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Salmon roundup: where `cowboys' wear wet suits

Whether it's for sushi in Tokyo or a bagel with cream cheese in New York City, world demand for salmon is growing. And the only way to meet that demand, according to people in the business, is to farm salmon, not catch them.

``The worldwide appetite for salmon is growing and wild fish can't meet the demands of the market,'' says W.B. Kirchner, president and chief executive officer of Pacific Aqua Foods, a fish-farming company in Vancouver, British Columbia. ``The only way to do it is to raise salmon in pens.''

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Total annual world salmon consumption is 384,000 tons. The biggest consumers are the Japanese, who ate more than 270,000 tons of it in 1983, the last year for which figures are available. That's almost six pounds of salmon for every man, woman, and child in Japan.

The next biggest consumer is the United States, but per capita consumption there is only about a pound a year. The other big customers for salmon are the developed industrial countries: France, Britain, Sweden, Denmark, and West Germany.

Pacific Aqua Foods is one of several large fish-farming operations in British Columbia. The company has six salmon and two oyster farms in British Columbia and Washington State, native waters of the salmon.

Fish farming has more in common with farming than it does with fishing. This is agriculture in the water, domesticating a wild animal, the salmon. The raising of fish can be compared directly to beef farming. The hatchery stage, raising eggs to smolts in fresh water, is comparable to a cow calf operation; fattening in saltwater pens is the same as a beef feedlot.

The large brood-stock fish are kept in cages, the cows and bulls of the process. Here the cowboy wears a wet suit; fish stock are checked closely for any signs of disease, the nets for any sign of weakness. Fencing is all-important in fish farming.

Two types of fish are being farmed here: Atlantic and Pacific salmon. The Pacific salmon is native to British Columbia, the Atlantic to the east coast of Canada and to Europe. The Atlantic salmon are actually trout; they spawn and return to the sea. The Pacific salmon are true salmon, spawning only once when they return to the fresh waters where they were born.

The salmon are kept in modern steel cages, most of them designed in Norway, where farming salmon started. The fish are fed a scientifically designed ration, just as other domesticated animals are.

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Not all salmon are created equal. The sockeye is the favorite fish of salmon lovers - it commands the highest prices per pound - but it can't be farmed.

``The sockeye can't seem to survive in captivity,'' says Mr. Kirchner. ``But research will probably solve that problem in a few years.''

Salmon can't be farmed just anywhere. This clean water is one of the best places in the world to raise salmon. The movement of tides in these calm inlets provides a constant change of water, keeping the fish in a natural setting.

And it is not just salmon that are farmed here. Pacific Aqua Foods has an oyster farm, 150 acres containing 8 million oysters.

The farmed oysters are bigger than the wild ones. Eric Boucher, a marine biologist with Pacific Aqua Foods, picks a wild oyster from a nearby rock. ``This is five years old,'' he says, while cracking it open to expose its flesh inside the shell. Later he opens a farmed oyster ready to go to market after two years in the water. It is 50 percent larger than the wild one.

Growing salmon and oysters is one thing, selling them is another. That is why the smaller fish-farming operations in British Columbia are entering into partnerships with older, more established firms. For instance, Pacific Aqua Foods is 60 percent owned by National Sea Products of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada's east coast. National Sea is the largest seafood company in North America.

Salmon farming is about to get bigger, according to Toronto-based analyst Gino Blink of Deacon Morgan McEwen Easson Ltd., who recently wrote a detailed report on British Columbia fish farming. The British Columbia industry has passed its infancy, he said in a report. ``A year from now the leading companies will reach the stage of having their first significant harvest.''

The report went on to say that large companies such as National Sea will start getting involved now that growing pains are over. ``A number of national and international food companies are sniffing around for British Columbia salmon farming opportunities,'' said Mr. Blink.

The quiet, isolated, fjord-like inlets between the mainland and Vancouver Island seem an unlikely spot for a big-business venture. But by the turn of the century, it could be a billion-dollar business.

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