Updated on January 10, 2018
Updated on January 10, 2018
By Paul Greenberg, Safina Center Writer in Residence
“Nova Lox” just might be the Jewish madeleine. Its rosy glow atop a bagel recalls bar mitzvahs, wedding chupahs and your bubby’s funeral. But the way we remember a food and what that food has become are often two very different things. The madeleine Proust dipped into his tea a century ago can today be found for sale at Walmart adulterated with high fructose corn syrup, sorbitol and sodium phosphate dibasic. Nova Lox has gone through similar transformations as I learned recently on a trip to the Canadian Maritimes, the place that first conjured up that evocative name.
Lox, of course, is salmon. From the Norwegian laks which means, well, salmon. Nova, though, is the curious part. Nova is short for Nova Scotia and hearkens to a time when Nova Scotia provided North Americans with the last gasp of commercially caught wild Atlantic salmon. From colonial times on through the 1960s, the extirpation of wild salmon spread like a virus from Connecticut up through Massachusetts, Maine and New Brunswick. This was driven by multiple factors: river dams that blocked salmon passage to spawning streams, pollution in estuaries where salmon smolts reared, and overfishing off Greenland and the Faroe Islands where adult salmon foraged and fattened. Nova Scotia wild salmon held out longer than most and as my plane dipped a wing toward Halifax it was easy to see why. Dozens of rivers wended their way from the Atlantic coast inland–perfect thoroughfares for spawning salmon. But by the 1970s even this productive coast gave out. It’s at that point that Nova Lox became something else entirely.
Using technologies developed in Norway and Scotland, Nova Scotians began farming salmon in their bays and inlets. Local herring were caught and ground up for feed, fjords were filled up with net pens for habitat. It was easy money. The price of Nova Lox plummeted and eventually a once-a-year food for us New Yorkers became a weekly or even daily affair. But while the consumer paid less and less for that once coveted meal, Nova Scotian coastal ecosystems paid more and more. Effluent from farms caused algal blooms and hypoxic zones in the Bay of Fundy. Densely stocked sea cages became hot spots for sea lice which in turn afflicted the wild salmon smolts that tried to pass through. To make matters worse, selectively bred salmon, the descendants of nonnative strains from Norway and Scotland, often escaped and may have competed with the few remaining wild fish in Atlantic Canada. For all these reasons many wild salmon advocates swore off eating the farmed variety and today in Nova Scotia tempers run hot when the idea of expanding salmon aquaculture is broached.
But after landing in Halifax I hopped in a car and headed inland toward a range of possibilities that could restore a sustainable Nova Lox to bagels everywhere.
My first stop an hour to the west was the nondescript headquarters of a company called Sustainable Blue. There I found Kirk Havercroft, a Brit who had come to Nova Scotia with the goal of trying to fix Canada’s aquaculture problem. Havercroft’s enterprise is trying to crack the code on growing salmon out of the ocean. Using a proprietary set of technologies he has created what is called a “recirculating aquaculture facility” where fish and water are entirely self-contained. This means no effluent into sensitive bays and inlets, no sea lice, and no escape events (as most notably happened last year in the Puget Sound). To be sure Havercroft is not the first to attempt to do what seems like a good mission. But “recirc” facilities have a way of going out of business. “A single event–a disease, a fluctuation and temperature can take the whole thing out,” Harvercroft told me and with profit margins so thin, even a small hiccup in production can mean the end to a dream.
Havercroft, though, is confident he can beat the odds. Whereas open net pen conglomerates harvest only twice a year and then rely on Chilean subsidiaries to provide product other times of the year, Havercroft can manipulate light and temperature indoors to simulate a perpetual summer and a continuous supply of local fresh fish. That combined with the possibility that a more sustainably farmed salmon might fetch a better price might offset the fact that his costs are 30% higher than commodity salmon grown in the open net pens. There is still another factor that sets Havercroft’s salmon apart: the feed. All salmon in his tanks eat a diet that is derived not from the wild harvest of smaller fish like herring, but from offal and other offcuts derived from other commercial fisheries.
Alternative salmon feeds are also nothing new, but the speed at which new feeds are entering the marketplace is. This is something I witnessed when I doubled back toward Halifax and found another nondescript building bearing the name Oberland Agriscience. Inside I found a NASA microbiologist named Greg Wanger tending to a giant pile of maggots.
Well, not maggots really, but black soldier fly larvae. The black soldier fly is perhaps the most exciting new thing in the world of salmon. What makes them particularly exciting is the way they close an egregious loop in the current food system. In any given year North Americans throw out nearly half of all the food they produce. True, more and more of it is being composted in cities that have composting requirements. But municipal compost facilities are notoriously inefficient and most rescued organic matter simply ends up getting spread over the tops of landfills. Black soldier flies are the missing link in recycling all that discard. In eight days a pile of newly hatched soldier fly eggs will achieve a 3000-fold increase in mass devouring anything from bruised apples to pizza crusts in the process. In 16 days they are ready to harvest. Because Oberland has figured out a way to “stabilize” food waste, discards can be gathered and stored long enough for the hungry larvae to get to it.
In the end the larvae can be transformed into a meal that is quite palatable to salmon. “In trials we’re seeing soldier flies being 98% as efficient as fish meal,” Wanger told me and then added with typical Canadian modesty, “that’s pretty good!” The final element that makes soldier flies a slam dunk is that even though they are voracious as larvae, they are mouthless and ascetic as adults. They die at the first frost and, unlike farmed Atlantic salmon, are unlikely to survive if they escape.
Salmon in tanks fed by bugs. It’s not what comes to mind when people remember family celebrations and Nova Lox. But then again little in our food system is what it seems. At least this latest incarnation of the food of brunches past may do a little more to ensure we’ll have smoked salmon brunches in the future.