Profiles
Cedar Crest Trout Hatcheries lies in Hanover, Ontario, Canada, at the base of the Bruce Peninsula, in the heart of Ontario’s rainbow trout (Oncorhychus mykiss) fingerling production area. This location is perfectly placed to ship fish to Cedar Crest’s primary clients on Lake Huron. In truth, Cedar Crest is four closely placed hatcheries, making Cedar Crest the largest producer of fingerlings in the province. Between the four locations, Cedar Crest produces more than seven million fingerlings each year.
Unglamorous as it may be, mortality collection, classification and analysis are an essential job at any hatchery. Often, mort picking is seen as the bottom end of the job spectrum. 
The company is building a land-based Atlantic salmon farm in a former paper mill in the state. Repurposing the paper mill has saved the company a lot of money, according to head of Business Development Ben Willaeur. “Paper-making also involves high intensity water usage and the intake and discharge saltwater so the infrastructure already exists. That reduced our costs tremendously,” Willaeur says.

The farm will create 50-60 jobs directly, as well as a number of indirect jobs through construction or byproduct utilization. The facility is the first of many being planned by Whole Oceans in Maine. CEO Rob Piasio hopes the company could eventually capture 10 percent of the domestic salmon market.

“We’ll achieve that goal by growing numerous farms in different locations in Maine; that will get us to 50,000 metric tons of capacity, or more,” says Willaeur. “But it’s a long-term goal. That could take 20 years, or more, but it’s ultimately something that may happen much sooner than expected.”

While acknowledging that the 50K MT capacity is a very large number relative to what is currently being grown in RAS facilities within and outside the US, Willaeur believes it is something the market can bear. “There is, I think, going to be an awareness that the consumer will bring when they become more familiar with the quality that RAS fish possess in terms of their taste, but also in terms of the fact that they’re taking pressure off an endangered wild species and really have controlled food and water quality.”

Market demand is promising. Whole Oceans says it has already pre-sold 100 percent of its projected inventory. Willaeur downplays competition among RAS producers; instead, he speaks highly about the work done by contemporaries such as Nordic Aquafarms and Atlantic Sapphire in this sector. He believes the market has more than enough room for everyone.

“The industry is dynamic enough that we find most participants consider themselves as partners rather than competitors. Everybody wants each other to be successful. There’s a lot of knowledge-sharing in terms of the growth of the technology and the innovation that’s occurring.”

That collaboration is part of why Willaeur and Piasio, both Maine natives,would like to see the state become a global hub for RAS technology. That hub would be formed both through partnerships with both the industry and academia. The knowledge base of RAS systems incorporates everything from chemistry to biology, electrical and mechanical engineering and international procurement.

“There’s just a myriad of diverse centers of knowledge that we would be looking to recruit, and looking to acclimate specifically to our work. We feel that academic institutions in this state are rising to the occasion and are very interested in producing integrated academic offerings, partnering with industry partners within the state.”
Students at New Jersey’s Willingboro High School have acquired the taste for aquaponics.         

Gary Nelson, program director for the school’s Making Visions Possible department, says that the students designed and developed an aquaponic system themselves. The project was driven by the desire to source pesticide-free fruits and vegetables locally. Today they grow tilapia, lettuce, kale, Swiss chard and collard greens.

“There was a tremendous amount of trial and error,” says Nelson, who works with the students on the system. “We went through water leaks – we had about 70 tilapia in our 700-gallon stock tank and we came in one day and water was all over the place and the fish were hanging on by a thread. We were able to just save them.”

Nelson says the students faced the challenges head on, researching plant nutrition or different plumbing systems to solve them and improve the system overall. They are developing a business plan for a community food program to sell the produce and fish. Their goal is to raise funds for a solar-powered greenhouse to work in concert with the aquaponic system.

“To bring something like this to the school system is a big deal because it teaches way more than fish anatomy or even gardening. It incorporates so many different things that it can literally be any class you choose – it can be a math class, it can be a health class, it can be a science class. It’s multi-faceted,” says Nelson.
At the heart of southwestern Ontario, one crop producer has mastered the art of aquaponics, where healthy tilapia are grown alongside premium quality cannabis.  

Green Relief has been growing marijuana for medicinal purposes since 2016. From the beginning, the company has made it its mission to find sustainable ways to grow their crop.

“Aquaponics started for us as a small greenhouse addition to the back of our house with a self-contained system,” explains CEO Warren Bravo. “We were going to grow vegetables for our family all year round, at a greenhouse that we can walk up to.”

Bravo’s 50-acre property in Flamborough, Ontario, is home to Green Relief’s 32,000-sq-ft indoor grow facility. Construction is underway for an additional 220,000-sq-ft building that’s expected to produce 45,000 kgs of cannabis annually. A third building is also part of the expansion plan, which will provide an additional 180,000 sq ft of production space for the company.

Green Relief is one of at least 114 licensed cannabis producers in Canada, but its growing technique is unique in the industry. Using aquaponics technology developed with Nelson and Pade, in Montello, Wisconsin, Green Relief uses fish waste carried through a recirculating water system to deliver nutrients to the cannabis plants. Around 300 tilapia are grown in circular tanks located inside the grow room. Upon maturity, the fish are harvested and donated to local food banks.

“The idea of having an aquaponics system at the house has morphed into what you see now as North America’s – or the world’s – only high-production cannabis facility using aquaponics,” Bravo states.

Fish for feed

Put plainly, aquaponics is a method of growing food that uses a closed-loop process that mimics the ecosystem.

Green Relief’s aquaponic structure is powered by a recirculating aquaculture system containing 18,000 gallons of water continuously recycling through the system, explains Derek Bravo, operations manager at Green Relief.

Fish start out in the system as fry. They stay in the nursery with young cannabis plants. As both plant and fish grow, they are transferred to the main grow room where they stay until ready for harvest, at which point they go their separate ways – the cannabis flowers go to the dry room for processing and the tilapia go into Second Harvest trucks for delivery to local food banks.

All the magic happens in the grow room. Derek Bravo explains they use only organic fish feed to grow the fish. Fish waste is then produced, which flows through the tank into the clarifiers. The clarifiers are the first level of filtration, consisting of a light screen in the middle. Heavy solids then sink to the bottom of the tank, while the finer solids flow through from the clarifier into the mineralization tank to be broken down further.

The water then goes into the bioreactor.

“That’s where the aerobic bacteria is created with heavily oxygenated tank with a bunch of bio beads where the bacteria lives on,” Bravo explains. “Once the beads get too covered with bacteria coating, it will break off, flow into our system that attaches to one of the grow beds.”

In this process, nitrification occurs and the resulting nitrate becomes nutrient for the plants.

“The plants just sit on styrofoam, and they just float on the water. Their roots go down the water and uptake nutrients whenever they need them,” Bravo says.
The water then flows back to the fish tank and the cycle repeats.

Ecosystem approach

CEO Warren Bravo notes the significant amount of research and the huge learning curve that went into the process of building Green Relief’s aquaponics facility. Bravo and Green Relief co-founder Steve LeBlanc both come from the construction industry. Their knowledge of buildings and structures only took them halfway through achieving their goal of establishing a sustainable cannabis production company that leaves as little impact on the environment as possible. The rest, they had to learn.

The pair spent over two years doing research on aquaponics, speaking with known experts on aquaponics and sustainable agriculture around the world. Among them was Nick Savidov, senior research scientist of the aquaponics program at Lethbridge College in Alberta.

“Aquaponics is an integrated multi-trophic production system,” explains Savidov.

In aquaculture, an integrated multi-trophic system follows the concept of a natural marine ecosystem, where one species produces the waste or byproducts that become sustenance to another organism within the ecosystem.

“Natural ecosystem does not have waste; everything is getting utilized, so that the waste product of one component – such as fish manure ¬– become feed stock for another component, which are beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa and so forth. The plants are fed by the water, then the water goes back to the fish,” Savidov says.

The aquaponics approach is different from the traditional monoculture approach in agriculture – such as hydroponic or soil-based crops – which have largely become unsustainable, he says.
In an aquaponic system, “recirculation” is key, Savidov says. “Water becomes not just a habitat for plants, fish and the nutrients and microorganisms. Water becomes a carrier, a link that ties together all those components.”

Although in its infancy, aquaponics is beginning to gain traction in the food production industry (see sidde bar: The business case for aquaponics). A recent decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture not to reject aquaponics as an organic technology opens up a huge potential for aquaponic-based food production facilities to get certified as organic, Savidov says. He hopes Canada would follow suit.

Another advantage of aquaponics over traditional methods of food production is that every component can be naturally grown without any use of chemicals or additional fertilizers.

“In modern agriculture we use resources such as fertilizer. All fertilizers come from finite resources… from raw deposits which are not limitless,” Savidov notes. “What happens if we exhaust all raw deposits?”
Savidov acknowledges fish feed may be the biggest cost factor in an aquaponic system, but even that, in the long run, can be addressed by a self-sustaining, advanced system that increases plant output with less amount of fish feed. The key is in the aerobic bioreactors.

“Use of aerobic bioreactors allows 100 percent nutrient recycling in an aquaponic system and improves the crop output in the system,” Savidov explains.
Sometimes you can see the future by looking to the past.  Connecticut shellfish farmer Bren Smith would walk by a mural on the wall of the Madison post office that depicts farmers gathering seaweed from the beaches of Long Island Sound in the 1930s. “I didn’t make the connection until I was growing kelp myself. One of the things it was used for was fertilizer.”

“The last thing I really wanted to do was grow kelp,” admits Smith, but kelp’s nature as a fast-growing crop that requires low maintenance was hard to resist. “You do almost nothing to it, just a drive-by every two weeks to be sure the gear isn’t broken,” he says.

The need to generate various sources of income led Smith to adopt the IMTA model. “Every commercial fisherman (he used to be one) knows one needs a diverse source of income. I was also looking for other things to grow to use all of the water column.”  

IMTA as a farming concept has been introduced in the Western world in 2004, although the process of rearing multiple fish species (polyculture) in one location is ancient; the Chinese have been doing it for ages.

Smith shares with others the IMTA “gospel” but he thinks IMTA’s full name — integrated multi-trophic aquaculture — is “horrible and alienating.” “We are trying to attract people to ocean farming so we call it 3D Ocean Farming,” he says. (Dr Thierry Chopin, whose research focuses on IMTA and was instrumental in promoting the concept, says there have been over 1,300 publications on IMTA since it was introduced in the Western world in 2004, so he won’t change its name, he said at Aquaculture Canada 2018.) 

Through GreenWave, a nonprofit Smith founded (see side bar), people across the US and overseas are learning about the benefits of “regenerative ocean farming.” “Shellfish like mussels taught me that we can farm to restore rather than deplete. As farmers, our crops can breathe life back into the oceans while feeding local communities,” Smith wrote on the website of a GreenWave sponsor.

Tweaking IMTA

Smith took his cue from the oysters when he was developing his version of IMTA.  “I like growing things that don’t need to be fed and can’t swim away. With all of the things we grow we are able to do simple rope culture and that keeps the infrastructure costs down.”

Without fish in the IMTA equation, this method of farming makes much more economic sense for small to medium size farmers, Smith says.  “Most IMTA starts with fish, to which other things are added. What I’ve done is I simplified it and lowered the barrier to entry by making things cheaper.”

“From my 20 acre farm I harvest 10 to 30 tons of seaweed and 250,000 shellfish per acre a year. With our model, an ocean farmer can gross $300,000 a year and provide two to three full-time jobs and seven to 10 seasonal jobs,” he adds.
Smith grows clams on the ocean floor at the bottom of his lease. But having his oysters buried by storm surges led him to pull them off the bottom. Oysters are in suspended trays, scallops are in lantern nets and mussels in socks all hanging from a long line.  The kelp is grown on the long lines in the winter.  

While labour is the top input in this model, Smiths says it varies between crops.  “Clams just sit in the mud, we don’t cover them with nets so we lose some, but we also don’t have to do anything,” he says.  “Oysters require a fair amount of work for a good product, and scallops are just a pain.”

Kelp harvest is labor-intensive.  When Aquaculture North America spoke to Smith in May, he was in the midst of harvest and watching out for the sweet spot that would allow for maximum growth. “They can double in length in May. But we have to harvest them before they start to become bio-fouled in the warmer water temperatures, or they will have to go to fertilizer.”

Smith sells his harvest locally under the brand Thimble Island Ocean Farm. “Our scallops don’t grow very big adductor muscles in the lantern nets so we sell them whole to restaurants and people eat them raw like oysters.”

The new kale

Kelp presents a different marketing challenge.  “The problem with kelp is nobody wants to eat it,” says Smith. But significant progress is being made, he says, by marketing kelp as “the new kale,” by moving it to the center of plates, and talking about “merroir” (like “terroir” in wine industry jargon) and “arugula from the sea.”  

There are high-end chefs experimenting with everything from kelp pasta to using it to flavor cocktails.  Smith says they have also had success partnering with other food processors, including one that’s making kelp-and-mushroom jerky.

“I thought it would take 20 years to build a market for those specialty items, but we have back orders for half a million pounds of kelp right now,” Smith says.

The other strategy was to take a page from the soy producers’ playbook.  “The soy industry got together and realized they weren’t going to get many Americans to eat soy, so they put it into everything,” Smith explains, only half joking.  “The great thing about seaweed is that it’s a human and animal food, it goes into cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizer and biofuels.  We can stuff it into everything.

“We’ve had a lot of success with it, our challenge now is permitting and developing hatcheries fast enough to meet the demand.”

Smith is now exploring ways to stabilize output from a given lease using remote sensing.  “As an ocean farmer, your soil turns over a thousand times a day. Some years we get kelp that is three feet long, some years it is 20 feet. I need to know about the current, light penetration, and where the nutrients are in the water column. Then I can go out and raise or lower the farm to where those nutrients are.”     

Side Bar

Cultivating underwater farmers

GreenWave is a farmer-run organization that helps attract, educate and support new shellfish farmers.  “My first goal is to create jobs,” says Bren Smith, the organization’s founder and executive director.  He knows from experience that new farmers need all the help they could get. “I was a terrible at first, I killed most of them,” says Smith, recalling his first foray into shellfish farming.

The nonprofit helps farmers with site selection and the permitting that will get them started. They build hatcheries for seed and provide a distribution hub and market research. “The US simply does not have a functioning government to do this kind of training and industry development, like you would find, say, in South Korea,” says Smith. “We decided we would do it ourselves.”  

Training is free, thanks to generous sponsors like outdoors clothing company Patagonia.  GreenWave has supported new farmers in New England and Alaska and is moving into California. “We’ve had requests from virtually every coastal state and over 20 other countries,” says Smith.  “We have always been open source but we have a grant now to put all of our material into online learning, which we hope to have up by this fall.”   

GreenWave’s program has resulted in 17 farm startups, which are all currently operating. Eight farmers are currently enrolled in the FIT (Farmer-In-Training) program, and 10 more are expected.
When two million pounds of farmed fish perished in British Columbia because of a toxic algal bloom in 2015, crew from West Coast Reduction Ltd (WCR) received moved the volume to its the company’s Nanaimo facility. But the work that WCR professionals perform is clearly no ordinary cleanup. It is a delicate job involving microbes and pathogens from dead animals that could seep into the environment if not handled well.

“We have all the logistics and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)-certified facility in place that we can take those volumes, render them, sterilize them and make a value-added product, with no fear of getting those pathogens out in the open. It is similar to the services we provide to the livestock processing industries,” Ridley Bestwick, WCR’s chief financial officer, tells Aquaculture North America (ANA).

The vital work that rendering facilities such as WCR perform often goes unnoticed, but their services are critical to helping sustain the agriculture/aquaculture industry, the food services sector, and the environment.

WCR is Western Canada’s largest independent rendering facility. It recycles about 450,000 tonnes of food byproducts, including beef, pork, poultry and fish, in Western Canada annually. Of this volume, aquaculture byproducts — heads, fins, tails and guts — account for between 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes a year.

Marine Harvest Canada (MHC) accounts foras a large part of WCR’s Aquaculture aquaculture volume along with Brown’s Bay Packing Company, which who is its longest standing aquaculture supplier. WCR also services Cermac and others on the BC coast.. MHC produces three to four trailers of fish waste from its Port Hardy processing plant each week and that waste is trucked down to WCR’s Vancouver plant daily or every second day, depending on the volume.


The greener option

Bestwick tells ANA that rendering is a lower-cost solution for fish farmers and processors dealing with aquaculture byproducts than industrial composting, and also a more environment-friendly option.

“Our plant here in the Port of Vancouver takes the equivalent of 150,000 cars off the road each year in green-house gas reduction. In BC, there is no enclosed composting facility where the gases from composting are captured, so those materials, if they went to compost, would create gases. Composting facilities have a negative carbon footprint, we have a positive carbon footprint,” he says.

Rendering is also “the best way to clean the product,” adds Doug Davidson, WCR’s operations manager. “Animal byproducts are cooked at high temperature during rendering so microbes and pathogens, or any viral-type issues, are sterilized in the process,” he says.

Aquaculture’s share

Bestwick and Davidson see aquaculture’s share in WCR’s business growing alongside aquaculture. Today, the company provides collection services to 50-60 percent of aquaculture businesses in British Columbia.

The supply of fresh raw product and how quickly it is rendered is crucial in producing quality fish oils and protein meals. “For some of the businesses that are far away and have small volumes of byproducts, composting is the closest and easiest fix because WCR can’t collect those volumes fresh enough to get to rendering,” says Davidson.

He explains that fish byproducts produce fishmeal with a protein content of between 64 to 70 percent, and the fresher byproducts are when rendered, the more of that protein is retained. “So if something is left for two days (because of travel time) before it is rendered, it will lose 1 or 2 percent of those proteins.”

But Davidson sees the share of those small farms in WCR’s business growing as the aquaculture industry grows. “As their business and volumes grow, our service to them becomes more economical,” he says.

Bestwick adds: “We are supporting the biggest players of aquaculture and we hope to support the small players as well. In the near future we hope to provide options to supply the service to the more remote locations.”

Byproducts

WCR not only serves the industry in terms of helping dispose its byproducts but also in recycling that waste into valuable feed ingredients.

The aquaculture industry is the company’s biggest customer for proteins produced from rendering poultry byproducts. “We sell our finished products to the likes of Skretting and EWOS, who blend those proteins into feeds,” says Bestwick.

The biggest customer for the fish meals produced out of rendered fish waste is the pet food industry.


An evolving industry

Since the company’s start in 1964, Bestwick says the rendering industry has become more regulated, customers’ demands have become more specialized, and competition for animal byproducts has increased because of the growing movement toward composting and other green energy initiatives.

“In the last 50 years, scrutiny over the process and products in our industry has increased; biosecurity and food safety have become top priorities,” says Bestwick, who noted that CFIA audits and issues industry permits.

Davidson says the basics of rendering have also become much more refined over the years; centrifuge technology and polishing are now the norm, along with raw materials segregation to produce higher quality ingredients. “When I started in 1978, everything was boiled in one pot,” he recalls. Clearly, specialization helps answer the customers’ increasing demand for single-ingredient feed ingredients.

Over the last 10 years, Bestwick says the company has seen its supply of raw materials decline because they are being diverted into other recycling initiatives — for example, composting and biogas — that he believes is not as sustainable as rendering. The organic landfill ban in Greater Vancouver has also contributed to the decline in the supply of byproducts for rendering, he says.

“Organics (food scraps) cannot go into landfill anymore in Greater Vancouver.   We don’t render green vegetable material — it’s better for that to go to composting or biogas or landfill — but the organic landfill ban created an opportunity for waste haulers to also take fish and meat material from our suppliers. I would say we’ve seen a 5- to 10-percent drop in volumes of byproducts that we pick up from butchers and supermarkets,” he adds.

Bestwick acknowledges that while disposing waste via composting is well intentioned, he says rendering is the most sustainable solution for recycling meat and fish byproducts. “Compared to composting, rendering reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent and adds five times more value to the local economy,” says Bestwickhe says.


He regrets that this fact is lost on most consumers because “the fact is, in past years we did not market what we were doing,” he says. But now, the company is increasing its visibility in the media and the community to promote a better understanding of the company’s work.

“We are communicating our role, we meet with government officials, we go to conferences and trade shows, we advertise, sponsor events, communicate with the media, talk to consumers and regulators. We get the message out about the contribution we make to the sustainability of aquaculture and agriculture,” says Bestwick.

In 2016, the BC Food Producers Association awarded WCR with its the Sustainability Award, a proof that finally, the company is succeeding in getting the word out, and its contribution to the environment, economy and people of BC is recognized.

This feature story was originally published in Aquaculture North America's September/October 2017 print edition.
Ingenious companies around the world are accelerating innovations at an unprecedented pace to make fish farming more sustainable. One of them is AgriMarine TechnoIogies Inc (ATI), a developer of marine aquaculture containment systems. ATI is a subsidiary of AgriMarine Holdings Inc, a portfolio company of Toronto-based Dundee Corporation.

The British Columbia company is busier than usual these days, says AgriMarine Director Sean Wilton. “We have lately been working on a lot of closed containment systems because it’s starting to look like there’s a sweet spot in the industry where you get a crossover of functional benefits with cost. The cost of (floating) containment is obviously higher than net pens but lower than in land-based,” he told participants at the Aquaculture Innovation Workshop in November.

AgriMarine has been at the forefront of salmonid closed containment aquaculture for nearly two decades and pioneered the development of marine-grade floating closed containment systems for over 10 years.         In 2014, it formed ATI to focus on delivering its market-ready sustainable technology solutions to clients around the world.

ATI has less than 10 employees, which is relatively small in the world of technology innovators. But while the competition has started getting bigger — in both the size of their deployed systems and their engineering and R&D budgets — Wilton believes “bigger is not always better.”

The greatest challenge for any smaller innovator, he says, is to stay relevant once they have proven the value of their technology to larger players in the industry.

“We are meeting this challenge by leveraging both the depth of our practical experience and our flexibility and responsiveness that we enjoy being a smaller private company,” Wilton says.

The company’s marine containment systems offer solutions for sea lice, toxic algae blooms, low dissolved oxygen water and high temperatures.

“Our floating closed containment technologies, both tanks and raceways, address all of these issues in the same fundamental manner. We use solid or impermeable wall structures in the rearing containment vessels to isolate the husbandry environment from the ambient surface-water conditions, and draw cleaner, cooler water largely free of algae and sea lice from depth to supply the fish with as close to ideal culture conditions as are available,” he told Aquaculture North America (ANA).

Real-world results

In 2012, AgriMarine acquired West Coast Fishculture (Lois Lake) Ltd, a finfish farm in Powell River, BC, which produces 1,200 MT of steelhead annually. Starting out as a net-pen operation, it added closed containment because high water temperatures in the summer led to high mortality rates. There are currently six tanks deployed, displacing approximately 18,000 cubic meters of water and accounts for three quarters of the farm's standing biomass. Plans are underway to transition fully to closed containment.

AgriMarine’s floating, semi-closed containment systems optimize the rearing environment for the steelhead, says Wilton. “Having our own farm and our own engineering group in-house allows us to learn and live what it takes to use floating closed containment in a real-world commercial environment. We have direct feedback from end users to designers and back again, and this is giving us a very rapidly developing practical knowledge base of the technology and its use,” he says.

He adds that sea lice are not an issue in the steelhead farm. “There are no sea lice in the lake. Our challenge is that it gets too warm in the summer. Key for us is the ability to isolate culture temperature from the ambient water around us so we bring cooler water up from depth of about 30 meters below our tanks.”

This allows water in the tank to be maintained at 13 to 14˚C whereas the surface water temperature is as high as 26.5 ˚C outside the tanks. As the farm transitions to all contained systems, the tanks are operated alongside nets, allowing them to collect comparative data. Traditionally, net pens in freshwater lakes see marked spikes in mortality levels during the summer. In contrast, AgriMarine's tanks and raceways have seen greatly reduced mortality rates that are in line with industry norms at saltwater marine sites.

Two tanks were delivered to a Norwegian specialist post-smolt producer over 2016/2017. The client has completed two crop cycles and reports excellent health and accelerated growth with both cohorts reaching target weight seven weeks ahead of schedule.

The company's tanks are certified to the Norwegian NS9415:2009 construction standard — a very rigorous set of technical standards and quality control procedures enforced for all marine equipment in Norway.

“We believe we were first to achieve NS9415 certification for our floating tank technology two years ago and in some ways are still leading as we have more commercial production cycles through our technology than anyone we know of,” Wilton added.

"Combined with government incentives for Green Sites and other R&D support measures in other countries, some competitors have taken the lead in deployment footprint and we have to keep innovating to make sure those large well-funded engineering teams don’t catch up or pass us technologically as well,” he says.
Atlantic Sapphire is well into the construction of the Miami version of their Bluehouse – an all-in-one aquaculture production facility that houses every stage, from hatching broodstock to processing of the harvest. As CEO Johan Andreassen watches his vision for an American Bluehouse take shape with each passing day, he keeps his eyes on a larger prize – a giant US market that imports the vast majority of its consumed salmon. “I think the consumption of salmon here can double over the next 10 years, if done properly,” says Andreassen.

The company is preparing for an increased demand for salmon. It plans to exponentially expand the Miami Bluehouse in size and scope as it moves through different phases. Phase one is due for completion by the yearend and will see its first harvest – 9,484 metric tons head-on and gutted (MT HOG) salmon – by the second quarter of 2020. Phase two will add 20,000 MT HOG by 2023. Phase three will add another 60,000 MT, for a total production of nearly 90,000 MT HOG, by 2026. The initial 384,000-square-foot facility in phase one will grow to four million square feet by phase three. The 100 direct jobs and economic impact equivalent of 2,700 jobs of phase one is predicted to grow to 21,000 indirect jobs by phase three.

While the idea of including every step of the seafood value chain under one roof is unique, it’s not a new idea, says Andreassen. “If you look at everything from broodstock through hatch, through parr, pre-smolt, smolt, post-smolt, what we are doing here is exactly the same as the entire salmon industry. Then we grow out the fish to five kilos, that’s basically what we are innovating and what we are doing differently from anybody else. Once the fish is five kilos, it goes into a slaughterhouse and a processing facility that’s also exactly the same technology and concept that is widely used throughout the industry.”

Risk factors

By housing the supply chain in one facility, the product can reach the market quicker and fresher. But this also means much more planning on the front end for Atlantic Sapphire to avoid potential issues. While recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are much more secure and have a smaller risk of virus issues than other facilities, Andreassen states emphatically “nothing is virus-proof.” The original Bluehouse in Denmark served as a dry run where most of the kinks in this type of facility were ironed out. In 2012, there was a furunculosis bacteria outbreak. And once such a virus gets into a recirculating system, it’s a significant problem to get rid of it because the water keeps recirculating. That’s why it’s so important to have protocols and protections in place to begin with.

“You have to have a very, very thorough pre-treatment of the water, and high hygienic standards, and procedures on all the stuff that you’re bringing into the farm.  Most of the people that are producing fish on land, they’re using water from a pipe into the ocean or they’re piping water from rivers or streams and those are not biosecure. You have fish, you have algae and you have living organisms in the intake water. In the case of South Florida, we’re using a deep-laying artesian aquifer that’s 2,000 feet below, where the water is completely biosecure. So that’s a huge edge that we have here.”

To deal with the furunculous is issue in Denmark and avoid such issues in Miami, Atlantic Sapphire designed a new water treatment system with a double firewall for pathogens, and improved their bio security routines. Another risk factor, for any farming situation, is hydrogen sulfide intoxication, which the Danish Bluehouse experienced last year. In response to that, the company updated the design of their bio filters, developed a new sensor to measure H₂S and made changes across the system to prevent sedimentation.

Due to such intense precautionary measures that are required, some larger salmon farmers do not feel that RAS technology is ready yet to operate in larger scale production. Andreassen feels that such concerns are unwarranted.
“Broodstock salmon have been raised land-based for 20 years, right? It’s not a question if it’s feasible to get the salmon to grow to a large size in a land-based environment. Obviously, when you do commercial food fish production, you have higher densities and you need to dimension the technology accordingly, so it can keep a higher volume of game per cubic meter of tank volume.”

No matter what the challenges, Andreassen feels it will be worth the benefits that their approach will bring to aquaculture production. Citing how net-pen farming was recently banned in Washington State, for example, he notes that the Bluehouse concept addresses all of the issues associated with net-pen salmon farming, including microplastics. “I think microplastic is going to be one of the largest [problems]. I call it the next CO₂.”

More than that, however, is the fact that consumers are becoming more concerned about the origins of their food and seeing how it comes to their plate. Having the entire supply chain under one roof means that question is much more easily answered.

“I also think that once we have ‘Product of the United States’ [label] on our products, it will appeal more to a lot of consumer groups here,” says Andreassen. “We have a very open philosophy. We want to create trust amongst the consumers so we have designed our farm in a way we can have tours. People can see exactly how the fish are being raised so we can create that confidence that what we’re doing is good both for the fish, for the environment and for the consumer.”
Whole Oceans is building a land-based Atlantic salmon farm in a former paper mill in the state. Repurposing the paper mill has saved the company a lot of money, according to head of Business Development Ben Willaeur. “Paper-making also involves high intensity water usage and the intake and discharge saltwater so the infrastructure already exists. That reduced our costs tremendously,” Willaeur says.

The farm will create 50-60 jobs directly, as well as a number of indirect jobs through construction or byproduct utilization. The facility is the first of many being planned by Whole Oceans in Maine. CEO Rob Piasio hopes the company could eventually capture 10 percent of the domestic salmon market.

“We’ll achieve that goal by growing numerous farms in different locations in Maine; that will get us to 50,000 metric tons of capacity, or more,” says Willaeur. “But it’s a long-term goal. That could take 20 years, or more, but it’s ultimately something that may happen much sooner than expected.”

While acknowledging that the 50K MT capacity is a very large number relative to what is currently being grown in RAS facilities within and outside the US, Willaeur believes it is something the market can bear. “There is, I think, going to be an awareness that the consumer will bring when they become more familiar with the quality that RAS fish possess in terms of their taste, but also in terms of the fact that they’re taking pressure off an endangered wild species and really have controlled food and water quality.”

Market demand is promising. Whole Oceans says it has already pre-sold 100 percent of its projected inventory. Willaeur downplays competition among RAS producers; instead, he speaks highly about the work done by contemporaries such as Nordic Aquafarms and Atlantic Sapphire in this sector. He believes the market has more than enough room for everyone.

“The industry is dynamic enough that we find most participants consider themselves as partners rather than competitors. Everybody wants each other to be successful. There’s a lot of knowledge-sharing in terms of the growth of the technology and the innovation that’s occurring.”

That collaboration is part of why Willaeur and Piasio, both Maine natives,would like to see the state become a global hub for RAS technology. That hub would be formed both through partnerships with both the industry and academia. The knowledge base of RAS systems incorporates everything from chemistry to biology, electrical and mechanical engineering and international procurement.

“There’s just a myriad of diverse centers of knowledge that we would be looking to recruit, and looking to acclimate specifically to our work. We feel that academic institutions in this state are rising to the occasion and are very interested in producing integrated academic offerings, partnering with industry partners within the state.”
Passionate farmers and technical experts are undaunted by challenges in their quest to buoy Alabama’s fledgling shrimp industry.
A visually appealing fish and short time to market are just some of the pluses of raising fish on land, says America’s sole producer of RAS-raised European seabass
Ryan Chatterson, a commercial aquaponics farmer and consultant in aquaponics design, engineering and educational services discusses how adding greens to your salmon makes a lot of sense.
Deep-water fishing project faces many regulatory challenges
The pristine waters of British Columbia provide Stellar Bay Shellfish the ideal growing conditions for its oysters for known their small size but plump meat.
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