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Fish on the flatland

First We Eat: Aquaponics on the Prairies make local sourcing of fish easier

We didn’t eat much fish when I was a kid, just the occasional trout my grandfather reeled in from the North Saskatchewan River, and East Coast cod on Fridays. Not until we arrived on Vancouver Island did I learn to love fish, especially West Coast sockeye salmon, although the act of fishing struck me as boring. “A good excuse for doing nothing,” I heard my grandfather describe it in later years. By then I’d begun to appreciate why a hard-working dryland farmer might appreciate the opportunity to sit quietly on the bank of a river and watch the fishing line play out across the water.

We have more choices these days, even if we don’t go fishing. Fishermen bring whitefish, pike, walleye and pickerel to market from northern lakes, and Saskatchewan’s Diefenbaker Lake is home to Wild West’s farmed steelhead.

Farming fish is an ancient practice — symbiotic, low intensity, low impact — that originated when carp or tilapia swam in flooded Asian rice fields and Aztec canals. “There is rice in the fields, fish in the water,” read a line carved on a Thai stone tablet 700 years ago.

This ancient idea feels contemporary, and necessary. In a time when one in 10 people around the globe face chronic hunger, in a time when wild fish stocks are poisoned or depleted, farming fish simply makes sense. But not just farming fish — farming in a closed-loop system — as described by the Oxford dictionary, aquaponics is “a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic creatures supplies the nutrients for plants grown hydroponically (in sand, gravel or liquid), which in turn purify the water.”

In the late 1980s, Lethbridge College became interested in aquaponics, and in past decades, a number of Prairie businesses have dipped their lines into the aquaponics business as well: Greenview Aqua-Farm, founded in 1994 near Delacoeur, Alberta, by several Chinese-Canadians longing to recreate their childhoods; in 2007, near Nobleford, Alberta, Klaas Dentoom’s Current Prairie Fisherman Corp. began farming tilapia; Mark McNaughton has been raising tilapia in a converted hog barn at MDM Aqua Farms, east of Three Hills, since 2000; and around 2010, Leo Josephson, a retired teacher, set up an aquaponics farm west of Saskatoon, selling the resulting tilapia and tomatoes at local farmers’ markets. “Fish farming isn’t so different from conventional farming,” McNaughton told me back in 2012, “just in a different medium.”

Among the most recent are Aqua Terra Farms in Okotoks, and Deepwater Farms in southeast Calgary. Deepwater’s water and fish waste from tanks of Australian barramundi sustain crops of arugula, watercress, kale, pac choi and mizuna, which appear on Calgarian restaurant menus. In late November 2018, Deepwater’s owners launched a crowdfunding campaign to expand the urban farm and increase production, with a goal of making fish and greens available to the public as well.

It’s a good thing. I still don’t eat enough fish, no matter how often the food cops nag about fish’s high perch on the food nutrient ladder. Having more local sources will make it easier. Now that the fish are biting, first we eat, then we can sit down to a neighbourly chat.

Roasted Steelhead or Tilapia with Walnut Sauce

Based loosely on muhammara, a classic Turkish relish, this sauce has migrated throughout the Middle East. It’s dynamite on nearly any type of roasted or grilled fish, grilled meats, or as a resplendent solo star appetizer. Make extra to use the next day on simple grilled bread.

Sauce

  • 1/4 lb. walnut halves
  • 1/4 c. diced tomato
  • 2 tbsp. pomegranate molasses
  • 1 tsp. toasted and ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • 1/2 tsp. sumac, optional
  • 1 lemon, juice and zest
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. walnut oil
  • 4 tbsp. minced cilantro
  • Salt and hot chili flakes to taste

– 1-1/2 lbs. steelhead or tilapia fillets Olive oil for drizzling
– Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Bake the walnuts on a baking sheet for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool thoroughly, then chop with a knife. Stir together all the sauce ingredients and set aside.

Increase the oven temperature to 450 F. Lay the fish fillets in
a single layer on a parchment- lined baking sheet with a lip. Lightly oil and season the fish. Roast uncovered until the fish is just cooked through, about 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Remove from heat, garnish with sauce and serve.

Serves 4.

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