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Bridging the Gap - Catching Waves

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In 1992 the Canadian Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans declared a moratorium on the Northern Cod fishery, promptly putting 12% of the Newfoundland economy out of business and disproportionately affecting small coastal fishing villages. While many communities have survived through a combination of a much-reduced fishery, government funding, and offshore or out of province employment, none of these are sustainable long-term solutions. Sea-based aquaculture (“fish farming” in pens) has provided stable employment in some areas, but the geography of the area is not conducive to this type of aquaculture and villages are far from ideal sites.   

So, what does this area have in abundance? The answer is energy, available in ocean waves. Harnessing this energy to pump water on shore at a low cost will solve the challenges of geography that are impeding the growth of a sea-based aquaculture industry. Enabling the development of a profitable shore-based aquaculture will mean new jobs and long-term economic growth for these communities.

With this solution in mind, the College of the North Atlantic set out to tackle this major challenge. Over the last 6 years, the college has built the Wave Environment Research Centre (WERC) in Lord’s Cove on the south coast of the island of Newfoundland into a major economic driver. Helmed by Dr Mike Graham, it now supports 5 fulltime staff. It has also generated 375 weeks of student employment, trained 200+ students and supported 12 work terms.

There are 3 key technological components of this project: the sea pump (TRL7), the aquaculture farm (TRL9), and the ocean exposure/ device testing facility (TRL9).  Springboard Atlantic has facilitated the development of all three components thanks to the Innovation Mobilization program funded by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. This funding has supported industry engagement activities and funded the wave pump market study which was invaluable to identifying possible commercialization pathways. All three are very close to full-scale market readiness.

As the WERC works towards its end goal of full scale commercial on-shore aquaculture it has already made a significant impact on the local economy. Guided by the Office of Applied Research & Innovation WERC has brought over 4 million dollars to the region; half of which has turned into spending in HR and goods & services on the Burin Peninsula. Further, the centre has worked with multiple companies to help solve their technical challenges.

As with so many of these projects the indirect impacts are harder to capture but sometimes even more compelling. Halfway through the project, Dr Graham was approached by a group of local lobster fisherman to use WERC’s vacant tanks to hold their catch. One of the tanks has subsequently been used as a seasonal lobster pound. Lobster traps often capture other species as well, and the fishermen began bringing “interesting creatures”  for display in one of the other unused tanks. The result is a marine “touch tank” that has been operational for the last three years. It has proven to be popular with local schools and tourists. WERC logged 200 visitors in the first season of touch tank operation, and it has increased in popularity since, logging over 1600 visitors in the third year. This has been accomplished without any marketing or additional expenditure. Fishermen continue to collect specimens for the tank, and local businesses have benefited from the resulting increased tourist traffic in the town.

While the major challenge of economic instability generated by the cod moratorium is far from resolved the resilience of these rural communities and the leadership demonstrated by WERC and the College of the North Atlantic show us that innovation can arise anywhere and generates impacts we never expected.