, along with ReAct technology to speed rod recovery time and reduce vibrations when the rod stops. Getting rid of these extra 'wobbles ' has been a goal of rod designers for a long time, and Scott seems to have brought us a step forward with a rod that casts with crispness and authority, but still has the feeling of connection you need in a trout tool. And while some might consider a rod handle 'cosmetic ' I'd have to disagree. Your grip, and the handle on the rod, can affect the way you cast, and a full wells grip reduces hand fatigue and is a better grip for a wider range of distances and conditions. Sage did it last year with the ONE series, and we may be seeing the beginning of a trend here with the full wells grip on the Scott Radian.
Another improvement is the REC wood-insert reel seat with an uplocking ring Bartschi calls 'self-indexing. ' What this means is that you don't have to spin the reel seat ring to find a proper alignment for the reel foot. It's always perfectly aligned in relation to the forward hood under the handle. It's a very small thing — and no one has ever failed to seat their reel properly due to lack of a self-indexing reel seat — but it shows that Scott is thinking about consumers, and considering just about every possible path to make things slicker and more convenient.
Other small details like Universal Snake guides with curved, 'radiused ' feet that fit slimmer on a rounded blank; alignment dots; and measuring wraps on the blank all add up to a rod that has forward-thinking design and higher performance in mind. The fly-fishing industry seems to agree, as the rod won Best Freshwater Rod at the 2013 International Fly Tackle Dealer show, and also overall Best in Show. The 4-piece rods are available in 4- to 8-weight models.

Best New Saltwater Line

Scientific Anglers Saltwater Grand Slam $85
Slackline casts are great when you're dry-fly fishing for trout, but in saltwater fishing, a slackline cast means that you'll have to retrieve line before you can come tight to the fly, and that lapse in effective movement often means the difference between catching fish and just seeing them. Florida Keys guide Capt. Bruce Chard is a master of coaching the short cast to the batter on the deck, but he's still watched too many bonefish and tarpon swim right past a stationary fly due to poor presentation. To combat this problem, he designed his Grand Slam line with an extremely short front taper that delivers excess energy to the fly so the leader turns over completely, and you can instantly swim the fly. The heavy head loads rods quickly for quick up-close casts, but a long rear taper (twice as long as most other saltwater lines) also helps you carry and control more line in the air for those opportunities where you actually get to make a hero cast.

Best New Saltwater Reel

Nautilus CCF-X2 $435 - $555
Low start-up inertia is easy when the drag is set low. The difficult thing is to have low inertia when the drag is set heavy. These lightweight, fully sealed reels have a sophisticated braking system that generates 20 pounds of drag with less than 1% start-up inertia. Here's how Nautilus made such a lightweight reel with heavyweight stopping power: The sealed drag has two friction surfaces — cork and carbon fiber — for double the surface area. Hybrid ceramic bearings and TPX bushings keep the weight extremely low yet perfectly align the axle to ensure that the spool tracks true at all settings. An oversize drag handle takes six full turns to go from zero to 20 pounds of drag. And the screw-off spool goes from left-hand to right-hand retrieve in minutes.

Best New Saltwater Rod

Sage Method $800 - [imo-slideshow gallery=145],050
although Sage isn't officially calling this a saltwater rod, we tested the new fast-action Method on the bonefish flats of South Andros Island and found it's the perfect tool for launching long, accurate casts in calm conditions where you can see the fish coming (and they can see you) from a long way off. And it's just as effectively when the wind is howling, and you need to make a powerful cast right into the teeth of a gale.
But since there are also 4- to 6-weights with wood insert real seats in the rod family, and nine different Spey and switch models, it's much more than a saltwater series — it's a high-performance casting tool for people who enjoy pushing the ceiling higher and higher. 'Sage's DNA is synonymous with fast-action rods, and through Konnetic Technology, we've taken seriously smooth, ultra-fast action performance to a new place entirely, ' said Sage chief rod designer, Jerry Siem. 'Our newest high-performance rods will make any caster better, but will also help experienced casters notch exceptional casts with regularity. '

Best New Switch Rod

G.Loomis PRO-4x $480 - $575
about a year ago, G.Loomis introduced its new PRO-4x rod series — rods that mimic the actions of the top-of-the-line NRX series because they share the same tapers, but they don't use the same expensive resin systems and carbon fibers as G.Loomis's best-performing rods. What you're left with is a series of well-designed rods that are fun to cast, and affordable enough that you can get more than one. Initially, the PRO-4x was a family of single-handed rods, but in 2014 it's expanding to include switch and two-handed models for everything from trout fishing in big rivers to true Spey casting for anadromous species. Like previous PRO-4x rods, the switch and two-handed models use some tapers from the more expensive NRX series, so if you like the 13-foot, 8/9-weight NRX, you're likely to appreciate the same rod in the PRO-4x series. But you're even more likely to enjoy the price difference. With a trout rod, a PRO-4x is about $280 cheaper, but when you get into switch and Spey rods, the savings run up to $500 and more, and you still get much of the 'feel ' of a performance rod.
Although the series is based on NRX tapers, there are some original gems in the family. The 10'6" 5-weight PRO-4x has no equivalent in the NRX series, yet our tester thought it was 'the perfect trout switch rod. While most switch rods are actually too long and too heavy for extended use with one hand, this one is a real multipurpose tool that you can Czech nymph with, hit a snap-T when the bank is tight behind you, or cast dry flies to rising trout. '

Best New Technology

Redington Super Dry Fly Waders $500
All breathable, waterproof fabrics in the outdoor industry are measured, evaluated, and compared by their moisture vapor transmission rate (MVTR), also described as the 'breathability ' of the fabric. And while the issue of which company has the more breathable fabric has been hotly contested for decades, the issue of how that moisture vapor gets to the membrane in the first place has been largely ignored . . . until now. Redington is the first to use a product called 37.5 in a new line of waders built with the idea of more effectively creating moisture vapor (you can't pass liquid sweat through a breathable membrane) and moving that vapor toward the membrane. The new 37.5 technology uses tiny particles of activated carbon and volcanic sand — both are filled with microscopic cavities, creating an incredible evaporative surface area for their weight and volume. These activated particles are embedded to the wader lining using a polyurethane binder to 'stick ' the microporous particles to the wader interior. According to 37.5 inventor Dr. Gregory Haggquist of Cocona Natural Technologies, this lining draws moisture away from your body, and drives it through the membrane, leaving a comfortable microclimate next your skin of about 37 to 38 percent relative humidity (hence the name). The new Redington Super Dry Fly Waders ($500) with a front zip, Super Dry Waders ($400), and Super Dry Pants ($280) are all constructed using Redington's sonic-welded seams and will be available in 2014.

Best New Trout Line

RIO Perception $90
RIO's new flagship trout line has made a core change, both figuratively and literally. The Perception trout line has a new low-stretch core — the first of its kind for polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based fly lines. RIO won't say what its proprietary new core is made of, but it's not nylon monofilament or nylon multifilament, which are the traditional elastic materials for PVC fly line cores. If you've fished RIO's InTouch Deep lines, you've already felt the difference a low-stretch fly line can make to your contact with the fly, your sensitivity in detecting strikes, and your ability to set the hook when you feel the fish. Everything is more instant and efficient. But does it make a difference in your casting as well?
'Absolutely, ' said Simon Gawesworth, RIO marketing manager and a big part of the Perception design team. According to Gawesworth, a good caster can significantly stretch a standard fly line in the air by merely hauling the line, and this stretch is like a giant power drain when you're trying to move the fly efficiently. The Perception's low stretch — about 6% compared to about 30% in a standard fly line — lets you move the fly immediately instead of first stretching the line before you can move the fly.
We've tested the line extensively and found that it not only casts better, it mends more efficiently, picks up quickly and quietly, and gives you better control and more sensitivity for 'blind ' fishing subsurface with nymphs and streamers, where instant contact with the fish is the difference between hooking up, and missing a strike. In short, it's a more responsive line because the force you apply at your end of the rod is more immediately telegraphed through the line, and there is no 'dampening ' effect cause by line stretch.

Best New Trout Reel

Tibor Signature Series $685
Ted Juracsik set the saltwater world on its head when he reinvented the Tibor brand with his Signature Series. The reels are lighter than the original Tibor series and have a sealed, waterproof drag system that's easy to change from right- to left-hand retrieve. The esthetics and stopping power of the Signature Series quickly made it a staple for everything for bonefish and redfish, up to billfish and tarpon with the giant 11-12 size. In 2014 this saltwater stalwart is coming down in size to a 31/4"x23„8" trout-size reel that holds 200 yards of 20-pound-test gel-spun backing and a 6-weight line. The 5-6 Signature reel has a lighter foot to balance with smaller trout rods, and there's also a speciality color scheme for the lightweight of the family that allows you to choose a distinctive lime, aqua, crimson, or black drag system to match with the standard frame and spool colors that Tibor has offered for years.

Best New Wading Boot

Simms G4 Boa Boot $240
You've probably seen people jogging the streets barefoot, or maybe read the book Born to Run, which takes a close look at the podiatric health of barefoot cultures. The barefoot concept embraces the philosophy that you'll perform better if you allow your foot to do its work unencumbered. While you can't actually wade a river barefoot, the premise behind the G4 Boa Boot is that your foot is a complex appendage with tiny bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves all working to keep you balanced and moving. If you eliminate feedback coming from the river bottom, you hinder your own ability for proprioception — the ability to sense the orientation and movement of the body and its parts. According to Brandon Hill of Simms, the key to the new boot is the sculpted TPU retention plate in the boot platform that allows the outsole to articulate so you can feel your way along the river bottom better, and use your foot the way it was designed.

Best Women's Waders

Orvis Silver Sonic Convertible-Top Waders $260
Comfortable and easy to move in, these convertibles give you options in warm weather. SonicSeam Technology ensures there are no bulky seams to rub in awkward places, and a flip-out interior pocket offers a secure place for valuables. The fabric is light, and packs down smaller than some competitors — important for ladies who travel. Orvis nailed the fit here — these are the best-fitting waders I've tried, and together with the convertible top, made these my favorite of all the women's waders I tested this year.

Best Fiberglass Rod

Orvis Superfine Glass $400
After a several-decade hiatus from fiberglass, Orvis has come back into the glass game. Rod designer Shawn Combs at Orvis started the process several years ago. After a long period of testing, tweaking, and tuning, Orvis has finally released the Superfine Glass, rolled and assembled at the Orvis rod shop in Manchester, Vermont, and priced under $400. There is no excuse for any serious glass geek not to at least give these rods a try. I recently spent an enjoyable afternoon casting small foam hoppers to hungry brown trout in Wisconsin's Driftless Area using a 7' Superfine Glass. The little 3-weight handled the hopper without issue and rolled out accurate casts up to 40 feet without a problem. There is also a 7'6" 4-weight, and an 8' 5-weight in the series.

Green Award

Fishpond Black Canyon $180
Fishpond has introduced 14 new fishing packs and vests for 2014 built with a strong, durable nylon material produced from recycled commercial fishing nets. Not only is Fishpond helping remove these old nets from the ocean and beaches by creating a value for them, but the high-tech recycling process uses 27% fewer natural resources and reduces greenhouse emissions by 28% compared to using virgin nylon.
One of the new products using recycled materials is the Black Canyon backpack. With an adjustable external frame, offset air mesh back, and padded, contoured shoulder straps, it helps carry heavy loads and keeps you cool while hiking into remote fishing destinations. The modular design lets it dock with many of the Fishpond's chest/lumbar packs, and two zip-out rod tube holders comfortably carry fly rods. The large main backpack compartment carries plenty of gear while three smaller pockets offer quick access to necessities.

Green Award

Simms DownUnder Merino Ziptop & Bottom $100-$120
These merino wool base layers aren't just manufactured in the U.S., the wool is raised on Montana ranches, and washed, spun into yarn, and woven into fabric, all without leaving the state. The wool is never bleached — an environmentally destructive process that can also remove the natural lanolins that help make Merino wool soft and naturally odor resistant. Because of the extraordinarily small diameter of the Merino fibers, this wool doesn't itch, and helps wick moisture away from the skin so you feel dry and comfortable. The garments are sewn in the Simms Bozeman factory using a flatlock stitch so they are both comfortable and stretchy enough to wear as a base layer.

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