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Vancouver Island First Nation testing the waters of sablefish fish farming

Campbell River area We Wai Kai to conduct habitat surveys with provincial and federal funding
Sablefish is a fish species that lives in sea beds of the Pacific Northwest that is also farmed commercially. Public domain photo.

The We Wai Kai First Nation will be conducting fish habitat surveys to assess the feasibility of establishing a sablefish aquaculture farm.

The surveys are being supported with $144,200 from the British Columbia Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund (CSRIF), a provincial and federal cost-shared program, as announced on Aug. 4.

RELATED: Grants to help First Nations organizations identify aquaculture opportunities and impacts

“We’re just looking at the idea down the road,” said We Wai Kai Nation Chief Ronnie Chickite. “There’s no guarantee that we’re going to do it, but we’re looking at potentially growing sablefish in one of the sites.”

We Wai Kai acquired two fish pens about a decade ago, which could be used to house the fish. But they first must determine if the species is suitable locally — both in terms of production and environmental impacts — and then formulate a business plan.

Ultimately, it will be up to council to decide whether to pursue the initiative, said Chickite.

While Chickite did not speculate on the economic impact a sablefish operation could have on We Wai Kai Nation, there is considerable demand for the species.

“It’s a highly valued white fish and markets are good globally for it — and the wild fish supply has been diminishing,” said Terry Brooks, president of B.C.-based Golden Eagle Sable Fish, the only commercial-scale sablefish aquaculture producer.

“It’s an indigenous species in the water around here and fits very nicely within the environment.”

Sablefish raised with marine net pens are ranked ‘best choice’ under Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, assessing the sustainability of various types of seafood.

The company’s two marine farm sites are located in Kyuquot Sound, in the Vancouver Island’s northwest (its hatchery is on Salt Spring Island). Brooks explained that sablefish farms are smaller and more localized than salmon aquaculture farms.

The surveys will be general benthic surveys as set by Department of Fisheries and Oceans criteria, Brooks explained.

“If you want to start net pen farming, this is what you have to do,” he said. “So they’re laying the groundwork for that.”

READ ALSO: Federal economic development office to open in Campbell River

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