With most arable land already in use, weather patterns becoming more unpredictable and extreme, and an emerging conflict between land use for food and energy, offshore aquaculture and associated technologies can be a game changer for food security.
The global aquaculture industry is set to continue its strong growth into the next decades but is challenged by scarcity of sustainable fish feed, high-risk operations, environmental loads and disease outbreaks. New technology is being developed to handle these issues. They include:
- Innovative formulated feed
New protein sources, for both non-carnivorous and carnivorous fish will allow the aquaculture industry to grow more sustainably. Examples of new protein sources include sugarcane waste converted to oil by microalgae, insects and bacterial protein made from natural gas. New feed is required as the traditional sources of fish oil and fish meal are diminishing, with more species going directly to human consumption and less volumes being fished.1
This will minimize the requirement for people in high-risk operations and enable remote control. One application is the shift from on-site to a more off-site feeding control regime, where the operator is located on a nearby feed barge or onshore. This approach reduces the potential for safety-related incidents, especially during harsh weather conditions. Currently we see the introduction of autonomous Remote Operated Vehicles (ROV), operating inside the cage to ensure net integrity and perform net cleaning.2 Towards 2030 we will see the use of more sensors, technologies to monitor fish health, and technologies for counting and treating lice on salmon.
- Integrated multitrophic solutions aquaculture.
This means that a local ecosystem is created that can maximize use of valuable input resources and minimize unwanted environmental impacts. This requires more complex setups than traditional aquaculture and combines farming of complementary organisms at different levels in the food chain, with waste from one species acting as a food source for another.3 One example of such an integrated production setup could include Atlantic salmon (open cage), combined with kelp (inorganic nutrient uptake), and scallops (organic filter feeder). This recycling of nutrients reduces the waste products in the marine environment, including the ocean floor. However, due to high costs, it does not seem likely that these setups will be installed at scale in offshore waters in the next decade.
- Digital twins for farmed fish.
This refers to computer simulations of key processes such as the metabolic system, in the salmon body that let you critically assess how feed and environmental factors affect salmon biology. By integrating the wealth of data for a systems-based understanding of the fish, one can build a shared knowledge base that is continually improving and growing in predictive power for faster and better response to for example fish health challenges. This development is still in the research stage, but we believe this will start to be implemented in the aquaculture industry over the course of the coming decade.4
Additional technologies provide new growth opportunities for the industry:
- Offshore fish farming
Technical solutions are being developed to move fish farms offshore to more exposed areas with harsher environmental conditions. The fish farm shall still cater for the generic tasks such as; transport and transfer of fish; feed delivery, feeding; biomass control; fish health monitoring; water quality monitoring; asset integrity; limit effect on surrounding environment; treatment of diseases and parasites; removal of dead fish; and removal and transport of fish slaughter. This means that the fish farm should be designed to handle the increased wave heights, larger environmental loads, larger currents, loads from larger vessels, and more complex logistics. In addition, the fish welfare must be maintained in the more challenging environmental conditions. Therefore, the units will be larger and more capital intensive compared to conventional fish farms with a more challenging logistics chain and a tighter weather window for access to the installations. Innovations in this area benefit from learnings from the shipping and offshore oil and gas sectors. The drivers for moving towards farming in more exposed areas or further offshore, are coastal/inshore area competition, the need to reduce environmental loads from farming, and the wish to increase distance between sites to limit exposure to diseases and parasites from neighbouring farms. Aquaculture in exposed marine and offshore areas restricts the range of potentially farmable organisms.1 Some early movers have started fish farming in rougher areas offshore, representing the first steps towards the next-generation aquaculture and we expect an increased deployment towards 2030.
- Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS)
This will be a game changer for some parts of the aquaculture industry. Firstly, the technology makes it possible to grow fish in places where water scarcity is presently a limiting factor. Secondly, with RAS you can grow larger fish in tanks – and, ultimately, establishing a full-growth cycle.5 A series of treatment processes is utilized to maintain water quality. After leaving the vessel holding fish the water is first treated for solids before entering a biofilter to convert ammonia, next degassing and oxygenation occur, often followed by heating/cooling and sterilization. Each of these processes can be completed by using a variety of different methods and equipment, but regardless all must take place to ensure a healthy environment that maximizes fish growth and health. High upfront investment in materials and infrastructure as well as high operating cost costs due to electricity and system maintenance has held back the development. RAS installations can be delivered as turn-key installations, with the possibility of adjusting production capacity by adding modules. RAS technology can also be used to produce fish close to key markets. Therefor we will probably see an increased roll-out during the coming decade, benefitting both onshore and offshore aquaculture growth. However, there are many hazards that need to be controlled, such as animal welfare, persistent infective diseases and water quality.
The bulk of aquaculture production occurs in Asia, with China the dominant country (60% of global production) for both freshwater and marine aquaculture.. According to an outlook by OECD and FAO, aquaculture production will grow from around 80 million tonnes in 2017 to between 102-105 million tonnes in 20276, making it the fastest growing food producing sector.
Recent studies have highlighted the vast potential for food production in offshore areas. Most coastal countries could develop domestic marine aquaculture markets that would meet the full seafood consumption requirements of their population. For example, should Indonesia utilize 1% of its ocean area for fish farming, it could increase the fish consumption of its population six-fold.Risks and uncertainties
While the technology developments described here are responses to risk elements in the industry, new technology is also introducing new risk elements through bigger sites and more complex systems.
The regulation of aquaculture is also complex. Regional planning, spatial planning, industrial development, and environmental issues are directly linked to usage and maintenance of areas. Beyond zoning considerations, public regulation also includes requirements that such operations address concerns with environmental issues, work safety, fish welfare, and production volumes. Without visionary and committed national administrations, growth potential will be hampered.1Contributors
Main author: Erik Andreas Hektor
Contributors: Marte Rusten; Sharmini Alagaratnam; Bente Pretlove
Editor: Per Busk Christiansen
- DNV GL (2018): Aquaculture going offshore, Position paper
- EXPOSED: Description of project 2.
- Government of Canada: Integrated Multi-trophic aquaculture, modified 2016;
- DigiSal (2019): Towards the Digital Salmon: From a reactive to pre-emptive research strategy in aquaculture.
- OECD/FAO (2018): OECD-FAO AGRICULTURAL OUTLOOK 2018-2027
- Gentry et al: Mapping the global potential for aquaculture. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1-2017.