Icy Waters produces 140,000 pounds of Arctic char annually. Now, the Whitehorse business is setting its sights on chinook.
The proposal to raise the majestic Yukon fish in large tanks will strike some as heretical: this much Jonathan Lucas, the company’s manager, knows. He’s also sure the venture will be a money-loser in the short run.
But he’s equally convinced there’s a business opportunity in figuring out how to farm the finicky fish.
And, given this year’s lacklustre run of chinook up the Yukon River, he says it may be a smart move to have an auxiliary supply of the fish to help replenish the river in times of need.
“It’s like an insurance policy for the river, I suppose,” said Lucas.
The company wants to collect 5,000 chinook eggs from Tatchun Creek to be fertilized, incubated and tested for disease at Yukon College’s Northern Research Institute.
The salmon would then be reared in one of Icy Waters’ large, 80-cubic-metre tanks, under the proposal before the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board.
Lucas says the proposal would actually reduce pollution at his operation. Chinook require six times as much space as char, Lucas reckons. Fewer fish means less effluent.
The company intends to sign an agreement with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that would prohibit it from selling live fish and eggs.
“We can sell fillets, but not eggs,” said Lucas. “That would be the lucrative thing, to sell eggs to other fish farms, with the knowledge of how to grow them. But we fully appreciate that that’s commercializing the Yukon River salmon in a way that I don’t think anybody wants.”
Almost all farmed salmon in Canada are the Atlantic variety of the fish, which are more docile than their Pacific relatives and have better growth and survival rates in captivity.
But the full-bodied flavour of chinook is prized – especially those in the Yukon River, which are especially fatty, as a result of being built to travel a remarkable 3,000 kilometres upriver to their spawning grounds.
This leads Lucas to believe that there’s money to be made in cracking the code of how to properly farm Yukon’s chinook.
Companies in BC have toiled away at farming chinook with little commercial success. But chinook are successfully farmed in New Zealand – and the country’s aquaculture industry isn’t eager to advertise how it’s done to foreign competitors.
Lucas describes the project as “a centre of chinook research, which is able to restock the Yukon River and its tributaries, if ever there was a catastrophic failure, or just a general run-down.
“What happens if, one year, the number of fish coming up the river is so small we can’t get any eggs? And what if that’s repeated two or three years?” he said.
Farming could also help reduce the impact of fishing on the Yukon River’s native stock, said Lucas.
“It’s the history of agriculture, moving from the hunting stage to the farming stage. I know that’s heretical to a lot of people.
“We’re an aquaculture company. Yes, we’re here to make money. But that doesn’t stop us from doing things we think are right.”
Lucas is also interested in studying chinook for diseases and possible changes resulting from warming waters as the climate changes.
And he has an even bolder plan, which Lucas acknowledges may well be “mad.”
“In the wild, all pacific salmon die after spawning. They come back and die. I want to find out if that’s genetically programmed.
“With care and attention, and none of the stresses of spawning and being in the wild, do they have to die?
“Even if one year we get one, and another year we get another one, then hopefully we can breed them. If you have multiple-year spawning, then it takes away the need to take eggs every year and kill fish.”
His company has trolled the literature and can’t find evidence of anyone completing this feat. “I fully expect to be proven wrong and that they’re all going to die, but that won’t stop me from trying,” Lucas said.
The public has until September 10 to submit comments on the project to the assessment board.
Contact John Thompson at