One of the adult Coho salmon at Golden Eagle Aquaculture. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

HOMEGROWN: Agassiz farm goes fishing

Golden Eagle Aquaculture is braving the ‘f-word’ and trying to bring farmed fish out of the water

Inside the dimly lit tent on Golden Eagle Aquaculture’s Wilson Road farm, Celine Cook tends to her fish.

She has been raising the Coho salmon since they came to the farm in November as little five-gram fry. Her main duties are low-maintenance — monitoring the oxygen in their freshwater tanks, removing the dead salmon to send to local mink farms — and the fish pretty much raise themselves.

“Everything’s pretty self-sufficient here,” Cook said, looking around at the tanks outfitted with timed feeders and recirculating water systems. “You don’t need that many manual workers.”

At Golden Eagle Aquaculture, there are a total of three employees on site: Cook, fellow farm technician Patrick Smith and site manager Alex Brooks. All are relative newcomers to the aquaculture industry, but then again, so is land-based salmon farming.

Currently, Golden Eagle is one of only 20 fresh water farms in B.C. that take salmon from tiny fry to two-kilogram adults. Of those farms, eight are located in the Lower Mainland.

“The appetite to make land-based salmon farming work is not for the timid,” Don Read said.

Read is the president of Willowfield Enterprises, the company responsible for marketing and selling the salmon produced by Cook, Smith and Brooks at the farm.

Golden Eagle, owned by Vancouver’s Aquilini Group, has been operating out of its Agassiz home since 2014 when they took over from Swift Aquaculture, which Read described as a “hobby farm.”

“It was basically one guy who had some neat ideas trying to do his thing,” Read said about the company.

“What (Golden Eagle) is trying to become … is a factor in the supply of commercial and industrial salmon.”

That’s no easy task for the company, which is currently competing against the allure of wild-caught Coho and the productivity of marine-farmed Atlantic salmon.

RELATED: John Horgan wades back into salmon farms

To make it all happen, Golden Eagle needs a shipment of 50,000 five-gram fry. Cook raises these fry under the cover of the tent, feeding them a commercial mixture of fish and insect meal until they reach 200 grams.

Once they are large enough, the fish are moved into Golden Eagle’s outdoor tanks, dug seven feet deep into the ground.

Outside in early April, Coho that are nearly a year old swim in the tanks, agitating the water with their tails when the automated feeder spits out pellets of food. By September, these fish will be a hefty two-kilograms and ready for harvest.

Throughout the process, the farm technicians are looking for issues with water quality, oxygen levels.

But there are other things the technicians need to keep an eye on as well.

Bald eagles hang around on trees just outside the farm, looking for an opportunity to snag a growing salmon. Herons are also popular visitors, and once Smith said he saw a baby black bear ambling along the edge of the property.

“Every day it’s all interesting,” Smith said. “We’re always learning something new.”

Right now, the biggest challenge for Golden Eagle is the public’s opinion around farmed salmon.

“One of the problems we have is that it’s still farmed fish,” Read explained, standing in front of the recirculating water system near the six outdoor salmon tanks.

“When people hear the word farm, the f-word, they won’t buy it and they won’t support it.”

Right now, Read said, about 80 per cent of Golden Eagle’s salmon is shipped to the prairies: Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Getting the salmon into other markets requires convincing customers one at a time.

But, according to the farm technicians on site, there’s still hope that customers will come on board.

“It’s the way of the future,” Smith said about the company. “We’re getting more and more people, and the oceans are slowing down. And when we can do this on a small little piece like this —”

“It’s super sustainable,” Cook finished for him. Smith nodded.

“As long as we open up and let people know it’s not a bad thing” the business may grow, he added. It’s “the same as raising chickens or pigs or something.

“We’re just using water instead of dirt.”

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grace.kennedy@ahobserver.com

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(From left to right) Patrick Smith, Celine Cook and Alex Brooks are responsible for the day to day management of Golden Eagle Aquaculture and its fish. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

One of the adult Coho salmon at Golden Eagle Aquaculture. This one has gone through all the stages at the farm and is ready for sale. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

Golden Eagle Aquaculture site manager Alex Brooks holding up one of the fish the farm has raised for sale. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

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