Montreal urban fish farmers say their Arctic char cuts greenhouse gases and waste
By Morgan LowrieEnvironment & Sustainability Food Food & Beverage filtration system greenhouse gasses industrial area warehouse basement
MONTREAL – A warehouse basement in an industrial area of Montreal, near the intersection of two highways, feels about as far from a fish habitat as it gets.
But walk through the doors of Opercule’s self-described “urban fish farm,” and the unmistakable smell of fish fills the air.
After donning rubber boots and lab coats, visitors are greeted with the constant hum of the plant’s filtration system. Inside the dimly lit warehouse basement, thousands of sleek, speckled Arctic char swim in a dozen or so round pools, their fins smoothly breaking the surface or sending up alarmed splashes as they scurry away from people who approach the tanks.
The business is the creation of David Dupaul-Chicoine and Nicolas Paquin, who met each other when they were studying aquaculture in college on Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula. What began as an experiment raising fish in Dupaul-Chicoine’s garage has turned into a commercial operation that they expect will soon produce between 25 and 30 tonnes of Arctic char per year.
By raising fish on land and in an urban setting, Dupaul-Chicoine and Paquin say they hope to avoid some of the problems associated with open net fish farms, which are suspected by some conservationists of harming wild stock by spreading disease or parasites, or by escaping and interbreeding with them.
“We’re not trying to prove anything, but we’re trying to do things the way we think they should be done,” Dupaul-Chicoine said. “We’re raising fish to sell them and we’re thinking about every little step in the production. The way we deliver, the way everything is done, we try to do it in a more eco-friendly way.”
The business uses a recirculation system that filters ammonia and carbon dioxide from water, which is then reinjected with oxygen and pumped back to the tanks – vastly reducing water use. Their city setting cuts greenhouse gas emissions, as deliveries to restaurants can be done on electric bicycles. As well, they only kill fish once the animals are ordered, reducing waste. They’ve even replaced Styrofoam delivery containers with insulated cardboard, they say.
Arctic char was chosen because it sells for a good price and the animals stay healthy in close quarters.
The only downside on the environmental front, they say, is that the fish plant uses “a lot” of electricity. Their business model, Dupaul-Chicoine said, probably wouldn’t make sense if it ran on coal; luckily for them, however, Quebec has ample cheap and relatively clean hydropower.
The pair say their biggest challenge was obtaining the necessary permits – a process that took them about two years after they started their business in 2019. Because it takes 15 or 16 months for a fish to grow from an egg to market size, their first sales only came at the start of 2023.
An indoor filtration system like theirs also needs maintenance and a constant stream of electricity. Among their most stressful moments was a two-day power outage during an ice storm earlier this year; they worried that their generator would go down and cause them to lose fish.
“You have to make sure you have backups, and backups of the backups,” Dupaul-Chicoine said.
Grant Vandenberg, an aquaculture specialist at Universite Laval’s agriculture and food sciences department, says land-based water-recirculation farms have some advantages over net pen farms _ which are enclosed cages that float in natural water sources. Land farms eliminate concerns over environmental interactions between wild and farmed fish, and waste is easier to collect and can even be recycled into fertilizer for plants, he said.
However, land-based farms are more expensive to start and operate, and require more labour, machinery and energy than do net pens, Vandenberg said. “I think it would be very difficult for some to be able to compete economically,” he said, noting that consumers have the option to purchase imported fish produced cheaper in other countries or provinces.
Vandenberg said that despite the controversies, fish farming has an important role to play in preventing overfishing of wild stocks. Improving fish-farming technology, he added, is reducing the industry’s environmental impact.
Just as agriculture has largely replaced hunting when it comes to meat, “we have to stop hunting fish as well, and I think the answer is to produce them,” he said.
Fish farming will also improve food sovereignty, Vandenberg said, noting that Quebec – which doesn’t use open-water net pens – produces only seven per cent of the trout it consumes. He said Paquin and Dupaul-Chicoine’s operation in Montreal presents an interesting model because the plant’s proximity to its market reduces shipping costs and ensures fresher fish.
Dupaul-Chicoine and Paquin said it cost about a million dollars to launch their fish farm, which includes a processing facility, and they admit it wouldn’t have been possible without provincial government grants. However, they said they’re pleased with early sales, noting they recently passed the break-even point in terms of operational profitability.
Both said that, so far, they have no regrets. “Before this I had a career as a mechanical engineer and I decided I wanted a change,” Paquin said. “So for me, it’s fun, even though it’s hard.”
Once they’ve proved to investors and themselves that their business model can be successful, they’re hoping to expand into a bigger facility.