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Taste for fresh fish boosts BC tilapia farm

CANADA - It's early Saturday morning and Mike Hare has been awake since 11:30 pm the night before. That's when he and Barry Sjostrom started loading large containers of warm water with live tilapia fish, grown at their Redfish Ranch Tilapia and Hatchery near Courtenay on Vancouver Island, writes Joanne Lee-Young.

Mike Hare of Redfish Farms unloads live tilapia fish for a customer on East Pender Street, one of several Vancouver-based Chinese supermarkets and restaurants to which the Courtenay-based farm sells fish.

After the feisty, splashing fish settle, Hare takes them on a delivery route that is the same every week: First a ferry from Nanaimo to Tsawwassen, and then through Richmond, east Vancouver and, finally, Chinatown, hitting a network of 10 seafood operations that supply live tilapia to Chinese restaurants and grocery stores.

At a time when tilapia consumption is surging in the US (Americans' annual consumption of tilapia has quadrupled, from a quarter-pound per person in 2003 to a full pound in 2006, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service), Redfish competes against much larger American suppliers who serve Vancouver from Idaho and Minnesota.

It is steep, David-versus-Goliath competition for a Canadian upstart with much smaller economies of scale and tighter regulations to follow. However, Redfish has managed to wedge a niche for itself thanks to a Chinese (specifically Cantonese) penchant for eating the freshest fish possible -- that is, fish that is the spunkiest it can be at death.

By 8:30 am, Hare is unloading tilapia at Sun Tong Enterprises, a Richmond wholesaler on Westminster Highway. He climbs up containers stacked on his F700 Ford diesel truck and scoops out hundreds of kilograms of tilapia, lowering them by net into plastic boxes on the ground.

Sjostrom was a fisherman for 25 years before he started farming tilapia in Courtenay. Even though American companies were already shipping live tilapia across the border, it took Sjostrom years of lobbying and hoop-jumping to finally get a green light for growing tilapia in BC.

To date, he is the only such operation in the province, even though others are exploring the idea. In 2001, he harvested his first batch of fish after an investment of about $1 million.

"It costs a lot to do this. Investment in the physical infrastructure alone is significant," Sjostrom said in a phone interview, describing his facility as a large, thick-walled building with seven gigantic, cylindrical tanks of water that have to be heated, purified and constantly monitored.

Source: Times Colonist