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More than half of all fish and seafood consumed globally comes from aquaculture. This industry, which refers to farming aquatic organisms in a controlled environment (in streams, basins, rivers or off the coast), has grown significantly. “Each year, aquaculture generates more than 100 million tonnes of products,” said Tore Tonseth, analyst at Sparebank 1, who follows the industry.
Some of the species raised in this way include salmon, tilapia, trout, sea bass, shrimp, scallops and oysters, as well as some types of algae. “Approximately 90% of production takes place on small family farms made up of a series of basic ponds. Salmon is the only species farmed in an industrial manner, mainly in Norway and Chile.”
Aquaculture is doing so well as a result of increased demand for fish and seafood, which reflects the emergence of a middle class in developing countries “Consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of their food,” said Tonseth. “Additionally, fish and seafood provide a far more efficient source of protein, environmentally speaking, than beef or other types of meat.” This is coupled with a significant decrease in high seas fish stocks because of overfishing.
But aquaculture has its fair share of ecological challenges. Organic waste produced by fish and seafood, as well as the large quantities of antibiotics they are fed, pollute the oceans. In the same vein, the construction of shrimp farms along coastlines destroyed huge regions of mangrove trees in Thailand, India, Costa Rica and Ecuador. Feeding carnivorous species such as salmon, sea bass and trout requires large quantities of animal flours, which are made up of small fish (anchovies, sardines, herring). This has led to overfishing of these fish.
There are diseases as well. “Several salmon farms were recently destroyed by infestations of sea lice,” said Lage Bohren, analyst at Carnegie Investment Bank and expert in the aquaculture industry. “For a long time, farmers relied on pesticides, but parasites began to become resistant to these products.”
That being said, the environmental balance sheet of these farms isn’t as dismal as one may think. On a global level, aquaculture significantly limits overfishing, a phenomenon that is much more harmful to oceans than residual coastal pollution. Additionally, while small family farms have rightly been singled out, large companies such as Norway’s SalMar and Marine Harvest are subject to very strict environmental standards.
A flood of innovations
Faced with these challenges, the aquaculture industry has become incredibly innovative. “This autumn, Norwegian company SalMar will test giant circular steel structures that can hold eight times more salmon than traditional cages and most importantly can be located offshore, where strong sea currents keep sea lice away from the fish,” said analyst Lage Bohren.
Another massive project comes from Norway’s NSK Ship Design. This company built a salmon and trout farm on a 430-metre-long ship that can hold up to 10,000 tonnes of fish. This mastodon of the sea is able to relocate depending on currents and storms, as well as benefit from optimal farming conditions.
Another company, Marine Harvest, has developed egg-shaped mini farms that can be placed offshore. “These structures are completely watertight, so they keep out ocean water that is infested with parasites that could contaminate the fish,” said Bohren.
Spanish company Smart Floating Farms has developed an aquaculture farm that is entirely self-sufficient, powered by solar energy. It grows plants using hydroponics that can be used to feed the fish. The organic waste produced by the fish is used as fertiliser for the plants.
Another massive project : a salmon and trout farm on a 430-metre-long ship that can hold up to 10,000 tonnes of fish
Innovative tactics have also been used to produce fish food. “Some companies have started feeding their fish insects or algae as a source of protein or Omega-3s,” said Tonseth. California start-up Calysta has even developed protein tablets made from microorganisms derived from the natural process of fermentation.
Another company, Cargill, has developed more effective animal flours, notably by adapting the composition of the flours to ocean conditions or the life cycle phase of the fish. Some flours contain nucleotides and vitamins which help aquatic animals better fight off sea lice. Other flours contain a cocktail of nutrients designed to increase the size of the fish. In particular, the US-based company has been able to produce rounder tilapia that hold up better during transportation... and taste better.
Companies to watch
SalMar dominates the salmon industry in Norway. Globally, it is the world’s fourth largest salmon producer. “This company has a strong management team, inexpensive production methods and a company culture focused on efficiency,” said Lage Bohren, analyst at Carnegie Investment Bank. The company was nevertheless significantly affected by the sea lice epidemic that hit the entire industry. But Bohren still believes SalMar is a good investment, since the price of salmon will remain high for the next two or three years thanks to increased global demand.