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John Sorensen, Department of Chemistry and Bruce Hardy, Myera Group. Photo: Kira Koop.
Feed and Grow Fish gameplay! The new Goliath fish is incredible! Pungence plays Feed and Grow Fish, a fun, beautiful open world underwater game where you pla.April 18, 2019 —
John Sorensen is a man who believes in happy accidents. While that might seem a bit strange for an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry who spends his days conducting experiments and analyzing data, it’s particularly apt when describing the genesis of Sorensen’s current collaboration with Bruce Hardy of Myera Group, a Winnipeg-based biotech company.
“I’d been invited to submit a proposal to something called BioFuelNet Canada [BFN] about 6 or 8 years ago. That was a network of centres of excellence that was interested in biofuels. One of my collaborators here at the UofM, David Levin, thought there was a project we could participate in there, and he had a particular polymer that he felt we could generate biofuels out of. We did some work on it and it went a few places, but the funding ran out on that.
“So, at the very first meeting of BFN I met [Hardy], and we wound up running into each other at the departure lounge at the airport in Montreal. Our flight back to Winnipeg was delayed for over an hour, so we sat [there] probably two and a half hours, just talking about some of the ideas that he had. As a result of that initial interaction, I’ve had a 6-year relationship working with Bruce, getting things established and set up.”
John Sorensen works with Bruce Hardy at Myera Group. Photo credit Kira Koop.
What the two men have “set up” is a potentially highly profitable collaboration of Hardy’s Myera Group and ReseSorensen’s arch Group. Their shared goal is to create a high-yielding protocol for producing carotenoids, which are related to beta-carotene and give carrots and tomatoes their distinctive colour. The carotenoids would then be incorporated into value-added products such as pills or food additives. To do this, Sorensen’s lab is working with strains of microorganisms (algae) that produce natural carotenoid-type products.
“One of the applications we’ve been looking at with this is to see if we could add this to chicken feed and produce ‘eye-health eggs’, for example. The Sorensen Group has been working to help the Myera Group analyze the outcomes of their culture conditions for the production of these carotenoids by identifying the individual chemical structures of the carotenoids produced, quantifying those amounts and working with [Myera’s] production team to feedback that information to say ‘this was a good culture condition, this wasn’t so good’. That’s the main part of the Sorensen Group working with the Myera Group.”
Hardy’s contribution has its’ roots in his knowledge of the challenging living conditions experienced by those in Northern Manitoba. His belief is that life in Northern communities can be improved by enhancing food security, as well as providing access to economic opportunities.
“What do First Nations and Metis enjoy and do and already have competency at? Well, fishing. So, fish are actually at the core of the platform technology. From that, we now have a ____ stream that we can leverage.
“John is one of the very few who can walk across to the production side and say ‘what yeast, bacteria, algae or fungi can produce what bioactive, and is it economically feasible to do it in a system like this that could work up north?’”
The exchange of Sorensen’s scientific expertise and experimental facilities for Hardy’s business acumen and financial support makes for the kind of good news story that’s irresistible to funding agencies such as MITACS and NSERC, both of whom have already provided financial assistance to Sorensen’s research and to the collaboration in general. Sorensen says it’s this type of innovation that allows smaller businesses access to next-level research, which in turn helps them to grow and prosper, creating job opportunities as well as pumping money into the local economy.
In fact, Hardy’s plans extend far beyond Winnipeg’s borders. Self-identified as Metis, Hardy founded Myera as a way of creating opportunities for food security and economic development in remote Indigenous communities. It’s that kind of vision, coupled with Hardy’s drive to succeed that Sorensen admires.
“He’s a real interesting guy – an established entrepreneur in Manitoba. He’s set up and is running Function Four, which is a successful software company. He’s got a lot of products out on the market and a lot of connections there. So that, for me, is a big part of it, in the sense that he knows what he’s doing in setting up a company, he’s got that proven track record. So, when he talks about how to make business decisions, business models, he’s talking from a position of experience. Just like when I suggest some scientific solutions to the problems we’re running into, he typically defers to that, because that’s why he’s brought me on board.”
Over the long-term, Hardy wants to establish a facilities, whether in warehouses, shipping containers or some other set-up that can be placed in northern indigenous communities in need of economic growth. Not only would the residents be able to eat what’s produced; there would be a number of jobs created as a part of operating and maintaining the facility.
That isn’t just wishful thinking. Myera currently operates a fish farm just outside of Winnipeg. It’s already been featured by local media. CBC News: How this greenhouse and fish farm operation is fuelled by bitcoin mining.
“There’s been a lot of stuff that Myera Group has done in getting the fish farming part of it to work. They’ve got tanks of fish out at their test facility in St. Francis-Xavier, where they’ve got fish swimming around in a tank, just monitoring conditions to make them grow in a reasonable way and then using the algae to remediate the water.
“One of the applications for the algae that we’re growing, for example, is to use the algae cells themselves as fish feed. Those fish could be grown in a mini-fish farm; composite containers of 9 to 10,000-gallon tanks that the fish could grow in; be fed on the algae; the algae could be used to clean the fish waste out of the water; the water could all be recycled. Some of the high nutrient waste water from the fish could be used as fertilizer for things like lettuce farms. There’re all sorts of these interconnected ideas that Myera Group is working on.”
Photo credit: Kira Koop.
Currently, Sorensen and Hardy are concentrating their energies on the production of carotenoids.
“The carotenoids would be the number one for right now that we’re really focusing on, just because we think that’s got the highest potential pay-off. The return on the price of those is pretty healthy and would allow us to start generating enough revenue to keep the other parts of the company running and be able to start spinning off some of the economic development parts of it.”
As for Sorensen, he’s excited at what this collaboration could mean for his students.
“If Myera succeeds, there’s a place for the students that come out of my research group to get employment in the province. Not just my group, but all of the graduates from the Faculty of Science and other faculties from the University of Manitoba. I think it’s a really nice example of how serendipity does play a role in all the things you do in science, not just scientific discoveries.”
Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.
Totoaba Aquaculture and Conservation: Hope for an Endangered Fish from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez
This is the story of the totoaba Totoaba macdonaldi, an iconic and highly valuable fish from the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) in Mexico. Overfished to commercial depletion in the first half of the twentieth century, the species is currently listed as critically endangered and it continues to be threatened by illegal fishing, habitat degradation, and insufficient enforcement of fishing and environmental regulations. Few fish are as interesting as the totoaba from the standpoints of biology, conservation, sociology, and regulation. Now aquaculture has the potential to bring totoaba back as a sustainable resource and to generate prosperity in an economically-depressed region of Mexico.
FIGURE 1. Adult Totoaba in a broodstock a=maturation tank at Earth Ocean Farms hatchery. EOF photo by Fernando Cavalin.
Totoaba are remarkably well-suited for aquaculture. Hatchery and grow-out technologies have been developed and commercial production trials are currently underway. Totoaba growth is among the fastest reported for any farmed marine fish and their quality as a food fish is high. Their status as a critically-endangered species presents unique challenges. In this article we present the history of the fishery and how perverse economic incentives and enforcement challenges resulted in its commercial depletion. We go on to present current advances in hatchery and grow-out and to show how regulatory considerations affect the species, leading to an opportunity for fishermen, regulators, researchers, aquaculturists, and conservationists to work together to restore the fishery, promote regional socio-economic development, and ensure the preservation of this iconic species for future generations.
The totoaba (Fig. 1) is the largest of the Sciaenidae, a family that includes fish commonly known as drums, croakers, corvinas, and sea bass. Totoaba can reach a weight of 135 kg, a length of 2m, and live up to 30 years (Berdegue 1955). Their body is elongated with a sharp snout, large oblique mouth, and a projecting lower jaw. Juveniles eat mainly small crustaceans off the bottom and smaller fish from the water column. Totoaba are schooling fish endemic to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico (NOAA 2016). Adults are one of the top predator fishes in the upper Sea of Cortez and have pelagic feeding habits, favoring sardines and anchovies, although benthic crustaceans, such as shrimps and crabs are also part of their diet (Cisneros-Mata et al. 1995).
Totoaba spawn during the late spring in the turbid waters of the Colorado River delta, a biosphere reserve at the northernmost tip of the Sea (Fig. 2). Juveniles typically stay in that area for one or two years before migrating south on the peninsular side, following the schools of sardines and anchovies on which they feed. Their summer feeding grounds extend south to Bahia Concepcion on the Baja Peninsula, and occasionally farther south to the Bay of La Paz (Valenzuela-Quiñonez 2014), and possibly even as far as San Jose del Cabo (Peet 2009). However, we recently received a trustworthy record and photographs of an approximately 45-kg totoaba captured south of Puerto Vallarta, much farther to the south of the reported range of the species.
Fish in these summer feeding areas are thought to cross the Sea to the mainland side, south to the delta of the Fuerte River in Sinaloa, where they feed during the fall. Once they become adults after another 4 or 5 years, schools of totoaba migrate northward in the winter along the eastern coast of the Sea of Cortez, returning to their natal spawning and nursery areas near the Colorado River delta, where they remain through the spawning period the following spring (Cisneros-Mata et al. 1995).
The Totoaba Swim Bladder
The swim bladder is an internal, gas-filled organ that fish use to regulate buoyancy. In totoaba and other sound-producing fish it also functions as a resonating chamber for a group of specialized muscles that vibrate against it, producing a croaking or drumming sound used for communication and location purposes. The swim bladder has properties that make it highly appreciated as an ingredient in Chinese cuisine and medicine. Fish swim bladders, known as maws, are prepared in traditional soups or stews. Dried swim bladders of totoaba are known in China as jin quian min, which translates to “money maw.” They are highly appreciated due to their similarity to those of the Chinese bahaba, or giant yellow croaker Bahaba taipingensis, once abundant in the south of China, but now overfished and affected by pollution to the point that it is extremely rare to catch this fish.
Totoaba maws are valued for their high collagen content and some people believe they can boost fertility, circulation, skin vitality, and longevity. Because of these perceived properties and their scarcity and illegal status, dried swim bladders of totoaba command astronomical prices. Typical prices to the consumer in Hong Kong vary from about US$2,600 for a 100-g dry totoaba bladder to US$25,000 for a 500-g unit. The Chinese have been known to stockpile the more valuable bladders as a form of speculative investment and to use them as currency.
Illegal fishermen in the upper Sea of Cortez are paid US$3,000-5,000/kg of fresh swim bladder, known as buche de totoaba in Mexico. Historically Chinese demand for totoaba maws drove the development of the commercial fishery in the upper Sea of Cortez and, paired with challenges in enforcement of fishing regulations, contributed to its eventual collapse in the mid-twentieth century. To this day, the economic incentives for illegal fishing and trafficking of totoaba continue to threaten the possibility of establishing a sustainable fishery and the very existence of totoaba and related valuable species.
The Totoaba Fishery
The story of the totoaba fishery is one of greed, short sightedness, and ineffective governance, tragically driving a valuable natural resource to near extinction, while contributing to the impoverishment of the local population, rather than to their prosperity. Before the commercial fishery began at the turn of the twentieth century, totoaba were part of the diet and folklore of the indigenous people. The Seri people of Sonora used harpoons with large points to spear totoaba in shallow nearshore waters (Bahre et al. 2000). Stories abound of how incredibly plentiful and large the totoaba were in those days.
Asian demand for swim bladders prompted the beginning of a hook and line fishery around 1910 in the coastal waters between Guaymas and the delta of the Fuerte River. Devoid of effective regulation, in a frontier region often forgotten by authorities, the exploitation of totoaba was characterized by wanton waste. Fish were dragged onto the beach, slit open, and their swim bladders were removed, dried, and shipped to China via San Francisco (Bahre et al. 2000). Lack of refrigeration and transport infrastructure, together with the high price of the swim bladder, made perverse economic sense for the totoaba carcasses to be left on the beaches to rot (Fig. 3). These practices accelerated so swiftly that totoaba was already commercially depleted in that zone by the 1920s, and fishing moved north towards the mouth of the Colorado River, the spawning and nursery grounds of the fish (Kira 2005).
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In the early 1920s fishermen discovered that totoaba aggregated for spawning in great numbers in the waters of the Colorado River delta. The commercial fishery took advantage of this reproductive migration and thus became the most important economic activity in the area; so important that it brought about some of the first permanent settlements along the northern coastline of Sonora and Baja California (Bahre et al. 2000), including the fishing camps of San Felipe (1923), Golfo de Santa Clara (1927), and Puerto Peñasco (1928). A market for totoaba meat began to develop across the US border in California and Arizona. During those years the totoaba fishery attracted people to areas that previously had been practically unpopulated, with important sociological and ethnographic consequences. For example, permanent settlement of the Seri indigenous group in Bahia Kino ended their traditional seminomadic ways as hunter-gatherers and was the main cause of their assimilation into Mexican culture (Bahre et al. 2000).
Read the rest of this article in the December 2016 issue of World Aquaculture Magazinehere
About Lorenzo M. Juarez, Pablo A. Konietzko and Michael H. Schwarz
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