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Nanaimo fish farm plans to scale up production 15 times thanks to US deal

Taste of B.C. Aquafarms was acquired by Miami, Fla.’s Blue Star Foods Corp. earlier this year
Steve Atkinson, managing director of Taste of B.C. Aquafarms, says plans call for the company’s farms to be producing 20,000 tonnes by 2028. (Photo submitted)

A Nanaimo fish farm will be scaling up production thanks to a merger with a U.S. company.

Taste of B.C. Aquafarms was acquired by Miami, Fla.,-based Blue Star Foods Corp. in June and now plans to take the technology it has developed at its pilot facility since 2012 and scale it up to land-based farms that can each produce 1,500 tonnes of steelhead annually.

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“We’re the only one anywhere in the world that has met their target in their pilot facility,” said Steve Atkinson, managing director of Taste of B.C. Aquafarms.

The research and development facility on Jameson Road raises and sells steelhead under the Little Cedar Falls brand name and meets or slightly exceeds its production target of 100 tonnes of market-quality two-kilogram fish every 12 months. The farm even made a small profit in 2020.

The goal now is to take the technology developed over the past nine years and scale it up to a facility capable of producing 1,500 tonnes of market-grade steelhead annually.

“What we thought would be a two- or three-year journey to get here was nine years, but we’ve outlasted, probably, 100 projects worldwide that preceded or were contemporary with us and we’re the only one that has actually survived…” Atkinson said. “We are now the oldest running salmon [recirculating aquaculture system] in the world.”

The farm in Nanaimo will remain in operation as a research and development facility and likely also will research land-based farming of other Pacific salmon species.

“We now have that knowledge, and we can now build our full-scale roll-out based on good historical data … We took the steps necessary to scale out with confidence … and we have no debt and we have a proven system,” Atkinson said.

To scale up to 15 times its current production, the company needs space for a much larger facility. Atkinson said that will most likely be in the Regional District of Nanaimo and the company is close to closing a deal on property.

A farm capable of producing 1,500 tonnes annually is actually part of a modular system that can be duplicated, space permitting, to further step up production, Atkinson said, comparing it to how poultry and swine farms increase production.

“Our new farm will have four individual modules that each will produce 375 tonnes and then we’ll also have a two-module hatchery, so we’ll hatch on site. We’ll have 1,500 tonnes of production and then we also will do primary processing … We’ll be harvesting fish five days a week…” he said. “Our plan is to build multiple 1,500-tonne farms, all identical, all with a known outcome, so we can give investors and banks very clear, projected outcomes that are reliable.”

Each 1,500-tonne farm could directly employ 12 to 15 workers and up to 150 workers indirectly. Atkinson said the first 1,500-tonne facility should be producing fish by the end of 2022.

The long-term target is to produce 20,000 tonnes of fish annually by 2028, the amount of production being eliminated in the Discovery Islands or about one-fifth of current salmon farming production in British Columbia.

“Salmon farming, right now, is our largest agricultural export … the GDP is something like $5 billion plus, so that 20,000 tonnes will contribute probably somewhere in the range of $1 billion to the GDP, which is really significant,” Atkinson said. “Right now we’re the only ones with the experience that can do land-based and [we are] choosing B.C. where the federal government is intent on eliminating net cage salmon farming.”

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John Keeler, chief executive officer of Blue Star Foods, said in a press release that acquiring Taste of B.C. Aquafarms provided the talent, resources and experience to accelerate its seafood production through the recirculating aquaculture system.

“Importantly, we have achieved success at the existing facility and are positioned to leverage TBC’s proven and scalable model to develop large-scale production facilities,” Keeler said.

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A merger between Nanaimo-based Taste of B.C. Aquafarms and Blue Star Foods of Miami, Fla., will scale up land-based fish farm steelhead production on the mid Island. (Photo submitted)

Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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