In the basement of an industrial building in Ahuntsic-Cartierville, some 50,000 small fish splash around in a circular basin while waiting for their feed ration.
These arctic char are the first fish to be produced in the first commercial urban fish farm in Quebec.
“The hatching took place in mid-December and we’ve been feeding them at full capacity for three weeks,” said David Dupaul-Chicoine, president of Opercule.
The operation is based on the grounds of the Centrale agricole on Legendre Street, which includes other companies specializing in urban agriculture in the city.
It was Dupaul-Chicoine’s garage, in the Villeray district, that this urban fish farming project was born about five years ago. Dupaul-Chicoine, who was then working in music, had enrolled in aquaculture courses in Gaspésie, where he met his future partner, engineer Nicolas Paquin.
The garage pilot project, which lasted three years, validated farming techniques in the city and tested the market.
“We were producing about a tonne a year in my garage,” says Dupaul-Chicoine.
Over the next few years, Opercule plans to produce around 30,000 kilograms annually.
Trials with restaurants
Some Montreal restaurateurs put the small garage production to the test.
“We were the guinea pigs, we gave feedback on the quality,” says John Winter Russell, chef at Candide in Little Burgundy.
Russell looked into how to use fish of different sizes. The smallest specimens, which could not reach their optimal size, were prepared in an escabeche, a Mediterranean recipe.
“They were served a bit like marinated anchovies, but they are char,” he said, adding the taste of Arctic char is similar to that of salmon.
“I find that David’s has less of the earthy taste you find in farmed fish. I really like its texture. It’s quite firm, but when you put pressure on it, it melts.”
Farming in the city
A dozen large basins are installed at Opercule, with the fish separated into the different tanks as they grow, Dupaul-Chicoine said. The first char will be sold as of next Christmas.
Dupaul-Chicoine and Paquin set up their aquaculture production at the heart of the city for ecological reasons.
“It’s being at the heart of the market,” Dupaul-Chicoine said.
Deliveries will be made by electric bike to reduce carbon footprint as much as possible, he said.
Opercule’s facilities are also the first in Quebec to apply the principle of water recirculation from one end of the production chain to the other. Sophisticated and noisy devices recover fish waste and filter the water by removing ammonia and injecting oxygen.
The company also plans to use 100 to 200 times less water than traditional fish farming, with solid waste going to produce compost.
A long-term project
Although Opercule is just starting its first production of arctic char, the company has been located at the Centrale agricole in Montreal for nearly three years now.
During this time, the founders were devoted to completing applications for permits and subsidies to bring the project to fruition.
“It was quite a headache to have all the permits,” says Dupaul-Chicoine. “You need all your permits to apply for grants, and without grants, we probably wouldn’t have been able to carry out the project.”
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of Quebec (MAPAQ) financially supports the development of aquaculture companies such as Opercule. In 2018, it set a goal of doubling Quebec’s aquaculture production by 2025.