There’s an exciting new addition to Manitowaning Bay—a submersible cage teeming with 44,000 whitefish fingerlings—the first farmed whitefish project ever undertaken in North America.
It was a beautiful sunny Thursday morning at the Manitowaning Marina. Jeff Tuerk, one half of New North Fisheries, heads out for his daily morning chores at the newly installed aquaculture site in Manitowaning Bay.
Mr. Tuerk, who works for the Ontario Clean Water Agency by day and also operates a market garden from his Mindemoya home, is a busy man these days.
Mr. Tuerk and his wife Lisa moved to Manitoulin Island in 1990 when he worked for Cold Water Fisheries to set up a new aquaculture site for farmed rainbow trout, a job he continued to do for both Wabuno Fisheries and Cold Water Fisheries and, in fact, established the last non-First Nation aquaculture site in the province of Ontario at Eastern Island. (Since 1997, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) have not granted any more aquaculture licences.)
With a background in biology from the University of Guelph and a diploma in aquaculture from Sir Sandford Fleming in Peterborough, Mr. Tuerk knows his stuff—a fact that becomes quickly evident after spending even a short amount of time with the man.
He explains that in 2012, after prompting from wife Lisa, he began researching the idea of farmed whitefish. “I actually started doing something about it in 2014,” Mr. Tuerk admits.
On the short boat trip from the marina, the fish farmer explains how he collected a batch of whitefish eggs aboard Ross Herbert’s tug, taken from the Killarney area, that were reared in a lab at College Boreal. A student error wiped the eggs out. But if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again and Mr. Tuerk was given 1,000 whitefish fry from the MNRF, which were grown to a quarter of a pound and then eaten. “And they were delicious,” Mr. Tuerk notes. It was an experiment that proved to show promise.
In November of 2016, Mr. Tuerk collected 55,000 eggs that were harvested from whitefish from the Bad River and Killarney areas. They again started their lives at College Boreal, but after contacting the Alma Aquaculture Research Station, affiliated with the University of Guelph on January 31 of this year, Alma agreed to help with the pilot project, and were eager to do so.
“That’s when everything started lining up,” he explains.
The fry began to grow at an exponential rate, tripling in size every two weeks. Mr. Tuerk credits much of their success to the oversight of Alma’s Richard Moccia and Michael Burke, who oversaw the transfer of fish and their rearing until June,
“Whitefish is new to them,” he says. “They never contemplated it before. Then some crazy person called and said ‘hey, want to try this?’” Mr. Tuerk laughs.
He reiterates that fact that one should never give up. When one door closes, another one opens.
Mr. Tuerk is partners on the pilot project and New North Fisheries with Ross Herbert of Herbert Fisheries in Killarney—who is also a commercial fisherman of whitefish.
When asked how the two of them developed a partnership Mr. Tuerk explains, “I just walked into Ross’s Sudbury restaurant location (at the Four Corners) in the summer of 2014.” He showed him the photos of the submersible cage he developed through his company Open Water Systems. In 2013, that same cage was towed to the Buzwah Fisheries site where a growth comparison study was done with the Sir Sanford Fleming College. The cage successfully reared 83,000 pounds of rainbow trout.
“This one just hit right away, he said ‘yes, I want to get involved’,” Mr. Tuerk recalls.
Mr. Herbert is of First Nations descent, meaning that some of the red tape involving aquaculture is removed for the duo. They are still doing everything as per MNRF standards, such as water testing, and a kind of ministry licence for the pilot project is coming, he’s been assured. New North Fisheries has also received its blessing from the Township of Assiginack and has had band council resolutions of support from Whitefish River First Nation and Henvey Inlet, where Mr. Herbert is a band member, as well as verbal support from Wiikwemkoong and Buzwah Fisheries, also located in Manitowaning Bay.
“Ross is a commercial fisherman and every year there’s a quota meeting,” Mr. Tuerk shares. He says that his partner has been sharing the news of the pilot project with his counterparts, and the ministry. “He doesn’t need MNRF approval, but he’s involved them anyway.”
At the cage site, just minutes from the Manitowaning harbour, Mr. Tuerk walks around the inner, 20 foot by 20 foot transport cage donated by Jason Hughson of Cole Munro.
He explains why he felt that whitefish would be a good fit for aquaculture.
“They’re social, they school together, they’re non-cannibalistic (unlike walleye and perch) and they’re opportunistic feeders (even gobbling down zebra mussels and round gobies)—those are the three big hitters that would say they would do well in an intense culture environment,” Mr. Tuerk explains.
The whitefish even have a good head start on the game, by three months, by elevating their hatching temperature. And, “if you can ramp up their metabolic rate, they’ll eat better and therefore grow faster.” Mr. Tuerk is brimming with aquaculture tips and tricks of the trade.
He explains that when whitefish hatch, they lack the egg sack that rainbow trout have as a food source. Whitefish need to start fending for themselves right away and use their oversize eyes to start looking for ‘opportunistic’ food.
On June 22 the fish arrived from Alma—all 44,000 fingerlings. The fish were temporarily installed in a cage near the marina before being transferred to the submersible cage on July 3.
The fish are currently weighing in at about 10 grams and he anticipatesthe harvest will take place at age 24 months and, fingers crossed, weigh in at about four pounds per fish.
Mr. Tuerk admits that it is currently a “one man show,” but says he has had a lot of help and support from his wife and two sons, even helping him to set up an underwater camera that allows him to keep an eye on his scaly charges any time he wants, and in 4K. He also has plans in the works for an in-water feeder that will allow him to feed the fish without going to the cage—a rig that will prove helpful in the dead of winter.
“We saw the writing on the wall with the decline,” Mr. Tuerk says of lake whitefish. Eight to 10 years ago, it would have not been economically viable, he adds, but the price of whitefish is so good that the dream can now be a reality. He credits the decline of whitefish to the disappearance of their main food source, diaporia, an amphipod.
Mr. Tuerk dismisses the naysayers who say that aquaculture is terrible for the lake environment. Manitowaning Bay is ideal for a cage site, he adds, due to the thermocline tilt—the west wind drives warm water out of the bay which is replaced with colder water. This is why, as any local swimmer knows, you never know what you’re going to get for temperature in Manitowaning Bay. The bay’s currents are similar so that water is constantly circulating, which makes it ideal for fish farming.
“Whitefish research says they like cooler temperatures, but I think this might not be the case,” Mr. Tuerk explains.
He will keep an eye on the fish behaviour as the water temperatures increase, but so far, they are active and happy. The cage is sitting in between 65 and 75 feet of water, so it can be submerged to allow for cooler climes if need be.
Automatic, spring-loaded feeders feed the fish their food, but a fish farmer at heart, Mr. Tuerk can’t help but feed them by hand too. The fish circle just below the surface and every now and then break the surface—eager for the fresh handout of food pellets.
Mr. Tuerk is also developing a submersible dome that will allow the fish to replenish their air bladders if they’re feeling a little low—something that happens to farmed fish in submersible cages and that can eventually lead to mortality.
“Our ultimate goal is to provide lake whitefish for human consumption,” Mr. Tuerk adds. “The winter market is starved for it—there’s no fresh fish from January to March.”
“I don’t want to compete with the capture markets, and when they’re out fishing, that’s when our fish are growing,” Mr. Tuerk continues.
He acknowledged the financial support New North Fisheries has received from College Boreal, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Aboriginal Aquaculture in Canada Initiative, which helped pay for Alma, the net surrounding the cage and the mooring. “They pretty much got us started.”
Mr. Tuerk also had many thanks for the White Lake Fish Culture Station at Sharbot Lake, in the Ottawa Valley, which is also keen to follow the results of the pilot project.