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Fish farmer adds value with fertilizer from the deep

A Manitoulin fish farmer is taking waste byproduct that ended up in landfill and is converting it to compost.

A Manitoulin fish farmer is taking waste byproduct that ended up in landfill and is converting it to compost.

Mike Meeker feels like he's come full circle in demonstrating aquaculture can be a sustainable and environmentally-friendly value-added business.

Meeker has been raising rainbow trout for 24 years in floating cages in a bay off Lake Huron's North Channel.

For two years, the Evansville resident has been distributing his fish compost, Meeker's Magic Mix, to local farmers, market gardener and greenhouse growers who apply it on their crops, backyard vegetables, trees, shrubs, front lawns and  anything else that grows.

Despite a severe drought on Manitoulin last year, swatches of grain fields where the compost was applied grew noticeably thicker and faster.

"I'll get a market gardener telling me I've increased his production by 400 or 500 per cent."

He's collecting their testimonials and posting them on his web site ( ).

The compost is being marketed as a soil enhancer and an environmentally-friendly alternative to more expensive chemical fertilizers.

Loaded with nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, he's seeking both organic and eco-certification.

It's made in a relatively straight forward manner.

Fish waste from Cold Water Fisheries' processing plant in Little Current and trout mortalities on other area fish farms, are combined with sawdust from local sawmills, and tossed into two ex-cement truck mixers.

Meeker tinkered with conventional in-vessel composting but there were too many variables he couldn't control such as the amount of moisture and oxygen levels in the compost pile.

But the cement truck drum does a better job of efficiently grinding up fish guts and whole carcasses within hours into an unrecognizable liquid goop. A six-tonne (or 10-yard) batch is made in 24 hours.

From there he pours it into recycled fish pellet feed bags for storage. Air is pumped into the bags to cook off pathogens.

While most certified compost ferments at temperatures of 55 Celsius for three days, Meeker's mixture heats up to 65 C for as long as two weeks.

"All of the fish waste is being used to make a useful product that stays in Northern Ontario," says Meeker.

"It made good business sense but it was also an ethical decision."

His project has drawn the active participation and analytical expertise of the University of Guelph, Ontario Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Soil samples from farm trials sent away for testing on the Ministry of Agriculture and Food's nutrient management software indicate a three to four tonne per acre application rate delivers to a farmer 100 per cent of his phosphorus needs because of its high nitrogen content.

On the production side, Meeker admits he's given away more than 150 tonnes to farmers for field trials.
But he plans to make it available at some garden centre locations on Manitoulin at $150 per yard.

Some he'll donate locally for stream bank restoration.

As well, officials from Vale Inco and Xstrata Nickel have been down to Manitoulin to observe his mixing process and to analyse his lab and field results.

They're considering it for the massive re-greening effort in Sudbury for slag piles and barren areas.

"They have no doubt the product is going to work."

More value-added projects like these could cast the public perception of aquaculture in a more positive light.

For years, environmental critics, including the Suzuki Foundation, have branded the handful of caged rainbow trout producers on Georgian Bay and North Channel as polluters destroying water quality on the Great Lakes.

The 20-year-old aquaculture sector in Ontario has always been treated as a backwater industry by government agencies.

The lack of a clear regulatory framework from Queen's Park has also held back the industry from expanding and frustrated fish farmers.

The Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association have vigorously defended their livelihood by backing their claims with science and a slew of research and development projects with the University of Guelph and federal fisheries.

Only in the last year have they began to get a receptive ear from politicians, government bureaucrats and even district managers.

"It's an incredible breath of fresh air," says Meeker.

In the spring budget, the federal government set aside $70 million over five years for the continued development of Canada's sustainable aquaculture industry.

Karen Tracey, co-ordinator of the Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association, says the Ontario government is finally showing signs of devising a provincial strategy to develop aquaculture in the North.

"We have seen a positive reception from the province, they are asking the right questions and it's not a closed door policy anymore."

Provincially, there's movement toward placing the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs as the lead agency for aquaculture rather than the Ministry of Natural Resources.

The association is expecting a major government funding announcement that provide some security for the next three years. It will enable them to hire an R & D co-ordinator for other projects and to organize an environmental forum in early 2009.

"We're finally getting the science to back up what the industry's been saying for years," says Tracey.

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