Sequence #13

In this issue of sequence

Jay Woodworth, Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc’s Christmas Tree specialist with one of the SMART Balsam Fir seedlings. She oversees the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia’s research program. Photo: John Hillis, Truefaux Films
An aerial view of Marbase, home of North America's first commercial lumpfish hatchery now in development. Photo, Marbase Marystown Inc.
Photo, New England Aquarium

International team to meet in Halifax next month

The international research team, assembled to explore the potential role of genetic factors in the problematic recovery of the North Atlantic right whale, is meeting in Halifax in January to discuss their approach.

Saint Mary’s University and the New England Aquarium are collaborating on a $6 million research study announced in July by Genome Atlantic.

They are using extensive data about whale health and reproduction collected in Canada, the United States and elsewhere to further their research. The team’s findings could have implications for marine management, policies, practices and conservation plans.

Dr. Mark Fast, Professor of Fish Health and Immunology, Atlantic Veterinary College, UPEI, is helping develop tools to pinpoint the risk factors for Complex Gill Disease, the cause of staggering losses for salmon fish farmers outside Atlantic Canada. Photo, UPEI Marketing and Communications
Dr. Scott Pavey in his CRI Genomics lab at the Canadian Rivers Institute, University of New Brunswick, Saint John, N.B. Photo, Rob Blanchard, UNB Communications

Sequence Past Issues

Atlantic Canada’s freshwater fish capture N.B. ecogenomics expert’s attention

In the face of climate change and other pressures, Dr. Scott Pavey, a rising star in the new and promising field of ecogenomics, is focused on retaining the biodiversity of New Brunswick’s and Atlantic Canada’s freshwater fish and the industries that rely on them.

He runs what he proudly calls, “the most advanced ecology-focused genomics lab in New Brunswick.”

CRI Genomics, Dr. Pavey’s lab at the Canadian Rivers Institute, University of New Brunswick, Saint John, is known for applying state-of-the-art genomic technologies and techniques to investigations into how to conserve and manage freshwater fish stocks and make aquaculture and the fisheries that depend on them more sustainable.

This is important work, he said, because “All industries that alter the environment, such as mining and forestry, or discharge into the environment, such as pulp mills etc., have a responsibility to ensure their impacts do not adversely affect the habitat and populations of freshwater fish. Freshwater fish habitat is protected by federal legislation. Every EIS [environmental impact statement] for projects near freshwater must take freshwater fish into account.”

Reduced biodiversity, he said, “weakens the entire system because species exist in food webs and are reliant on each other. If the prey go extinct, the predator starves.” Dr. Pavey pointed out, freshwater has been heavily impacted in Canada and worldwide and when these impacts cause local extinctions of species; they reduce biodiversity.

The lab of The Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Molecular Ecology and Ecological Genomics specializes in aquatic molecular ecology and ecological genomics. Aquatic Molecular Ecology uses molecular genetic tools for advanced DNA analysis, such as entire genome scanning and bioinformatics to identify and study communities of interdependent organisms in aquatic ecosystems. Ecological Genomics seeks to understand the genetic mechanisms that govern the way organisms respond to their natural environment. Ecology, evolution and conservation are Dr. Pavey’s watchwords.


Since 2020, he has been active in a $9.1 million Genome Canada Large-Scale Applied Research Project (LSARP) called GEN-FISH, short for Genomic Network for Fish Identification Stress and Health. It has involved a group of researchers, professionals and community members in an extensive and innovative four-year undertaking to develop toolkits that pinpoint where Canada’s more than 200 freshwater fish species can be found and in what numbers.

Accurate information on the kinds of fish and their numbers in rivers and lakes, he said means improved environmental monitoring, assessments and fish management. He explained, “Fish are under water, thus hard to see directly. It takes a huge effort to set nets. So, when there are impacts, they are often invisible. With eDNA we can more easily detect such impacts and recoveries

Also on the agenda are plans to develop a method to chart how Canada’s freshwater species are faring under increasing, mostly human-induced, stress. Project partners from Atlantic Canada include the New Brunswick Energy and Resource Department (NB ERD) and the Nova Scotia Salmon Association.

Dr. Pavey’s role is to extend the Ontario-based, but Canada-wide research to Atlantic Canada.


The project aims to produce three sophisticated toolkits, one for fish surveillance, another for fish health and a third for decision making that essentially promotes the other two toolkits for widespread general use.

“We are helping with developing, lab testing, and field testing the Fish Survey Toolkit,” said Dr. Pavey. “Assays need to be separately developed for each species before they are put on the chip. My graduate students are doing this, focusing on fish important to Atlantic Canada. They are also collecting eDNA [environmental DNA] samples in the field that we are using to field validate our developed tools.”

The fish in this region, he said, “are important because they are in Atlantic Canada. They also have commercial fishing, recreational fishing and cultural importance.”

Dr. Pavey said, “Our lab is going to submit sequences for the first draft Fish Survey Toolkit in a month or so. We are focusing on 15 species important to Atlantic Canada. We expect to have several draft toolkits in year three of the grant and test them in real conditions, including rivers and lakes in New Brunswick. We will have finished products in two years.“

Interest in these products is expected to be strong, especially from the fish management and environmental sectors and from some industries too. Many of them have a need to monitor their environmental impacts on freshwater from such things as industrial effluent. “Current entities requesting my services include the federal and provincial governments, non-profits, first nations and private consulting,” he said.

The Fish Survey Toolkit, he said, will let users know whether any of the Canadian fish species included for identification on the toolkit chip is present in any particular lake or river, based on analyses of water samples collected from them.

For this project, Dr. Pavey’s lab has been working on identifying fish species from environmental DNA. He explained the process this way: “A water sample is taken from a waterbody. The water is filtered and cells from fish that were in that waterbody collect on the filter. We prepare the DNA so that we can use a chemical reaction to make copies of the segment of DNA that is unique to a single species. If the species’ specific reaction produces a product, we know that species was in the water body.”

Fish-Health Toolkit

“The Fish Health Toolkit,” he said, “is designed to answer what is causing fish to be sick or die. Is it high temperatures? Heavy metal toxicity? Etc. The latter would involve lethal sampling of the individuals in question and determining which ‘stress’ genes are turned on or upregulated to tell us the nature of the ailment.”

Dr. Pavey is certain the toolkits will bring more attention to conserving and sustaining the Atlantic region’s freshwater resources. “They absolutely will,” he said. “They will be a new tool that will allow high throughput testing.” That means high volume testing with quick results.

“We have partnered with DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and NB ERD and both organizations are very excited to use these tools. Because I’m involved with the grant, I will ensure that the tools are designed in a way it meets the needs of organizations in Atlantic Canada.”

Considering Canada has one-fifth of the earth’s freshwater resources, the need for these toolkits quickly becomes apparent.

Meanwhile the GEN-FISH project has sparked new ideas for exploration. “While GEN-FISH is primarily focused on presence/absence of species, we are experimenting with how to use similar techniques to estimate abundance,” he said.

Other Work at CRI Genomics

In other work at CRI Genomics, Dr. Pavey noted “the lab team has spent a lot of time focusing on fish such as Atlantic Cod, and looking at factors that could help their populations rebound.” Striped Bass, Bluefin Tuna and the American Eel are other species to which his team has given special attention. All these fish species are of concern under the Canadian Species at Risk Act. His team used DNA sampling from tissue to determine population interactions and environmental adaptations of these species.

His recent research on the American Eel with Dr. Louis Bernatchez at Laval University identified the genes responsible for the eels’ survival in freshwater and saltwater environments. Genetic analysis of the all-female eels in the Upper St. Lawrence River, showed they had unique adaptive genetic traits compared to counterparts reared in brackish or saltwater.

It was an important finding because that kind of knowledge can result in more nuanced fisheries management policies to protect habitat and migration routes of sub populations that need critical genetic consideration.

The considerable range of CRI Genomics’ capabilities, means Dr. Pavey’s eight-member team is kept busy, often by clients seeking customized services unavailable elsewhere in the region. The client list includes the NB Museum, Huntsman Marine Science Centre, Memorial University, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the University of Massachusetts and NovaEel, a Nova Scotia-based aquaculture start-up.

The lab can do genotype-by-sequencing, also known as GBS, to enable researchers to track down the genetic roots of observable traits such as size or colour in fish, for instance. It can also identify unique adaptations found in local fish species, employ sequence barcode regions in DNA to identify species in microbiomes or insect communities, and use the environmental DNA found in small tissues and cells suspended in the waters of lakes and rivers to identify species that inhabit them. In addition, the lab has the capacity to run simultaneous targeted resequencing of candidate genes from many individuals.

With these resources, Dr. Pavey has set himself an important agenda in preserving the biodiversity of Atlantic Canada’s freshwater fish.

Initiative sets its sights on complex gill disease in farmed salmon

For reasons unknown, farmed east coast Atlantic salmon have so far escaped the costly rise in complex gill disease (CGD) experienced in net pens on the west coast and as far away as Norway and Scotland.

“CGD does occur in the North Atlantic, and in quite severe cases in European salmon aquaculture operations, but it has not had the same severity in Atlantic Canada,” confirms Dr. Mark Fast, Professor of Fish Health and Immunology at the Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI).

Whether the east coast can remain largely unaffected by the disease is also an open question. However, a new research initiative, begun in August, is aimed at checking CGD nationally and sparing the east coast salmon industry the scale of the west coast problem.

As the academic project leader, Dr. Fast, and his long-time research collaborator, Dr. Matthew Rise, at the Department of Ocean Sciences, Memorial University, have joined forces with British Columbia-based industry, government and academic scientists on a three-year, $3.6 million Complex Gill Disease Initiative (CGDI) under the Genomic Applications Partnership Program of Genome Canada. The initiative is managed by Genome Atlantic, in partnership with Genome British Columbia.

Together the researchers are developing genomic tools to pinpoint the risk factors for CGD and help aquaculturists spot and manage it for better outcomes. At the moment there are no vaccines or therapeutics for CGD available.

Dr. Fast readily admits there is plenty of scientific mystery here to investigate. CGD is found only in farmed fish and shows up as “a range of gross and microscopic lesions” he said.

These lesions are associated with various environmental conditions as well as some fish attributes among other factors. Yet linking cause and effect remains murky. Dr. Fast says CGD is more of a syndrome than a disease, but whatever the label, costs are staggering, even though salmon with CGD is considered safe for human consumption.

Overall, sea mortalities, slowed fish growth, and delayed harvests due to CGD are estimated to be costing the Canadian industry at least 12,500 tonnes in lost annual production, valued at $130 million. Factoring in indirect losses, the figure rises to $250 million.

As for costs to this region’s salmon producers, Dr. Fast said, “There has been some impact on Atlantic Canada but we have not estimated this since it has been a greater concern in British Columbia for a longer period of time.”

Given the revenue at stake, Cermaq Canada, with salmon farms on the east and west coasts of Vancouver Island and Grieg Seafood, with British Columbia salmon operations and a site in development in Placentia Bay, N.L. are leading the charge on the CGDI. Cermaq Canada’s Fish Health Director, Dr. Kathleen Frisch, is the industry lead on the CGDI, while Grieg Seafood’s Director, Fish Health and R&D, Tim Hewison, is the co-lead. Cargill Canada is involved too as an industry partner.

Also on board are Dr. Colin Brauner from the University of British Columbia and Dr. Simon Jones from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Dr. Fast expects,” the genomic tools developed in the CGDI will assist in our understanding of gill health in general and could be applied to any gill issue of salmon and potentially other species.” Once risk factors for the disease are better known, he says, the disease will become easier to control, leading to fewer incidents of CGD and measures to prevent outbreaks.

He is optimistic too that “there are likely different therapies and or strategies that already exist to mitigate CGD impacts. For instance, identifying farm practices that contribute to the disease may allow these to be altered to reduce their contribution and there are gill health diets on the market, some of which we will be testing to determine their ability to help heal or resolve CGD.”

Before mitigation work can go ahead, though, Dr. Fast says, the team needs to chart the acute to chronic phases of the syndrome, in order to test various relief strategies throughout the course of the disease for efficacy.

The key aim of the initiative is to validate biomarkers to indicate when Atlantic salmon gills are healthy or compromised. Dr. Fast explains, “First we will be conducting a series of controlled lab experiments at U.B.C. and U.P.E.I. to develop histological and molecular markers associated with a number of different gill trauma events… Once we have found these robust markers from the lab we will test these same markers out in the field during CGD events on multiple farms in B.C. to validate their use during the different states of CGD in the field.”

Markers assigned to different stages of CGD will allow veterinarians to diagnose the syndrome and determine how far advanced it is. Once developed, the cellular and molecular markers can be tested for the proteins they produce when different fish feeds, developed for gill health, are trialed. Knowing the proteins being expressed, enables assessment of how well the feeds are working to treat the condition.

While European salmon producers have had an earlier start on trying to solve their CGD problem, their results are not necessarily transferrable. Dr. Fast said “while they have made some progress toward identifying contributing factors to CGD, they are still working on intervention strategies. The issue we have in Canada is that we do not know that we have the same contributing factors to CGD here, and we cannot treat it without knowing what is causing it.”

He added that it’s possible some European mitigation strategies may work in Canada. That possibility, he said, “is also why we are collaborating with Dr. Sam Martin, at the University of Aberdeen, and others to determine synergies to help the industry as a whole. It’s also possible that some of these strategies may be proprietary…so we will need to develop agreements to use and test these.”

Meanwhile, the initiative will also be building genomics research capacity for aquaculture at the Atlantic Veterinary College. Dr. Fast said the college has been able to purchase a multi-slide scanner to associate histological lesions, the hallmark of CGD, with biomarkers. The link will be made via high throughput image scanning and analysis, sharable with CGDI collaborators and others. A fish pathology resident has been hired under the initiative who will add new expertise to the university. Moreover, the sequencing pipelines and genomics collaborations developed with Memorial University during a previous GAPP-funded project are now being expanded to take on gill transcriptomes. Three post-doctoral fellows and student trainees hired for the initiative are expected to strengthen UPEI’s relationship with MUN and forge new ones with the University of British Columbia, the University of Connecticut and various universities in the United Kingdom.

Other key investigators for the CGDI are Dr. Rachel Balder, a Senior Scientist and Manager for the Nutrition Sciences group at Cargill Animal Nutrition, Elk River, MN; Dr. Simon Jones, Research Scientist, leader of the Marine Parasitology Program in Nanaimo, B.C. for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans; and Dr. Sonja Saksida, an aquatic epidemiologist at the Atlantic Veterinary College, UPEI.

Besides Cermaq, Grieg Seafood and Genome Canada, the CGDI collaborators include the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Cargill, and MITACS.

Cleaner fish R&D at Memorial University of Newfoundland helps spawn new industry


Newfoundland’s emerging cleaner fish industry to control sea lice infestations in Atlantic Canada’s farmed salmon has direct links with ongoing genomic research on lumpfish and cunner at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Department of Ocean Sciences.

Marbase Marystown Inc., also known as Marbase, the company building North America’s first lumpfish hatchery to anchor its aquaculture services hub at Marystown, N.L., acknowledges on its website the reason it settled on lumpfish, as its cleaner fish of choice. It was due in part, to “development work on lumpfish that has taken place at Memorial University’s Ocean Science Centre.” The OSC is home to North America’s leading cleaner fish R&D facility.

Paul Antle, Chairman and CEO of Marbase explained it this way: “Memorial University’s Ocean Science Centre has developed decades of data around lumpfish husbandry and is considered a critical library of research as we establish Canada’s first commercial lumpfish hatchery. The partnership between the OSC and Marbase is a key element of that commercialization program. Not only do we value the historical research, but the potential opportunities in further genomic research, as we grow out our facility and refine the genetic characteristics of the ideal lice-eating lumpfish.”

“Basically, cleaner fish are another tool in the tool box for the industry,” explains Danny Boyce, Facility and Business Manager of Memorial University’s Dr. Joe Brown Aquatic Research Building. He points out chemical therapeutants, mechanical delousing and sea lice skirts are also available options, for use alone or in some combination, to deal with sea lice, the widespread marine parasite now costing salmon producers up to $150 per tonne in estimated annual losses and treatments. In Canada last year that figure translated into an $18 million cost to producers. The parasite feeds on the mucus, blood and skin of salmon, with harmful or fatal results for the infected fish.

Industry interest and demand for cleaner fish – species like cunner and lumpfish that thrive on sea lice – is on the rise, as a biological and environmentally friendly component in the arsenal against the pest. The Marbase lumpfish hatchery expects to start with initial annual production of three million individuals and the potential to expand to five million.
Cleaner fish have already made their mark in farmed salmon operations in Norway, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Faroe Islands.

In the absence of a North American commercial lumpfish hatchery, Mr. Boyce’s facility has basically market tested the fish in Atlantic Canada by supplying relatively small-sized lumpfish on a limited basis to Cooke Aquaculture in Nova Scotia, Mowi Canada East in New Brunswick and Grieg Seafood in Newfoundland and Labrador. Demand has now outstripped the facility’s capacity for supply. Commercial sales were a sideline to its main focus of cleaner fish R&D purposes, under Memorial’s Department of Ocean Sciences Research Production Program.
Here is where the research team headed by Dr. Javier Santander, a marine microbiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Ocean Sciences at Memorial University has made its mark.

Working in partnership with Cold Ocean Salmon, a subsidiary of Cooke Aquaculture Inc., and with funding from Genome Canada, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Industry, Energy and Technology, the team has used lumpfish and cunner from the facility to sequence their genomes. It was an achievement made possible by Genome Atlantic’s participation in Genome Canada’s Regional Priorities Partnership Program.

Now sequencing data are available to evaluate the species’ characteristics for commercial cleaner fish deployment. “We already have the information for the development of several biomarkers that will impact broodstock selection, diet formulation, and fish health,” said Dr. Santander. “This will not only impact Marbase, but the entire cleaner fish industry,” he added.

Essentially the team’s research efforts are now directed at removing obstacles that have precluded wider use of cleaner fish in farmed salmon operations. One of the biggest challenges has been bacterial infection, but Dr. Santander said “we are very near,” to solving the lumpfish’s high susceptibility to Vibrio anguillarum, the bacterial pathogen most often found in lumpfish and the cause of vibrosis, a deadly haemorrhagic septicaemic disease.

“We have an effective vaccine that has been tested several times and soon will be evaluated in the field,” he said. Furthermore, he said, plans are afoot to develop a certified vaccine unit at Memorial University of Newfoundland to complete certification requirements for the formulation.

After evaluating commercial and experimental “in house” vaccines (designed in previous research) against Vibrio anguillarum, Dr. Santander said, “we determined that one of our preparations conferred superior protection.” His research group is now processing the data for transcriptomic profiling of the lumpfish response to the effective immunization.

The team is also working on vaccines for other bacterial pathogens such as Aeromonas salmonicida, which produces furunculosis, and Piscirickettsia salmonis, a cause of significant farmed salmon mortality.

The team has published a series of discoveries from these pursuits. In July this year, the group revealed how feed-based immunization of lumpfish larvae and juveniles against Vibrio anguillarum was found to be less effective than vaccine injected through the abdominal cavity.

They also isolated a new marine pathogen, Pseudomonas sp. from wild cunner and described its genetic makeup in a paper published in April. The achievement was significant because bacterial diseases, due to natural infections in cunner, have yet to be described.

While scientific investigations and commercial interests have largely homed in on lumpish, the possibilities of cunner remain of interest. There are marked differences between the two species, but as cleaner fish, both have commercial advantages.

Mr. Boyce noted, “lumpfish are very active and like cooler waters, less than 14 degrees C, while cunner love warm waters but go torpid in the winter months. They just hunker down.”

Lumpfish are also faster growing. He said, “A 20-gram lumpfish can be produced in less than a year – six to seven months – whereas a cunner is slow growing and it starts out as a really small egg and has a very difficult larval phase with a low survival rate. So biologically, it’s a much harder species to raise than a lumpfish” said Mr. Boyce.

Still, Dr. Santander points out, “utilization of both species as cleaner fish is the ideal goal.” He said, “cunner are utilized by our industrial partners, but their domestication has not been completed.”

Pursuit of that objective suggests plenty of scope for further cleaner fish research at Memorial and lots of added commercial potential to come.

A new balsam fir on the path to Christmas stardom

🎶🎤O Christmas tree O Christmas tree How lovely are thy branches!

That German carol could be singing the praises of SMART balsam fir, a new balsam fir variety inching up in 12 Nova Scotia test sites and destined for stardom in Christmases to come.

The SMART seedlings, developed in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University, are expected to be a game changer for the region’s Christmas tree industry and put a lot more money in growers’ pockets. The industry in Nova Scotia is now worth an estimated $55 million annually, factoring in the complete supply chain.

Jim DeLong, president of the SMART Christmas Tree Research Cooperative Ltd., set up to help finance the research and commercialization effort, says, “with naturally occurring Christmas trees, you have 10 percent premium grade trees, and we’re looking at 80-90 per cent premium grade trees with the SMART tree seedlings.” Last year, on average, premium trees sold for $72 USD each.

Although SMART seedlings are not yet commercially available, they are attracting plenty of grower interest.

For now, the SMART seedlings remain in the field trial research phase, while cloning, through somatic embryogenesis, a particularly complicated process with balsam fir, proceeds apace at Phytocultures Ltd., Clyde River, P.E.I. to get the numbers up to meet anticipated grower demand. Somatic embryogenesis reproduces exact copies or clones of plants through an asexual process that relies on a single somatic cell.

These newly developed trees are following a path to commercialization set out by Greg Adams of GWA and Applied Biosciences Consulting, of Sussex, N.B., a forestry consultant hired with funding from Genome Atlantic’s Genomics Opportunity Review Program (GORP) to take SMART balsam fir to the next level.

Executive Director of the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia Angus Bonnyman said, “thanks to the work that the consultant did, through the money from Genome Atlantic, along with money from the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia, we think we have the right clones.”

SMART is an acronym for senescence modulated abscission regulating technology, developed by Dr. Rajasekaran Lada, founding director of the former Christmas Tree Research Centre, Truro, and Professor Emeritus, Department of Plant Food and Environmental Sciences, Dalhousie University.

Dr. Lada and his team developed 90 original genetic lines, or varieties, of SMART balsam, by selectively breeding for desired characteristics that are naturally occurring. Some of the resulting genetic lines were planted in Dalhousie’s Plumdale Orchard at the Agriculture Campus in Bible Hill and in three other sites in Nova Scotia. Not all of the lines made it to the cloning stage and for those that did, advanced testing was needed to determine which ones perform best in which soils and conditions, and the most promising lines had to be cloned in sufficient numbers for growers to buy. Those gaps are now being filled.

Jay Woodworth, Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc.’s Christmas Tree specialist, who oversees the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia’s (CTCNS’S) research program, says for Phytocultures to produce clones via somatic embryogenesis, “selected genetic lines slated for cloning have to be removed from cryo-storage, and are encouraged to form an embryo, so that a germinate, or tiny tree, is produced within a petri dish.”

However, this procedure hasn’t been all smooth sailing. She said, “each individual line takes a little bit of tweaking to get it to grow up to the best of its ability in the lab setting.” As a result, she indicated, “only some of the lines have gone through the process to become trees, and even less of those have been planted out in the field setting to be tested in external conditions.” Before they reach the field, clones from Phytocultures spend about a year in the nursery at Scott & Stewart Forestry Consultants Ltd., Antigonish.

“We’re trying to focus now on which lines are the easiest to grow and which ones perform the best, once planted out in their intended environments,” explained Ms. Woodworth. So far, clones from more than 30 lines have been selected for field trials and have been performing well across Nova Scotia.

The first of 360 seedlings from the selected clone lines were planted in the fall of 2020 as part of a SMART tree three-year field evaluation, funded through the Canadian Agriculture Partnerships’ Crop & Livestock Management Trials program.

Phytocultures Laboratory supplied most of the seedlings with the remainder coming from Dalhousie University’s inventory. Nine evaluation sites were established, three in each of Nova Scotia’s active Christmas tree regions: Southwestern, Northeastern and Cobequid.

Each site has 44 trees planted across four rows in six-foot by six-foot spacing. Four control seedlings, conventionally produced and provided by Scott & Stewart Forestry Consultants were also included at each site for comparison purposes. The seedlings were tagged, pinpointed with GPS accuracy, and are seasonally evaluated.

Pre-dating that effort, and while SMART trees were in development at Dalhousie, select lines were field planted in more informal trials in 2015, and some of them are now four to five feet in height. These initial seedlings were incorporated nto the new rigorous evaluation process implemented in 2020 and they too are now tagged and GPS mapped. A total of 446 of these initial seedlings are growing in three Nova Scotia sites: St. Andrews, Onslow Mountain, and New Germany.

The latter site is on Mr. DeLong’s property where he devotes 1,200 acres of his mixed farming operation to Christmas trees. A third-generation Christmas tree grower with one of the bigger operations in Nova Scotia, he said his 115 SMART seedlings were interplanted with his other trees. Roughly 12 clone lines are believed to be represented in the mix.

All the SMART trees are being monitored for quality characteristics such as growth, flush date, colour, budding, needle length etc. Additional test sites are planned as more seedlings become available and more trials are required.

Early results are encouraging. Ms. Woodworth said, “one thing we’re really excited about is that all of these trees, regardless of what line they are from, are late flushers.” That means their buds break late in spring, making them less susceptible to late frosts, an important consideration in an era of climate change.

Memorable for Mr. Bonnyman is the spring of 2018, “when we had an unseasonably late frost and a freeze in Nova Scotia. A lot of the new growth in our Christmas trees were impacted by cold.” He anticipates SMART balsam fir will insulate the industry against incidents like that, which could become more frequent as climate change takes hold.

Describing the distinctive qualities of SMART trees, Mr. DeLong said “I would just say it’s superior characteristics.”

For consumers, that means SMART trees will offer superior shape, longer needle retention, and great balsam fir colour and aroma. Their improved insect and disease resistance bring added attractions for growers, as does the tree’s architecture which promises far less manual shearing. Still, the biggest bonus all round may be longer needle retention.

As Ms. Woodworth explained, “we’ve been cutting trees for export since the last week of September, so if you think of it, those trees need to last for Christmas. They have to be good at holding onto their needles.” Ninety per cent of Nova Scotia’s Christmas trees are sold outside the province. Half of them are shipped to other parts of Canada and the rest are exported, mainly to the United States, but also to countries as far away as Saudi Arabia and Panama.

SMART trees’ profit potential may also help rejuvenate the Nova Scotia industry with new recruits, who so far have failed to replace the number of producers, mainly an older demographic, who have left or are leaving to retire. According to Mr. Bonnyman, the province now has 350 active growers.

Most importantly, SMART trees represent a potential boost for the Maritimes’ hard-hit rural economy. “It’s quite a privilege to still make a living in rural Nova Scotia and to be part of the Christmas celebration,” acknowledged Mr. DeLong. “So, if you can plant some seedlings that can return you 80-90 per cent premium trees instead of 10 per cent premium trees,” he said, “that’s a big return on investment.”