Aquaponics business wins exemption from territory’s fish farming ban

A local company that wants to produce enough food year-round to feed 20,000 people in the territory has cleared a major hurdle.

A local company that wants to produce enough food year-round to feed 20,000 people in the territory has cleared a major hurdle.

Sonny Gray, CEO of North Star Agriculture Inc., told the News on Thursday his company received a letter of exemption from the Yukon government to start an aquaponics business.

As it stands the territory has a moratorium on fish farming, which included aquaponics until recently.

Environment Yukon couldn’t provide the News details on the moratorium’s rationale by press time.

Aquaponics is a technique used for growing produce which relies on a self-contained eco-system where fish fertilize plants, and plants purify the water.

Aquaponics is very different from fish farming, Gray said, because it doesn’t expose fish to the ecosystem, and there is no risk the fish will escape.

Gray provided the government with an environmental assessment produced by NutraPonics, another aquaponics company in Canada, for a facility in New Brunswick.

“There is no environmental impact,” Gray said.

Gray said he had to educate government officials about what the technology was about.

“At our initial meeting, they wanted permits for water (use),” he said.

Aquaponics he pointed out, is only replicating existing ecosystems.

“The system itself is hundreds of years old.”

Now that North Star has received a letter of exemption from the government, it will be easier to secure partnership and funding, he said.

So far the company doesn’t have a location, but Gray said he isn’t concerned.

The goal is to set up 2,300 square metres of aquaponics pods per year for four years, starting next spring.

Ultimately, if financing works out, the facility will cover 9,300 square metres.

For the first year, the company hopes to start by growing leafy greens: kale, swiss chards, spinach, lettuce, aragula and herbs.

As it expands, the company will try its hand at tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries, eventually producing enough food for 20,000 people per year.

Gray said his project received letters of support from the Yukon and Whitehorse chambers of commerce, the NDP, the anti-poverty coalition and food banks.

That’s because if it’s successful, North Star could solve one of the territory’s long-standing issues related to local food production: growing in the winter months.

“Food security is a major concern for the North,” Gray said. “Now, if there’s a forest fire or a road washout, we’re out of food within a day.”

Once the facility is in full-scale operation, Gray expects it will require 25 to 30 employees.

“Our goal is definitely to export to Alaska,” he said. “They’re often in the same situation (as Yukon). Their produce by the time it gets to them is not necessarily in good shape.”

The facility will also produce 400 to 600 tons of tilapia per year.

“Who the hell in the Yukon is going to eat that much fish?” he said.

Tilapia is popular in Asia and Gray said he will look at exporting the fish to San Francisco and Seattle markets.

“It’s classified as a clean fish. It wasn’t exposed to herbicide or pesticide,” he said. “The dollar value is pretty good.”

Aquaponics, Gray said, outproduces hydroponic facilities by 20 per cent and traditional greenhouses by 50 per cent.

“Who could have thought we could export food from the Yukon?” he said. “It would be quite an accomplishment.”

Contact Pierre Chauvin at

pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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