Local aquatic health science startup now the go-to source for fish biology information for many industries and organizations

Jim Powell holds a Masters degree in smolt physiology and a Doctorate degree in neuroendocrinology – the study of the interaction between the nervous system and hormone production system and how those systems communicate with each other – which he received from his research into the spawning triggers for salmon and evolutionary mapping of spawning controls in their brain.

So it’s safe to say he probably knows more about fish than just about anyone else in the area.

About ten years ago, Powell was travelling around the world selling fish health products. His job at the time was doing what he could to help conservation efforts, fish farmers, government and private researchers – anyone who had concerns with fish health.

“Everywhere we went,” he says, “there was somewhere that people could go to that would do impartial, third-party, unbiased diagnostic and research work. But we didn’t have one of those places in British Columbia.”

So they decided to start one. After some thought about what a B.C.-based version of this would look like, they decided the best structure would be for the organization to be a privately-funded one, but also a non-profit.

“That way you’ve got nobody holding anything over you. There are no shareholders, and we can work for anyone,” Powell says.

And they do.

Now in its 10th year, the Centre for Aquatic Heath Services (CAHS) has become the go-to resource for questions about the biology of all things in the water, from organisms as small as pathogens, viruses and sea lice to full-grown salmon and other large species of aquatic life.

“As aquaculture grew and grew,” Powell says, as an example, “they started to use us more, to the point where they trusted our work so much that producers transferred most of their routine lab work over to us and shut down their own labs. We’re essentially their contract fish health lab, now.”

They also work with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Pacific Salmon Foundation, the Oyster River Enhancement Society, the Quinsam River Hatchery and many others, including First Nations, to address concerns in various regions and aquatic populations of the province, performing unbiased, hypothesis-based science in an attempt to address whatever the problem may be.

One major facet of what they do is what Powell refers to as “diagnostics,” while another is “research and development.”

“Diagnostics” refers to their work analyzing various specimens of sea life and finding out what’s wrong with them – if anything – and then determining the best approach to fixing whatever that issue might be.

A salmon population being attacked by a parasite of some kind, for example, would need to have diagnostics done to find out what parasite is present, in what type of fish, for what reason, how it is impacting the fish, and what steps can be taken to address that impact.

Using state-of-the-art molecular biology techniques that involve “reading” the DNA or RNA of organisms to detect the presence of pathogens, Powell’s team goes about their diagnostics work with painstaking precision.

“Research and development,” would be things like finding out the impact of general environmental issues like ocean warming, changing currents, and human behaviour on populations or determining the potential impacts of pesticides on specific species of aquatic life before they are used in an attempt to understand those factors or impacts.

One of their most successful studies – which had immediate applicability to our local aquatic environment – was their work with the Quinsam River Hatchery, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, A-Tlegay Fisheries and the Campbell River Salmon Foundation in researching the migration of spawning salmon and the environmental factors present in the Campbell River estuaries, rivers and the receiving waters of the Discovery Passage that promote healthy populations of salmon upon their release from hatcheries.

“The team started monitoring the productivity of the ocean,” Powell says. “We wanted to know, when those fish came out of the hatchery, were there groceries there for them?”

Before the CAHS study of the plankton availability in the estuary and immediate ocean, the hatchery would release smolts based on calendar date, but they found that there wasn’t a whole lot of return from the earliest of their release groups. Once Powell and his team determined a plankton cycle in that area, the hatchery could adjust their release date based on the “availability of the groceries the fish need to have when they get there.”

One of their most interesting “developments” is the innovation of their own ultrafiltration process, which takes 100 litres of water and concentrates it down into one litre of concentrate.

“If you’ve got a virus pathogen that’s out there in the water system, you could test that water, and test that water, and test that water, and you might not find it (viruses are really, really small). But we can ultrafiltrate that water, condense it down, and then test that. It really gives us a leg up on detection.”

They could patent that process, Powell says, “but we’ll give it to anyone.”

The third facet of what they do, Powell calls “outreach.”

Outreach, Powell says, can take the form of coursework offered about fish and sea life health issues, environmental issues, or general aquaculture practices. They offer internal certification through this teaching, in fact.

They also bring school kids through the facility and teach them basic fish anatomy and general ecosystem education and go out and speak to groups like Rotary or Haig Brown – or anyone else who asks – about what they do at CAHS or about environmentalism, aquatic health, sustainable aquaculture practices, or whatever topic the group would like them to explore.

“We pride ourselves on being a community resource,” Powell says, “so that’s another way we can do that.”

For more information on the CAHS, what they do or what they can do for you as an organization or individual, head over to their website at cahs-bc.ca