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Pitcher, Heath and HiggsFrom left, Trevor Pitcher, Dan Heath and Dennis Higgs are shown here at the Yellow Island Aquaculture facility on Vancouver Island.

Scientists win top national research award for salmon farm work

Putting nature back into the way Chinook salmon are farmed in British Columbia is making for a better breed of fish and an impressive award for a trio of University of Windsor scientists and their partners.

Trevor Pitcher, Daniel Heath and Dennis Higgs will be in Ottawa tonight to dine with the Governor General and pick up the Synergy Award they’re receiving from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for their work with Yellow Island Aquaculture Ltd.

“We’re bringing Mother Nature back in to the fish farming business,” said Dr. Pitcher, a professor in biological sciences, a research fellow at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, and an expert in fish reproduction and genetics.

Synergy Awards for Innovation recognize partnerships between universities and Canadian industry, honouring the most outstanding achievements of these collaborations. The awards come with a $200,000 and a $90,000 grant for the principal investigator and the industrial partner to hire an industrial R&D fellow for two years.

Along with GLIER director Dr. Heath and biology department head Dr. Higgs, Pitcher and his colleagues from the Universities of Guelph, Waterloo, Northern British Columbia, and Western work with the Vancouver Island based fish farm, using the most advanced genetic techniques to mimic selective breeding practices Chinook salmon use in the wild, in order to create a better type of fish.

“We’re always striving to produce a better product by understanding what affects the flesh quality, colour and taste of the product,” he said.

Besides producing more than 50 peer-reviewed publications and providing a wealth of research opportunities for up-and-coming scientists, the partnership has paid off for Yellow Island Aquaculture, the first commercial Chinook salmon farm in Canada to convert to 100 per cent organic production of their own native species.

According to an NSERC news release, research conducted over the years has boosted YIAL’s annual revenues by $500,000 through higher-yield strains and reduced mortality in rearing stocks. Annual sales jumped a further $100,000 with the development of a sterile technology that prevents cross-breeding with wild salmon populations, allowing for a longer growing season. Results include an increased capacity from 135 to 750 metric tons per year, a five-fold increase in revenue, little to no effect on local marine conditions or fish populations and no escapes in 27 years of operation, it said.

The company has “proven that even small companies can become scientific powerhouses when you have the right partners” and that “native and organic salmon are not only environmentally sustainable, but highly lucrative as well,” according to the release.

“It’s a small family-owned business that’s a mega-player in the aquaculture research field,” said Pitcher. “They farm in environmentally responsible ways, no antibiotics or therapeutics get into the food chain, they don’t bring in invasive species such as Atlantic salmon to the west coast and they use sustainable, high quality fish food.”

Vice-president, research Michael Siu, who will join the group in Ottawa for the celebration, said he was thrilled for the local scientists.

“This is one of the most prestigious research awards in the country and for our scientists to be among the recipients speaks to our ability to be true leaders in this type of research,” he said. “We’re exceedingly proud of them.”

During the day, Pitcher and his team will also meet with Greg Rickford, Minister of State (Science and Technology) and NSERC COO Janet Walden. They’ll also travel to the House of Commons, where the award will be acknowledged during question period.

Watch a video about the project.

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