Scaling Up: Aquaculture Innovation Promises to Net a Bigger Catch

As the need for sustainable global aquaculture rises, technology provides the insights farmers need to make more informed decisions.

By Ian Ransom

Every good fisherman knows patience is a virtue when dropping a line. The same can be said for innovation in fish farming, as technologists strive to transform an age-old industry by digital means.

Aquaculture—the farming of fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and aquatic plants—is believed to have begun over 3,000 years ago in China with the production of carp. Yet with wild stocks at a breaking point amid soaring demand for protein, the industry is now embracing technology to net a bigger catch, turning to data and artificial intelligence to boost yields.

Global aquaculture, valued at $285 billion in 2019, now produces more fish than wild-caught stock, and by 2030 is expected to account for two-thirds of human consumption. Increasing farmed stock via sustainable means has therefore become paramount.

Technology is providing answers, ranging from improvements in feed quality to the production of intelligent sensors that allow farmers to make more informed decisions than simply relying on experience and gut instinct.

“Current wild stocks are being depleted around the world and are not going to be enough to feed the world in the long term,” says Rafi Cordero, VP of engineering at U.S.-based aquaculture technology firm Innovasea. “Fish farming is the answer and the technology drivers are coming from all sides.”

“Current wild stocks are being depleted around the world and are not going to be enough to feed the world in the long term. Fish farming is the answer and the technology drivers are coming from all sides.”

–Rafi Cordero, VP of engineering, Innovasea

A Deeper Dive Into Ocean Farming

Aquaculture has long been associated with freshwater ponds on land and shallow salt-water farms that cling to the shoreline, but Innovasea is among a slew of firms looking to unlock the potential of the high seas. The aquatech firm has developed large-scale submersible “pens” for the open ocean that are capable of nurturing thousands of tons of fish per year and are robust enough to withstand severe weather events. The pens have been deployed in marine farms off Panama and Mexico.

Anchored to the sea-bed and equipped with wireless sensors that monitor water quality, these pens offer a healthier environment for fish that are liable to pollute shallow waters with their excrement and often suffer die-offs from algae blooms or sea lice. Being submersible, the pens can be lowered into deeper waters which are better oxygenated and less susceptible to parasites that concentrate at shallow depths.

Testing the Waters With Wireless Sensors

Fish farming is invariably a fickle business, and open water pens can possess very different biochemical profiles to other pens that are only a few hundred meters away. Submersible sensors that provide real-time data on oxygen levels, salinity, and other measures of environmental health are now helping farmers make adjustments to optimize the growth of their harvests.

The sensors are likely to become increasingly vital as regulators demand real-time data on water quality as a prerequisite for farming permits. Chile, one of the world’s major salmon farmers, has ordered operators to install real-time monitors in and around ocean-borne pens and transmit data immediately to government agencies.

“It could be the wave of the future in terms of government monitoring to make sure operators are complying with environmental regulations,” says Cordero.

“[Underwater sensors] could be the wave of the future in terms of government monitoring to make sure operators are complying with environmental regulations.”


Leaving a Smaller Footprint With Sustainable Feed

Despite a positive growth outlook for aquaculture, small-scale farmers, particularly, often battle thin margins, making cost control a major priority. With fish feed regularly accounting for 40 percent of operators’ costs, some aquatech firms are focusing on finding cheaper and more sustainable ways of nurturing stock.

Most aquaculture relies on large amounts of wild-caught fish, such as anchovies and sardines, which are turned into fishmeal and fish oil. However, these so-called “forage fish” species play a significant role in marine ecosystems by providing feed for birds, larger fish, and marine mammals. Finding alternative ingredients is vital to protect wild stocks of forage fish species, which have been under strain for decades. Soy has long been used as a replacement protein for fishmeal, but producing more soy may leave a carbon footprint if the land is cleared for crops.

Silicon Valley-based biotech firm Calysta has produced protein-rich feed through the fermentation of natural gas. Its product FeedKind has been successfully tested on salmon and trout, and is currently being trialed on species of shrimp. In a joint venture with global animal feed giant Adisseo, Calysta is building a plant in central China expected to produce 20,000 tonnes of Feedkind to supply Asian markets in its first phase by 2022.

Insects are also becoming more widely recognized as a viable form of sustainable fish feed. British insect-farming startup Entocycle, which produces animal feed from black soldier flies raised on local food waste, was awarded a 10 million pound government grant in October 2020 to build a commercial-scale factory outside London.

Climate Change Leading to More Treacherous Waters

While aquaculture production is expected to grow steadily in the coming decades, the industry still faces a number of challenges. Startup costs to build sustainable farms are high and regulators are often wary of perceived threats to local fishing industries and tourism. Climate change is also throwing unprecedented curveballs at operators. The oceans are getting warmer, crimping oxygen levels and triggering algae blooms in waters where they were previously unrecorded. Changes in temperature can alter the feeding behavior of fish. Trout, for example, stop eating in warm waters to conserve energy and become susceptible to starvation. Technology may offer answers to some of the problems, but consensus is required between industry, regulators, and environmental groups to ensure aquaculture is sustainable over the long term.

“There has to be a dialogue with all stakeholders to get to a point where people can agree what farmed fish can be in specific regions,” says Cordero.

“In order to make the industry globally sustainable, there has to be a number of advancements and a lot of cooperation with governments,” he continues. “People’s perceptions need to continue to evolve.”

Feature image by Rigel/Unsplash