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With 30 years of fish farming experience and several innovations and awards behind him, Mike Meeker of Meeker’s Aquaculture continues to look for improvements and ways to reduce risks in his operation. Meeker farms on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, Ontario producing rainbow trout in cages on Lake Wolsey.

“Growing fish in nets is a tremendous way to grow fish, both for the fish and for the environment,” says Meeker, who is also President of The Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, we live here and we’ve raised our family here and have proven this is the most environmentally friendly way to grow fish. I’m still doing innovations for growing fish and trying to get along with Mother Nature as much as possible.”

One of Meeker’s biggest operational risks is Ontario winters and ice damage to the operation. “I have tried many different things to protect my cages from moving ice, such as installing log booms or ice barriers around the cages, to breaking up the ice but none of them have worked,” he says. “I finally designed a cage system that can be submerged under the ice safely for up to 28 days with no damage or loss of fish. This innovation has protected me since I installed the system from that major potential risk.”

Another challenge was to the amount and cost of waste from the operation. “It takes about a year to grow these fish to market size, which for me is about 2.5 pounds,” explains Meeker. “As soon as I take these fish to market, 45% of what took all that time, money and effort to grow becomes waste, which really bothered me. I launched a project with the University of Guelph to turn that waste into something of value and keep it out of the landfill.”

Meeker’s Magic Mix fish compost was the result, made from combining fish processing waste with sawdust from local mills. This commercial product is available through Home Hardware and other locations. Meeker has also taken the waste from the composting process and converted it into liquid compost tea, which is an excellent product that works extremely well for regreening. “In phase two, we are trialing the use of the fish waste in a digester that I’m designing and building myself, to produce methane to generate electricity,” explains Meeker. “The material coming out of this process will be used to make the compost and compost tea.” Meeker received two Ontario Premier’s Awards for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for the cage design and the compost products.

Opportunities and Challenges for the Aquaculture Industry

The well recognized health benefits and the increase in consumption of fish is driving huge opportunities for the aquaculture industry in Ontario and elsewhere. “Reports from the UN and others highlight the lack of fish in the oceans, and the added climate change impacts are exacerbating the problem even more, not just in the oceans but also the lakes,” adds Meeker. “We recently passed a landmark, where for the first time in recorded history humans are eating more farmed fish than wild caught fish.”

Meeker sees huge opportunities for the aquaculture industry, including a diversified mix of species. “In Ontario, commercial fishermen used to catch perch and pickerel in the lakes, but now we are importing millions of pounds of fish from Europe, South America and elsewhere, which I find ludicrous,” says Meeker. “We have the resources, sustainable practices, new organic standards and the technical expertise to provide our own food and move forward on these opportunities. Although we have had a significant amount of support from many of the regulatory government agencies, there is a lack of consistency that often allows one agency to stop the growth supported by others.”

With this demand in mind, Meeker seized an opportunity to work with an industrial partner to realize another innovation that is receiving global attention. Meeker is working with the local Vale mine to grow fish underground for restocking local areas. “We’ve proven this works, the temperature and conditions at 6800 feet underground are consistent and I’ve designed an innovative hatchery to be as low maintenance as possible, combining simple engineering and fish farming techniques with real high tech wireless technology and sensors,” explains Meeker. “This closed loop system can be controlled remotely, with the waste from the fish operation providing nutrients for the adjoining underground greenhouse producing tree seedlings for reforestation projects. This is an exciting opportunity fish farming in the future alongside reclamation efforts.”

With aquaculture facing similar challenges to other farms across the country as many farmers near retirement and few young people to take over, Meeker’s goal is to find a way to change that. “I am very excited about the opportunities for growing alternative fish species and fish underground and my goal is to find a way to make this industry more accessible and attractive to our kids and new farmers, who will be able to realize the huge opportunities this industry offers. I want to the industry in Ontario and Canada developed towards what it can be and should be for young people coming up.”