Remote Feeding Technology Makes Aquaculture Safer For Workers and More Environmentally Sustainable
When you think of a Canadian fish farm, what do you picture? Pellets being thrown by hand into a pen containing excited salmon? Or maybe you recall a method involving a blower to feed the fish from boats. What has been happening to the aquaculture landscape in the last few years means this is all changing.
While we enjoy the taste and quality of seafood that ends up on our plates, we may not be very aware of how our meal was raised. The last few years have brought change and innovation to the aquaculture industry, including modernizations in the way fish are fed.
“We’re really monitoring it so much more than people may think. The technology and practices are very different today than it would have been when aquaculture was first established,” explained Jami Whynot, a remote feeding technician for Cooke Aquaculture Inc. at the company’s salmon farming operations in Nova Scotia.
Aquaculture is the farming of fish, shellfish or seaweed. It now occurs in every province as well as the Yukon, and both production volumes and values have significantly increased over the last 20 years.
The sector also employs about 26,000 full-time workers. With such growth and a sizeable workforce in a marine environment, it’s been imperative that the industry prioritize research and innovation.
What is remote feeding?
In 2017, Cooke Aquaculture started experimenting with how to build a wireless connection to their feeding systems located on marine sites. Before the development of remote feeding technology, feed technicians onboard a barge-type vessel stationed at the farm site operated a computer which controlled the system and software.
But soon Cooke, working with Bell Canada and using existing cell towers, was able to transmit all the data and control to a remote feeding station on land.
“It’s pretty cool to have been there from the beginning and have been part of testing and implementing this software,” explained Whynot, who spent the early part of her career travelling to sea sites, but now operates the remote feeding software on land in Bridgewater, N.S.
Think of remote feeding as mission control: remote feed technicians like Whynot work in an office many kilometres away from the action happening on-site. The data and live underwater video stream from pens are transmitted from the remote feeding system stationed at the farm site to their computers on land, where they have full control in operation of feeding system.
“We use underwater and surface cameras to monitor fish feeding behaviours,” said Whynot. “We also have dome cameras mounted on the site and use that to monitor the environment in and around the site and make sure everything is safe.”
The remote feeding systems hold up to 300 tonnes of feed providing ample inventory for use, and technicians can control how much and how fast feed is given to the salmon. The vessel itself has cameras and a variety of sensors, which highly-trained technicians like Whynot use to monitor environmental conditions at the farm location.
“We have probes in use to measure oxygen and temperature in the seawater, and we follow established feeding programs to efficiently grow our fish in pens,” explains Whynot.
After Cooke’s success in Atlantic Canada, more aquaculture producers on the east coast are trying to adopt the technology.
Advantages for the Workers
A year into the pandemic means many Canadians have gotten used to working from home. But the ability to do the job remotely has a huge impact for the feed technicians.
Not having to be on-site means they can focus on the fish instead of any challenges or logistics presented by extreme weather and wind. Accessing the site remotely removes a lot of obstacles that technicians historically faced.
Whynot explains: “Before remote feeding came along, the work was prioritized differently. Now we can be super vigilant, we don’t have to worry so much about weather and sea sickness or anything else like that. We can really concentrate and make better judgement calls.”
Dome camerzs on-site mean that the technicians can also look out for hazards or issues and relay it to the on-site staff.
Just because technicians can work remotely doesn’t mean farm sites are empty. On-site crew are still present and necessary to take care of physical duties, including tasks like maintaining equipment and nets, assisting fish health experts in monthly visitation and site inspections, as well as harvest operations at end of crop. Everyone at the site can focus on these tasks knowing the fish are being looked after. It is a special-teams approach in managing Cooke’s feeding program to provide and care for the fish during their lifecycle on the farm.
More Sustainable Fisheries
Feed accounts for about 50% of production costs related to raising marketable salmon. The main part of a feed technician’s job is to monitor fish behaviour so they don’t underfeed or overfeed them. Remote feeding capabilities means the system can run more efficiently, the techs feed the fish exactly what they will eat and not more, leading to less waste.
“We receive annual training in feeding practice and management to continue in our effort to improve the conversion of feed to fish growth in our farming operations. Salmon are a leader in their feed conversion ratio when compared to other animal farming sectors, and we continue to improve this even more by strengthening our remote feeding program,” said Whynot.
The feed conversion ratio (FCR) for farmed Atlantic salmon is almost 1:1. This means that for every kilogram of feed used, the fish gain nearly a kilogram in body mass, making it one of the most efficient animals to produce. The added focus that remote feeding allows for makes aquaculture even more precise.
Aquaculture is a rapidly growing industry, and technological advances like remote feeding programs are creating better environments for workers and production. By allowing staff to focus on their areas of expertise, the technology keeps crew — both on-site and at the remote offices — safer.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (FW2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. FW2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.