Status and Innovation in the Aquaculture industry

Status of the Marine Fish Farming Industry Worldwide

Aquaculture is in a phase of rapid expansion around the globe and, within decades, may take over from wild fisheries as the leading supplier of seafood (Goldberg & Naylor 2005). Of the total global seafood production in 2003 of 146 mt, aquaculture supplied 37% (55 mt, FAO 2005a). As the fastest growing food producing sector, aquaculture has gathered a reputation as a significant contributor to world food supplies and income generation. At the same time, some forms of production have caused negative environmental and socio-economic impacts (Subasinghe 2003).

Culture of marine fish is a valuable and rapidly growing component of the international seafood industry. Over the past decade, production levels of marine fish have tripled from 686 000 t in 1993 to 2.7 mt in 2003. Marine fish now represent 4.9% of total aquaculture production in biomass but contribute 14.4% of the value (9.7 of a total $US 67.3 billion in 2003; FAO 2005b).

Thousands of on-growing farms exist in coastal waters around the world and culture a wide variety of species. Culture of salmonids contributes to approximately half of the total production (1.44 mt worth $US 4.3 billion in 2003), principally in northern Europe, Chile and North America (FAO 2005b). For example, sea-based culture of salmon and sea trout is of particular importance to Norway, which produced 627 000 t worth NOK 11.1 billion in 2004 (Norwegian Fisheries Directorate 2004). Significant marine fish farming industries also exist throughout the Mediterranean (sea bass, sea bream, tuna, >20 species under trial), China (>20 species), Japan (red sea bream, kingfish) and Australia (tuna, salmon, barramundi) and produce 1.25 mt of fish each year worth $US 5.4 billion (FAO 2005b).

The downstream economic and social effects of marine fish farming are considerable. Norway, which has a long history of marine aquaculture, is a case in point. In 2003, aquaculture was responsible for 2500 jobs within the industry and 10000 jobs in associated industries which provided products and services worth NOK 10.3 billion directly to Norwegian aquaculture (Sandberg et al. 2005). The equipment and technology industry provided approximately NOK 1 billion worth of products and services to on-growing farms. On top of the economic importance of supply to the domestic market, Norwegian manufacturers of cages, nets, feeders and other technologies are leading suppliers to farms world-wide.

Problems, opportunities and challenges of marine fish farming

The on-growing phase of marine fish farming involves the greatest problems and uncertainties for production. Once a farm is in place, the farmer has input control over basic parameters such as fish stocking densities and feed input, but has limited control over the variable environmental conditions the farm experiences (e.g. wave and current climate, water quality, oxygen levels) and the behaviour of the fish within the cages (e.g. food consumption levels). These variables greatly affect growth and welfare of the fish and the overall efficiency of production. Technologies that provide better control of these variables will greatly improve the success of grow out operations.

The use of fish feed involves the greatest cost in the on-growing of marine fish, both economic and environmental. Future expansion of marine fish farming is also likely to be restricted by supply limitations of the fish oils and meals incorporated in aquaculture feeds. The challenge to reduce reliance on wild fish for input into feeds can be met by: 1) creating feeds based on alternate non-fish protein sources, 2) by improving technologies to ensure that every pellet produced is delivered into a cultured fish, and 3) by optimising the on-growing environment so that high growth rates are achieved with minimal input of food. CREATE will focus on the second and third alternatives.

Rapid expansion of aquaculture throughout the world’s coastal zone has on occasion caused economic, social and environmental problems (Black 2001). Of chief concern, marine fish farming has been linked to negative ecological impacts caused by pollution, escapes, and the spread of disease. For aquaculture to provide a high quality protein source to the majority of the world’s population and help to reduce mankind’s impact on wild fish stocks, it must evolve into an industry with a healthy ‘triple bottom line’; a fully economically viable, and socially and environmentally sustainable industry must develop.

On-growing technologies suited to the behavioural and physiological requirements of particular species to ensure rapid growth, good welfare and economically profitable production will be in demand by farmers. Although the salmon industry may be considered an economic success, seafood consumers have legitimate concerns related to fish welfare challenges, food safety and ethics (FSBI 2002, Anon 2005).  An average loss of 18-22 % by number during on-growth in the Norwegian salmon industry (Aunsmo, 2005) strongly suggests that the industry would gain by integrating knowledge on fish biology and welfare into development of new technology and farm management for both salmonids and other species.

Today, much of the innovation of technology is focussed on salmonids, which dominate production of marine fish species. While salmon provide a solid platform to work from, many aspects of equipment designed for salmon on-growing may be unsuitable for other species. For example, nets used to house salmon are not suited to keeping cod. A wide variety of new marinefish species are being developed for both cold-water and tropical environments. The industrialization of these species into substantial industries will create new equipment and technology markets. If Norwegian manufacturers are to be competitive in accessing these new markets, products must be more specifically tailored to the requirements of each species.

 Two current trends within the industry are likely to increase in the coming decades; both relate to increased industrialization of on-growing systems. The size and production quantity of individual farms is growing and the complexity of production systems is increasing (Sunde et al. 2003). Biomasses of up to 4000 t of salmon can be concentrated at one farm over less than a hectare. This entails major new challenges in terms of operations, handling, equipment, mooring technologies, feeding and management of environmental effects. Due to human limitations and high personnel costs, technical solutions have to be developed.

Competition with other users of coastal space will be a strong force in shaping the development of aquaculture in many areas (Staresinic & Popović 2004). Unless grow-out systems are developed that reduce negative interactions with other coastal users, growth in sea-based fish farming could stagnate. For example, the increasing number of tourists visiting the Mediterranean coastline will amplify the current high level of pressure being exerted on many fish farms in the region to reduce their visual presence close to the coast by either shifting offshore or submerging. Within Norway, a shift towards localising farms in more high-energy coastal sites is already underway, largely to provide better culture conditions for the fish and partially in response to environmental concerns and coastal use conflict (e.g. designation of National Salmon Fjords that prohibit salmon farming within their confines). The recent high number of escapes from coastal facilities highlights that different technologies may be required for these more exposed locations.

Globally, farm installations and technologies capable of operating profitably at truly open ocean locations are a clear focus for development in many regions that lack indented coastlines. For example, the U.S. Government plans to develop an open ocean aquaculture industry worth $U.S. 5 billion by 2025 (NOAA 2005). Open ocean operations may provide production advantages through improved culture conditions and reduce the severity of environmental impacts (e.g. pollution and escape). Regardless of whether production in Norway moves offshore or not, technology suppliers must develop offshore and submerged technologies if they wish to compete in this future international market.

Technology status

The Norwegian fish farming industry has been the chief developer of modern marine aquaculture, both in Norway and internationally. This has been achieved through a mutual symbiosis with Norwegian suppliers of systems and equipment. Since the 1960s, intensive development and mechanization of the sea-based fish farming has occurred. Today, advances in technology coupled with improvements in design that yield more productive operations have significantly increased the practice of cage culture (CSN-INTRAN 2004).

 A standard net cage is at present 120 m in circumference with a volume of more than 20000 m3 and typically contains 50000-100000 fish. Farms are often organized in systems of 6-10 cages. This contrasts starkly to the early wooden cages that had volumes of less than 1000 m3 and contained a few thousand fish. As net cage sizes have increased improvements have been made in strength and durability and new materials, like Dynema, have been introduced (Moe et al. 2005). Feeding has also developed from hand delivery of waste fish to the use of large feed barges with automatic distribution of feed pellets. These advances have reduced the average biological feed conversion factor from 3 to approximately 1.2 and the biomass production per employee has increased from 50 t in 1992 to 340 t in 2004 (Fauske 2005). Today, there is no other form of animal food production where such a high biomass is gathered in such a small area. The increase in farm size and production capability is largely due to developments in technology, management practice and extruded feed. In most respects, industrialization has been driven by the Norwegian fish farming cluster.

In recent years, there has been a large effort to develop cage systems appropriate for open ocean fish farming. Several concepts have been proposed, including submergible, semi-submergible, rigid steel truss work constructions and various combinations. Common to most systems is that while they withstand the physical loads, they are costly and difficult to operate. Problems with standard operations such as net cleaning and handling fish are common (Rice 2005). A modern fish farm for the open sea must withstand physical forces, be easy to operate, ensure proper fish welfare, and minimise environmental impact.

Research based innovation possibilities

In a recent foresight analysis of the potential development of the Norwegian aquaculture industry until 2020, the Norwegian Research Council (2004) identified a clear need ‘for innovation to enhance competitiveness … and to give impetus to innovation initiatives in which the companies and the industry choose to invest.’ CREATE will be a mechanism to link research and commercial interests within the same context.

 The Norwegian suppliers have managed to be world leaders in supplying advanced systems for industrial marine aquaculture in the international market, and several have their main market outside Norway in countries like the USA, Canada and Chile. The five companies that CREATE will bring together are leaders in their respective fields and are known for their innovation. Together, they produce equipment and technology which span the entire range used in on-growing marine fish farms. A holistic approach to developing technologies will enable greater connectivity between farm components, which is increasingly being demanded by farm operators. CREATE will enable a continuous investment in developing knowledge to underlie technologies that address important long-term issues fundamental to the successful development of on-growing systems.

The centre will also be a means of turning basic research from the Centre of Ships and Ocean Structures into applied research and products among the industry partners. CeSOS will increasingly engage in basic research tasks that are relevant for aquaculture structures. While CREATE will focus on research-based industrialization, the activity in CeSOS is more directed towards basic research. However, basic research benefits from inspiration derived from contact with industrial research and innovation. The interaction of these two organisations will generate a significant synergistic effect in research. An important issue in this connection is for CeSOS to contribute to the transfer of offshore technology to the aquaculture industry. At the same time, we expect that the aquaculture technology developed over the coming years will be transferable to other new uses of the oceans.

Through the partnership of industry stakeholders, universities and research institutes, CREATE will gather the scientific and industrial competence needed to develop aquaculture technology for the coming decades.


Published July 2, 2007