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NS Green Party leader distances himself from fish farming tech company

Thomas Trappenberg says he is no longer involved in ReelData startup

The leader of the Green Party of Nova Scotia says he’s no longer associated with a company that works for open-net fish farms, an aquaculture practice his party has said should be banned in favour of land-based facilities.

Thomas Trappenberg said his relationship ended last summer with ReelData, a startup fish farm technology company that he helped get off the ground.

The company was founded by two graduates from the Dalhousie University computer science program, Matt Zimola and Hossein Salimian.

“I’m not working with them anymore,” said Trappenberg, who is a professor in the faculty. “I thought they would be much more progressive and really concentrate on solutions so that we solve problems. The young people just wanted to make money, which is understandable.

“So for me it was more important to, you know, do other things and do what I think is right for me.”

Weighing fish with a camera

ReelData uses underwater cameras and artificial intelligence to estimate fish weight, monitor feed usage and detect sea lice for ocean and land-based fish farms.

As a Dalhousie artificial intelligence and robotics professor, Trappenberg said he initially showed Zimola and Hossein technologies that would help automate fish farms and make them more efficient. He helped ReelData win a 2019 competition for investment from provincial Crown corporation Innovacorp.

As recently as this April, Trappenberg was referring to his participation in ReelData — without mentioning his differences with the company.

In a news release that month, the Green Party leader said his role in the startup gave him “an inside operational perspective on the industry” and he helped “develop artificial intelligence (AI) systems for the much safer land-based aquaculture industry.”

The release made no mention of the company’s work for ocean-based salmon farms, which the Green Party opposes.

Condemns Cooke Aquaculture

Last week, Trappenberg ​​​​​issued a news release as Green Party leader condemning a proposed Liverpool Bay salmon farm expansion by Cooke Aquaculture, one of the companies he and ReelData consulted during development.

“My approach was, ‘I want to help.’ And when I first talked with Cooke, ‘Can we solve the problem?'” he said in an interview. “I am now convinced that we cannot solve the problems of open pens in our bays. There are big opportunities in the open sea. There are much bigger opportunities for Nova Scotia on land.”

Ocean-based fish farms offshore may work, he said, but not in coastal bays where “there is not enough circulation and the medications and feces will pile up.”

“Early on, what I brought in was what we really want to help with the automation so that it can be put onto the open sea,” he said.

Trappenberg said he moved on from ReelData for several reasons, but did not elaborate. He said he is not an investor in the company.

ReelData did not respond to CBC requests for comment on this story.

In a video session with Dalhousie University in March, Zimola said the company is addressing key challenges facing ocean-based and land-based fish farms: “How much do my fish weigh, how much should I be feeding my fish and how healthy or what is the current state of health and welfare of my fish?”

Overfeeding and fish mortality can cost a fish farm up to $10 million a year, said Zimola, ReelData’s CEO.

“What we are doing is we’re using machine learning to solve these pain points. So we’re weighing fish daily and providing metrics on health and weight and fish feed every single day for these fish farms, so we built the solution,” Zimola said.

Work with Cooke

ReelData remains in contact with Cooke Aquaculture, the New Brunswick-based global salmon farming operation. In February, Cooke permitted ReelData to trial its ocean aquaculture technology at Cooke’s Digby, N.S., farm site.

“We often work with startup companies who present innovative new tech developments that may be applied to fish farming — whether it be for our land-based hatcheries or ocean grow out sites,” Cooke spokesperson Joel Richardson said in a statement to CBC News. “Ocean aquaculture is a science-based business.”

Richardson disputed the viability of land-based salmon farming, discounting it as too energy intensive and impractical.

“The current farmed salmon production in Canada alone would require 28,000 football fields, 33,719 acres or 159 square kilometres of deforested land to grow fish in appropriate densities in land-based systems,” he said. “Ocean farming has a lower carbon footprint, uses far less manufactured energy and far less freshwater.”

Richarsdon also had a shot at Trappenberg.

“To our knowledge, Mr. Trappenberg may no longer be involved with ReelData — perhaps due to his overall lack of experience and naive perspective of the commercial aquaculture industry.”