North Wind Fisheries
By Kelly Daynard
It’s fishy business for Northern Ontario rainbow trout farmers
Standing on the dock of the North Wind Fisheries’ rainbow trout farm, farm manager Rob Pennie is happy to give a tour to a group of visitors. The farm, located on Great Lacloche Island, on the North Channel of Lake Huron, is unarguably located in one of Ontario’s most picturesque settings, in an area that is both sheltered but still has good cold water flow.
It’s an isolated setting. To even get to the farm requires a drive down nine kilometers of gravel laneways. Traffic during Pennie’s morning commute can consist of deer, bear, wolves, turtles, or even Scottish Highland Cattle grazing by the side of the lane.
Even after working two years at the farm, Pennie hasn’t tired of the view. “Sometimes it still hits me,” he said with a grin. “I’ll often try to get here fifteen minutes ahead of my staff so that I can just enjoy the scenery. And then it’s time to get to work.”
An average day’s work begins between 6 and 7 a.m. And, like all types of farmers, Pennie says there’s no set end time to a work day. “We work until the job is done.”
Pennie was raised on a beef and sheep family farm on Manitoulin Island and while he always knew he wanted to work with livestock, he hadn’t considered fish until he returned home in 2003 after graduating with an Agricultural Sciences degree from the University of Guelph.
“My whole intent was to move home and farm,” said Pennie, who still has beef cattle and sheep that he tends to when he’s not raising fish. He took a temporary job after graduation with one of the island’s fish farms and from there, has built a career in the industry, working his way up to the role of manager of the North Wind Fisheries site, now owned by Blue Goose.
Fish farming was unheard of on Manitoulin Island, and the surrounding area, until 1984 when Mike Meeker, now Director of Aquaculture for Meeker’s Aquaculture, a division of Blue Goose Pure Foods, moved to the island with a vision of raising rainbow trout. Today, there are nine rainbow trout sites in the area, managed by five farms, with growing interest from others.
Karen Tracey, Executive Director of the Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association, said that aquaculture is the fastest growing agricultural sector in the world. In Ontario, fish farms are able to supply about 10 million pounds of farmed trout per year but the demand is three times that.
“An estimated two hundred thousand pounds of farmed fish comes into Ontario monthly from Chile and Peru to meet the demand here,” Tracey explained. “We’d love to be able to fill that.”
On rainbow trout farms, the fish arrive as young “fingerlings” (named so because they’re about the size of a finger). They live in 50×50 foot cages or net pens submerged in the water to a depth of about 45 feet. The cages are covered in a protective netting to keep hungry wild birds from feasting off the occupants.
When they arrive, there may be as many as 50,000 fingerlings in a pen but as they grow, they’re divided into additional pens to give them the room they need. It takes between 12 and 15 months, on average, for a rainbow trout to reach a market weight of 2.5- 3.0 lbs.
Fish farmers use a variety of methods to monitor their fish’s health and habitat. On his farm on the west side of the island, Meeker SCUBA dives daily in the summer (and weekly in the winter) to check his pens. North Wind Fisheries also uses divers and underwater cameras to help monitor fish health.
“We’re proud of our record,” said Meeker. “We have very low mortality rates, virtually no disease issues and a high quality product. It’s also important to us to protect the environment that we’re working and living in. “We know it’s healthy because of the amount of wild fish living outside of our cages. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t be there.”
Like other farmers, a fish farmer’s environmental commitment is something they take very seriously. They must comply with the relevant legislation and have land use permits to use the water in front of their shores. Water quality is tested regularly and farmers keep detailed records of everything they do.
While there are definite differences between raising fish and other types of farmed livestock, both Pennie and Meeker said that the fundamentals are the same. The fish need high energy, low phosphorus feed in precise amounts, constant care and ideal living conditions in order to thrive.
Like other farmers, weather is a constant focus of fish farmers. Said Pennie, “I’m likely checking the forecast four or five times a day,” he said. He added, “I likely check it even more than when I used to decide when to cut hay!”
In the spring, weather monitoring is even more critical when ice on the lakes and in the channel begins to break up. During periods like this, Pennie and his staff are on call 24 hours a day. Large shifting sheets of ice can do significant damage to the fish cages as temperatures warm up in the spring. As a result, farmers use a variety of methods including water agitators, submersible cages and log booms to try and protect their cages from damage.
In the summer, warm weather can also be stressful on the trout so farmers are constantly monitoring water temperatures and adjusting feed levels accordingly for optimal fish health.
After a decade of fish farming in the area, Pennie said he’s learned one key thing: “There’s no such thing as an expert in this industry because every site is different. Things that work on one farm don’t necessarily work at another. At every farm I’ve worked at, I’ve learned something new.”
What does he like best? “I love being outdoors and working in agriculture. It’s a great way of life.”
To learn more about rainbow trout farming in Ontario, visit www.ontarioaquaculture.com or
This article is one in a series of profiles on Ontario farmers and farm businesses produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario.