One of the more surprising things I’ve learned during my Watson year is to appreciate times of transition. Not necessarily to revel in them, but to value them for their promise of something different, filled with the new discoveries and challenges. Most recently I’ve transitioned from non-stop travel and interviews to the decidedly slower pace of life of a salmon farmer, giving me a chance to dramatically zoom in from the nation’s different regional approaches to the significantly more site-specific experience of farming chinook salmon in freshwater on New Zealand’s South Island. As I work to fit all of my understandings together, I am also trying to let my new experiences as a participant-observer/novice salmon farmer stand on their own. In the spirit of appreciating transition, I am letting my new setting speak for itself before prematurely working it into an incomplete understanding. 2.5 weeks in to this experience, this is what I’ve begun to learn.
I’ve been enjoying the work immensely, it brings me outdoors, requires a fair amount of physical exertion, and follows a predictable daily rhythm. Every morning around 6.30 am I catch a van from the small town of Twizel to the Tekapo-Pukaki canal, where the salmon rafts are located. The rafts are large floating platforms in the middle of the canal, anchored to the banks by large ropes. On each of the rafts are ~8 pens: nets suspended in the water where the salmon live. The first task each day is always a feeding, where we walk up and down the rafts hand feeding the salmon. Contrary to what I previously thought, this does not entail sticking my hands in the water and having salmon eat out of them. And, retrospectively I’m not actually sure how that would work, salmon don’t exactly line up in a single file line to receive their meals. Instead we haul large buckets of feed to the edge of the pens and toss the pellets in, trying to distribute it evenly over the surface of the water. Although the physical action of feeding is pretty straightforward, the process of deciding how much and when to feed the salmon depends on a surprising array of factors. When we arrive at the rafts we’re in charge of feeding, we consult both a feed worksheet and a fish farming software. The former tells us what amount (in kilograms) of feed we’ve given to the fish in each raft/pen on previous days, while the latter gives us a recommended amount of feed based on various factors like the age and average size of the fish as well as the dissolved oxygen in the water and the current temperature. Although both resources give us an ideal amount of feed, we also have to take into account how much remaining feed is in the silos (we only fill them once a week) and if any major events (such as moving salmon from on pen to the next) may affect how eager the fish are to eat. Even then once we’re down feeding the fish, we may decide that a certain pen wants more or less food than we expected based on the behavior of the salmon. Although these numbers don’t change dramatically from day to day, they are influenced by a variety of factors from fish biology to environmental conditions, human observations to immediately available resources.
After the morning feeding, I assist with any number of farm maintenance tasks. During my first week on the farm we did weigh-ups, where we corralled salmon into a net and then weighed them on a scale to determine an average weight for the pen as well as their growth rate. On slower days, I may be less directly involved with the salmon and, instead, help repair and clean the nets – tying down the pens to the rafts or using a huge net cleaning tool to get rid of algae growing on the pen. One of my least favorite jobs (in fact, the one I use for comparison to make every other task seem quite pleasant) is removing the “morts” from the pens. About once a week, we are supposed to scoop all of the dead salmon out of the net and dispose of them. The recently dead salmon are not too bad, but I’ve fished out some seriously decomposed ones that give off some seriously gnarly fumes. Last week we had to fish about 500 dead salmon out of one of the rafts, taking up the entire afternoon. I probably can’t complain too much because another farmer told me that once there was a massive die off (due to an unexpected dip in dissolved oxygen) and the entire farm spent a whole week collecting 80,000 kilograms worth of dead salmon (for comparison, I weigh 80 kilograms). Although I’m happy to remove morts as few times as possible while I’m here, doing this has given me a more complete appreciation and understanding of salmon farming. Aquaculture, like other forms of food production, is messy and irreducible to a simple system of “food in-fish out”. Having a chance to get beyond simple narratives of fish farming, to experience some of the discomforts and challenges that arise out of this specific type of aquaculture, was one of the main goals of my Watson year.
I’m resisting the urge to write more just yet, because many of my thoughts are still taking shape and I just wanted to give you a quick snapshot of how my days are going so far. I’ve learned some other cool tidbits indirectly related to salmon farming such as how to drive stick shift on the left-hand side of the road (all the farm trucks are manual) and how to fillet a whole salmon and prepare sashimi and smoked salmon. The learning process has brought me closer to salmon farming than I could have ever expected, and one of the things I come back to almost daily is how cool it is to actually be here. I feel unbelievably fortunate to have turned up in this small corner of the world and learn about something that interests me. I’m just about 4 months into my Watson year and it’s quite strange to think about how much I’ve changed since I’ve started and how much more change is in store over the next 8 months! Unfortunately, I haven’t found the time to add as many photos as I’d like but I promise I’ll upload some soon!
All the best from NZ, where the holiday season means warm weather and barbecues,