Fishy Business: Indigenous Aquaculture in Central Canada – An interview with Nicholas Huber

This month, SFNEDN’s Heather Exner-Pirot interviews Nicholas Huber, an Aquaculture Development Officer responsible for the Aboriginal Aquaculture in Canada Initiative (AACI) in Saskatchewan.

HEP: What is aquaculture?

NH: The best way to think about it as is underwater agriculture: the cultivation of aquatic animals and plants (fish, shellfish, seaweed) in a natural, controlled marine or freshwater environment.

There are many different forms of aquaculture: you can grow fish for the commercial market that will make its way to restaurants and grocery stores; you can produce fingerlings and supply them to an on-grower; or you can conduct rehabilitation and enhancement of a particular species where it has suffered declines in numbers – for examples we are working with groups that are focusing on Walleye and Lake Sturgeon as it relates to rehabilitation and enhancement.

Aquaculture can also take the form of aquaponics – the technology of hydroponics and aquaculture together to use the nutrients from the fish manure to feed the plants in a recycled, closed system. This can be a particularly good opportunity in remote communities which have high food transportation costs. This would help limit the amount of food that needs to be imported and promote food security.

You could also stock fish into a pond where people pay to catch them. And finally, there are opportunities in niche markets, research and development and the list continues. There is a shoe that can fit almost any individual or community, it’s a matter of finding what shoe fits you.

HEP: What is the Aboriginal Aquaculture in Canada Initiative (AACI)?

NH: This program has been around since 2013 and is a federal program through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Waubetek Business Development Corporation delivers the program for Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

At the end of this fiscal year (March 2019) the AACI will change names. It will then be called the Northern Integrated Commercial Fisheries Initiative (NICFI). The official launch should roll out in the coming months.

The purpose of the program is to support Aboriginal involvement in the aquaculture industry, with an emphasis on economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

There will be funding available for feasibility, planning, consultation and capital purchases for those interested in moving in to the aquaculture industry. The support can be accessed by Indigenous communities, individuals, for-profit business, non-profit, economic organizations, co-operatives or combinations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous partnerships. We can provide help with identifying new or expanded opportunities; determining innovations or best practices; or developing business plans, feasibility studies, and environmental assessments. We can also help facilitate partnerships between communities and private sector.

HEP: What kind of successes are you seeing in Aboriginal aquaculture cross Central Canada?

NH: It’s really impressive. There is a lot of interest. We have numerous projects in the development stage which includes feasibility reports, assessments, business plans, and environmental baseline work.  We are even assisting with capital purchase (equipment/infrastructure).  Others are at the point of raising capital funds to construct and move into the operations phase. There are projects at all levels of development with Aboriginal communities as big players. In Ontario, for example, approximately 80% of the aquaculture industry has Indigenous involvement in one form or another.

HEP: Are there opportunities in Saskatchewan?

NH: Right now, to my knowledge, there isn’t a lot of Indigenous aquaculture in the province but we are working hard to change that. It’s relatively low on the radar with most communities in the province. So we need to ensure the information is out there so different groups can see if the sector is right for them.

The opportunities are truly endless in Saskatchewan. We need to first identify who is interested. You need access to water – not always necessarily big lakes or water bodies. Could be a river, stream, good ground water or municipal water links. The first attribute is access to water and then go from there.

One of the commercial advantages of aquaculture is that since you are growing your fish, you have a lot more control of attributes and conditions. For example, in the wild some species can take 6 years to reach a harvestable size. In aquaculture, where you can manage diets to suit temperature, fish can grow much quicker then in the wild. Harvests are more predictable, and in most cases it is year round production, which is attractive to purchasers and investors. Altogether, sustainable aquaculture done correctly can be a great economic driver that creates employment opportunities for communities.

HEP: What are the biggest risks and barriers to starting an aquaculture project?

NH: All ventures present some risk. You need to do your due diligence on the front end: business plan, feasibility, and then execution. One of the main barriers is just the lack of awareness of aquaculture, especially in the inland provinces. There is an assumption that it’s more of an ocean-based activity, but its not necessarily so.

Aquaculture is very sustainable when done properly. It can be done with much less environmental impact or foot print, when compared to other forms of agriculture. When planned and ran appropriately, a sustainable open net pen facility has very little impact to the environment. As for land-based facilities, we now have the ability to re-use up to 99% of the water.

Humans cannot get enough of aquatic species for consumption. The demand for seafood and fish products is exceeding what is possible to catch in the wild, something has to give. Aquaculture has been filling that gap since the 1980s. Within the next ten years, aquaculture output has to double to keep up with demand which should also take some pressure off wild stocks.

We can culture almost any species in the world. The key is to do it economically and when you look at it from that perspective, you will see the list of species get smaller. Rainbow trout is probably the principal species in central Canada. There are also land based shrimp, Arctic char, tilapia, walleye, lake whitefish, and lake sturgeon farms or hatcheries. Other varieties of species are cultured too.

HEP:  What do First Nations need to know to get started?

NH: I would encourage them to reach out to me for advice and assistance or even just for a starter conversation about aquaculture. That would be welcomed and a good first step. I have lots of information that I can provide through the whole value chain, from the first idea to post-operation. I am here for the whole journey. The best way to think about me and what I do is that I look out for the best interests of the Indigenous community, group or individual I am working for to ensure that every project is a sustainable one on many different levels – an asset and ally with aquaculture expertise.

SFNEDN will be hosting a workshop on aquaculture with Nick Huber in the Spring – stay tuned for more information! In the meantime, feel free to contact Nick directly:

Nicholas Huber
Aquaculture Development Officer
6 Rainbow Valley Road, Box 209
Birch Island, ON P0P 1A0
(C) 519-476-0630
(P) 705-285-4275
(F) 705-285-4584