2 Minutes with Trevor Pitcher
February 3, 2014
Tapping into the discovery and applied research expertise of Canadian universities has proven to Yellow Island Aquaculture Ltd. (YIAL) many times over that farming organic native salmon is highly lucrative.
A 20-year university collaboration with university researchers resulted in improved rearing techniques and genetic brood (breeding) stock, enabling YIAL to become the first commercial salmon farm in Canada to convert to 100% organic production of a native species, the Chinook salmon. Led by Dr. Trevor Pitcher, an expert in fish reproduction and genetics at the University of Windsor, YIAL shares a 2013 NSERC Synergy Award with seven Canadian researchers.
Aquaculture is a big industry in Canada. In fact, Canada is one of the world's largest producers of salmon, and one of the major challenges we face is producing locally derived salmon that are essentially free of antibiotics and any other kind of contaminants. Our partnership with Yellow Island really spawned from the idea that the company itself was generally interested in research and development since day one and they've been on the forefront of leading the efforts to increase the yield and profitability of an organic fish farm. They rear chinook salmon, which are local to the west coast of Canada, as opposed to most fish farms, which raise Atlantic salmon, which are mostly derived from the east coast.
We wanted to be able to produce a uniquely high quality product with no real impact on the wild animals. We had been following what was a normal practice at the time and treating our animals with antibiotics whenever they got any evidence of disease. So what we did basically was we went to the research groups and we said, "What can we do about this?" and what their basic idea was was that we needed to study the natural disease resistance characteristics of the organisms and find out how they normally protected themselves against disease.
We're very interested in studying what happens in the wild and infusing Mother Nature back into the process of aquaculture. We try to ask the question, "What aspects of their genetic quality allow them to be more fit, more survivorship, more growth?" Females often increase the genetic quality of their offspring by choosing certain males over others, and so although it seems like an esoteric topic, we're going to infuse this into the aquaculture industry to increase the genetic quality of the offspring we produce for fish farms and essentially increase the yield and quality of the meat for the consumer.
Funding from NSERC was critical in order for us to turn academic thinking into action. That is to say, it allowed us to work closely with our industrial partner and also maintain our basic science research program. We have a team of about nine to 10 professors and a team of about 20 graduate students over the years that have done research at this facility. Some of us specialize in genetics, some of us specialize in immunology, while others specialize more in the aquaculture industry.
Our output in terms of research has put us on a par with all the major universities in the Pacific Northwest. We were the first to start organic production and develop the first set of organic standards and we are the last of the family-owned fish farms in B.C.