RAS and the promise of control

Samuel Chen
July 09, 2018
By Samuel Chen
Samuel Chen says the jury’s still out as to which axiom will apply when adopting RAS; will it be ‘the early bird gets the worm’ or ‘the second mouse gets the cheese?’
Samuel Chen says the jury’s still out as to which axiom will apply when adopting RAS; will it be ‘the early bird gets the worm’ or ‘the second mouse gets the cheese?’
When Aquaculture North America (ANA) first asked me why my family got involved in farming seafood on land using recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) and what potential benefits we saw, I had to take a step back because not only are there multiple levels to the answer, the answer has also been evolving over time as we continue learning about RAS.

From a macro-business perspective, the forecast of protein shortage as global population grows supports the business case for exploring alternative methods of protein production.  When we look at the most efficient converters, we should be either eating insects or seafood. We chose to focus on seafood, beginning with salmon and shrimp, the two most consumed species in North America. We believe that no matter the method, seafood production is significantly more efficient and greener than livestock production. It is also the healthier option.  

Before answering the question about why RAS, we come to the inevitable question about why we didn’t start off in net-pens or other traditional production systems, such as outdoor raceways or ponds.  It was not because we believed net pens were inherently unsustainable. Rather, we wanted to look at disruptive technologies that allowed for production closer to markets, are less dependent on environmental conditions, have less environmental impact and allow for greater quality control.

We were blown away learning there was little seafood production close to New York City, one of North America’s largest consumer markets.  Seafood from all around the world was being flown into the airports and nearby ports for local consumption. Although surprising, it was understandable: in traditional production methods, the optimum location to place a fish farm is typically remote, which is unappealing to workers and involves costly transportation for moving feed and fish.  

As we began our foray into aquaculture, news about mass mortality events due to algae blooms and disease were not uncommon.  We were also seeing the increasing severity and impact of sea lice, mainly driven by changing environmental conditions. The political landscape was also shifting; there’s increased public awareness and scrutiny of fish farming.
We concluded that a fish farmer has limited ability to control for environmental factors with the traditional farming methods (see figure 1).  Cause and effect comes from both ways: toxic algae blooms kill fish and algae growth worsens as more fish waste is released into the ocean.  Sea lice populations go up as fish densities in the water go up. We decided that traditional production methods and making incremental improvements on them would not be enough to meet market needs.

We saw RAS as a win-win proposition.
 
Coming from a recycling background, some of my family’s core principles that found immediate resonance with those of RAS included:
1)    Today’s solutions become tomorrow’s challenges
2)    What is considered waste today is only waste because one cannot separate them into different streams and find a home for them
3)    Different streams will only find homes at relevant scale
4)    There is economic value in doing what’s environmentally sound, technology continues to enable greater efficiency (often in leaps rather than incremental improvements)
5)    Operators, not designers or technology providers, will find a solution by using what’s available

Creating multi-streams of revenue

The ability to separate different co-product streams of fish farming and add value to them was intuitive to us. The Icelandic cod model inspired us. Over the last 20 years the cod industry has been able utilize virtually 100 percent of the harvested fish to include fish oil, collagen, dried products, calcium and fishmeal.  It was exciting to consider the economics of multiple revenue streams from processing fish offal through ensilage into fish oil products or bones into calcium products.

RAS has the ability to take this discipline to another level.  In addition to using 100 percent of the harvested fish, one can also capture co-products from fish farming, including fish feces and even the CO2.  Nutrient-rich water, which would have otherwise been considered as contaminant, could be diverted towards cultivating crops.  Even the heat of the growing fish that are metabolizing and swimming could be captured to decrease heating bills.  Over the last five years at Hudson Valley Fish Farms, we have been growing fish with the goal of reducing costs by eventually developing these streams at scale. These can offset production costs as the business gets into steady operations.   
On the fifth principle about operators being the true systems integrator of technological solutions, we were surprised at how complex it was to combine innovative technology with artisanal craft. This was part of what I mentioned in my previous article where I discussed risks in the operational phase (https://www.aquaculturenorthamerica.com/news/removing-the-blinders-on-land-based-aquaculture-1925).  Tackling the complexity of managing microbiology, water chemistry, farm operations, animal science & biology, engineering & design and the actual business was a trial-and-error exercise.  When I shared my worries with one of my mentors, he told me to never lament the sleepless nights because the technical know-how acquired through solving challenges will only sharpen our competitive edge.

Controlling elements in RAS

RAS is less reliant on a site lease or permit and is not at the mercy of environmental conditions. There are also more opportunities to control various elements in RAS.

Controlling taste and texture is perhaps one of the least discussed but also the most exciting benefits of growing seafood in RAS. Husbandry is key to farming a superior protein. The epicurean motivation of creating a wildly delicious alternative™ to the wild and farmed fish available in the market is the true motivation behind some of our efforts.

Sustainably is a hygiene factor for most consumers, meaning that if a product is unsustainable, they may choose not to buy it.  However, consumers will not necessarily purchase something just because it is sustainable.  Land-raised seafood has the potential to deliver real value beyond just marketing by growing to different indicators of quality.

Hudson Valley Fish Farms aspires for the highest quality. We worked with various chefs to discuss “ideal” taste and texture profiles. To reach this ideal, we adjusted fish diet, their exercise rate at different life stages, and water temperature in the tanks. We tried various harvesting methods to reduce handling and stress in fish. (Compared to over two decades of R & D efforts for Wagyu to become the much-desired beef cattle that it is today, we in aquaculture are on only on the cusp of learning how to grow seafood this way.)

The jury’s still out as to which axiom will apply when adopting RAS; will it be “the early bird gets the worm” or “the second mouse gets the cheese?” Either way, I believe investing in RAS is worth it if you’re “the right kind of person.” The right person being the one with deep-enough pockets, has foresight and is willing to have sleepless nights.

Samuel Chen helped launched Hudson Valley Fish Farms, shepherding it over the past five years from regulatory approval, to the build, production and marketing of the first three crops of production. He developed the farm’s relationships with the industry, scientific community and market. During his tenure at the farm, Samuel has also been the business lead for six commercial shrimp pilots in indoor systems. He recently left HVFF to return to his home in British Columbia, where he now serves as consultant on the business of seafood and RAS.

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