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The Need for Innovation in Aquaculture

By Prof. Lars Johanning, University of Exeter: Lead Partner for Marine-i

“We must plant the sea and herd its animals, using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about—farming replacing hunting.”  - Jacques Cousteau

In the 40 years since Jacques Costeau made the above statement, there have been massive advances in the science of aquaculture. The size of the industry has expanded 14-fold, to the point where it is now the fastest growing sector of worldwide food production. For example, nearly half of all fish and shellfish consumed around the globe are now farmed rather than ‘hunted.’ And these advances are much needed…

The United Nations Population Division estimates a current world population of 6.14 billion. They forecast that this will grow by 60% over the next 30 years, reaching 9.74 billion people by 2050. If our planet is to feed these extra 3.6 billion mouths, radical thinking will be needed in all aspects of food production – and our oceans have a crucial role to play in this.

One of the huge advantages of farmed fish over land-based livestock is that they need much fewer calories to grow to their optimum weight. It takes approximately one pound of feed to produce one pound of farmed fish – compared to seven pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef.

However, while there is enormous potential for aquaculture to produce high volumes of food cost-effectively, there are many questions to be solved if we are to produce high quality food in a way that is truly sustainable and protects the overall health of our oceans. 

Here are some of the ways in which science and industry are working together to solve these challenges:

1. Aquaculture moves offshore

By utilising open seas with faster currents, fish farms and other aquaculture sites can expand their operations while causing less accumulation of effluents and sediments. At the same time, operating in cleaner seas can improve the quality and reliability of the harvest. However, there is a high capital cost involved in scaling up for offshore operations, and the technology needed to run them is expensive. More innovation is needed in this area, as well as the construction and siting of sea cages, in order to make offshoring a more attractive proposition for investors.

2. Plant-based foodstuffs

The cultivation of aquatic plants is an important growth area. Farmed crops such as kelp can have a variety of uses, providing food for fish farms as well as food for human consumption. Kelp can also be processed into algae oil, which is a valuable dietary supplement for farmed fish. Many ecosystems can benefit from an increased presence of kelp in the oceans due to its nutritional content. The Marine-i project is currently providing support to Supernaturehuman Ltd, a business which is investigating the development of large scale farms for growing seaweed for food.

3. Growing healthier fish

Disease is one of the most devastating threats to fish farming. The range of technologies available for disease prevention in aquaculture is currently very limited compared to land-based agriculture. For example, salmon do not suffer from sea-lice when they are in fresh water, but most farmed salmon are grown in salt water where these parasites can proliferate. New solutions to this problem are needed – and ones which do not cause pollution to the marine environment. Where fish need to be vaccinated against common diseases, it is still standard practise to inject each individual fish, which causes significant stress to the animal. New solutions being investigated include the oral delivery of vaccines, such as micro-capsules which can be safely added to their feed. 

4. ROVs designed for aquaculture

The growth in aquaculture is prompting the development of a new breed of ROV which can be used to help manage and monitor complex fish farming operations. In Canada, Deep Trekker Ltd have created a range of specialist ROVs which operate as portable, easy to use underwater inspection tools. The remote control allows accurate movement of the ROV with a live camera feed that is displayed to the user. These also have a range of specialist add-on tools, such as retrieval systems for dead fish, side-facing cameras to inspect the pens for any damage, and grabbers to collect water and sediment samples for environmental monitoring.

5. New sensor technology

Water quality has a huge impact on the success or failure of any aquaculture operation. Very high (greater than 9.5) or very low (less than 4.5) pH values are unsuitable for most aquatic organisms. Despite its importance, pH sensing technology has changed very little in decades. Furthermore, the expensive and fragile glass electrodes need to be manually calibrated on a regular basis, and do not operate in low buffer media. Cambridge-based ANB Sensors is one company that is tackling this issue directly, with the development of smart, affordable, self-calibrating pH sensing technologies. Over the next ten years, we can expect more companies to innovate with new sensor technologies that are geared to the specific needs of the aquaculture industry.

6. AI and automation

AI-based systems can bring many important benefits for aquaculture operations. A prime example is the control and management of fish feeding systems. Feeds are the biggest single cost for fish farmers and therefore a major driver of profitability. However, in the past feeding has often been based on previous experience and observation of the livestock, this requiring operators to be on site at all times. Now there are systems which use sensors to analyse hunger patterns in fish and automatically control food dispensers so that the right amount of feed is released at the right time. This significantly reduces feed costs while avoiding harm to the fish through accidental over-feeding. It also means that fewer staff are needed to manage large aquaculture operations. Other areas where AI and automation can play a role include disease prevention, pollution detection, optimising the timing of harvests, and more accurate forecasting of market demand and pricing. 

Meeting the many challenges involved in achieving the full potential of aquaculture is creating valuable opportunities for new products and services developed by innovative marinetech businesses. If your business is operating in this field, or if it is an area that you are considering diversifying into, then speak to the team at Marine-i. We can accelerate your RD&I with a comprehensive package of support, including research input from some of the world’s leading experts in marine technology and access to a range of leading-edge test facilities.

On 12th November 2020, the Marine-i team hosted a webinar looking at the technology challenges and opportunities for Aquaculture, with a particular focus on future large scale offshore developments.  This attracted delegates from around the world. A full video of the event and presentation slides can be seen here.

Photo credit: Ben Wicks on Unsplash