College of the North Atlantic researchers Leon Fiander, Keith Howse and Dr. Michael Graham are part of a research and development project in Lord’s Cove exploring shore-based aquaculture using wave-powered pumping technology. The tanks pictured are empty now but will eventually house halibut. Paul Herridge Photo
Sitting on the wharf in Lord’s Cove is a building with a history not unlike many others scattered around coastal Newfoundland and Labrador. The old fish plant was once a part of Fishery Products International’s assets in the province.
For years, a solid employment provider for many residents in the community, the property changed hands when FPI was sold to Ocean Choice International in 2007.
Fish are about to return to the building once more but not for processing.
The old plant is now in the midst of a transformation College of the North Atlantic’s (CNA) Burin Campus researchers, led by Dr. Michael Graham, hope will have a major impact on shore-based aquaculture. And, if all goes to plan, could also result in a marine research and test station at the end of five years.
Run down, in a state of disrepair and roughly a decade since fish has been processed at the plant, according to Dr. Graham the intervening years had not been kind.
As fellow researcher Keith Howse put it, “It was an eyesore.”
The provincial government, through the Department of Innovation, Business and Rural Development, kicked in $175,000 for renovations, and has also contributed roughly $500,000 from its Research and Development Corporation.
In addition to the government funding, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council has contributed over $2 million to the project.
Creatively, Ocean Choice leased the property to the town in lieu of taxes, which along with another main building belonging to the Lord’s Cove Harbour Authority, was then leased to College of the North Atlantic for the tax amount.
Leon Fiander, another of the project’s researchers, said the town’s support – including both council and residents – has been a big plus.
“Everyone here really supports what we’re at. They’re all very interested in it in the community.”
A third, smaller building on the site will contain technical equipment and instrumentation for a wave-powered pump that Dr. Graham explained will hopefully provide a key component for aquaculture on land – free energy.
An initial research and development project for the pump – inspired by a science project of Dr. Graham’s daughter – was launched in Lord’s Cove back in 2006.
CNA has partnered with the National Research Council’s Ocean Technology Enterprise Centre in St. John’s where tank tests on components of the wave pump are underway. Dr. Graham said he expects construction on a new wave pump for the aquaculture project to begin by year’s end.
But some fish will arrive before then. Electric pumps, built by Mr. Howse in the sheet metal program’s shop at the Burin Campus, will get the aquaculture process started in the coming weeks, and over the winter months, the intended farm system will start to come together.
Once it does, that’s when things will really start to get interesting.
According to the researchers, halibut will be grown in large tanks in the Harbour Authority’s building, which lies on a slope above the former fish plant.
Down below, in one room of the old facility, organisms that eat seaweed – whelk, sea urchins and scallops for example – will clean the water coming from above. Seaweed grown in the next room will provide a food source for the adjacent species.
According to Dr. Graham, the seaweed will also clean chemicals from the water before it flows back into the sea.
“Basically, after the halibut, everything else in the farm is a big filter to clean the water. So the water goes back to the ocean … clean.”
The biggest expense for shore-based aquaculture is the cost of pumping water.
Mr. Fiander acknowledged another soon-to-be associated cost will also be avoided.
“Right now, you don’t have to pay to treat effluent, but it’s coming to a point when you’re going to have your effluent treated before you put it back in the ocean. Ours is hopefully going to be treated biologically.”
Dr. Graham summed up the idea behind the research further.
“You have to pump the water cheap and you have to maximize your feed conversion and you have to avoid pollution. All of those things together, that’s what this farm is designed to do. That’s what we’re testing.”
If the CNA project works, Dr. Graham indicated areas all along the province’s south coast, as well as the east coast of Nova Scotia, with exposed headlands necessary, would provide prime locales for shore-based aquaculture ventures.
He said the researchers are attempting to prove a concept with the Lord’s Cove pilot project, which will be expensive on a small scale, but when extrapolated into bigger operations could make a decent profit.
If successful, shore-based aquaculture farms and possibly plant operations would be feasible in many locations where they are currently not possible.
Dr. Graham indicated that could lead to manufacturing of wave-powered pumps.
So far, the project has taken over three offices at CNA’s Burin Campus. Over the next five years, it will pay out the equivalent of 35 person years of employment.
Right now, there is one full-time employee, with a second part-time position soon to be filled. A number of students – both paid and work-term – have spent time at the site.
A weather station, wave buoy and other technology at the site have laid the foundation for the potential marine research and test station down the road.
Dr. Graham is optimistic there are other opportunities like the Lord’s Cove project around the province and uses for their old, empty buildings.
“I think this is the future of communities like this, finding something the community has that’s uniquely it – here it’s waves – and figuring out a way to take advantage of it.”