5 ways to realize aquaculture's full potential

Underwater robots roving about as ranch hands of the sea, their electronic eyes recording the health, size and numbers of fish swimming in offshore corrals. Automatic feeders activated by the sound of hungry shrimp. Ultraviolet light, ultrasound and other drug-free treatments that keep salmon in the pink. These are just a few innovations making aquaculture one of the most intriguing corners of the food world — for entrepreneurs, investors, food purveyors and eaters alike.

Plenty of smart people see that, which is why fish farming innovations are moving rapidly from university labs to investor portfolios.

"But wait — isn’t farmed fish bad?" you may be thinking. That’s what literally everyone outside the seafood sector says when I bring up aquaculture’s potential. But that’s sooo 1990s, like thinking that coffee and dark chocolate can’t possibly be ethically produced or even good for us. All aquaculture can be sustainable, and some is actually regenerative (oyster farming (PDF), for one, cleans water and improves climate resilience in coastal areas). Raised right, farmed fish is good — good tasting, good for your health and in line with good resource management.

Aquaculture’s new age: A transformation is underway

Of course, farmed fish haven’t always been raised right, and some still aren’t. But what most people don’t realize is that aquaculture is a speck of an industry compared with agriculture. Aquaculture is growing, at a rate of 5.8 percent annually (PDF), and produced 80 million metric tons of food in 2016. Yet in the United States, agriculture uses 914 million acres versus marine aquaculture’s mere 213,000 acres. This is a ship that’s small enough for us to fully turn around and grow sustainably. We could increase production tenfold and still not use even close to 1 percent of the space U.S. agriculture requires.

A transformation in aquaculture’s productive capacity and sustainability is already happening. Meeting five big technical challenges is critical to realizing aquaculture’s potential as a clean protein — and creative solutions are bubbling up in every category.

1. Better fish feeds: If we want aquaculture to relieve pressure on wild fisheries, we can’t keep harvesting so many small wild fish to feed farmed fish. To kick the habit, we need to improve the nutritional qualities of alternative feeds. One promising path (PDF) that’s attracting startups as well as agribusinesses: protein feed made from bacteria that chow down on industrial byproducts such as methane (which we need to get rid of) and ethanol. Feeds based on algae, soybeans, oil seed and insects are also in the mix.

2. Foolproof farms: To safeguard coastal environments, we need to move more fish farming to on-land recirculating systems or offshore ocean farms. New closed systems under development sit in the open ocean, yet tightly control water exchange. That reduces the risk of diseases and escapes, turning farms into "Aquatraz" — tight enclosures where fish can’t escape to mix with wild populations.

A significant move offshore also requires new technologies to cope with long distances, rough seas and dangerous diving conditions. We’re already seeing robots that can report on fish health, fix frayed nets and remove waste. Combine that with automatic feeding and applications for artificial intelligence, computer vision, sensors and IoT platforms, and we’re looking at a new age of precision aquaculture (PDF), with less waste and higher production levels.

3. Fitter fish: Whether it’s sea lice on salmon, white spot syndrome in shrimp or oyster herpes, diseases are the bane of aquaculture — and prevention is the best cure (PDF). Land-based and offshore farms will help. In coastal areas, multispecies farms that integrate filter feeders (oysters or mussels) with finfish and photosynthesizers (such as seaweed) have heartier populations.

When it comes to treatments, the budding aquaculture animal health field is taking a pass on increased use of antibiotics and chemicals. Instead, it’s focused on early detection, non-chemical treatments (UV and ultrasound are deadly to sea lice), natural remedies (such as symbiotic cleaner species), and nutraceuticals (yes, fish soon will be gulping probiotics like the rest of us).

4. Waste capture: Fish farms, on land or in water, can pollute nearby waterways and farmland with nitrate-dense wastewater. But we don’t have to accept that cost. Farmers can use both closed systems that don’t pollute and filters that make sure runoff from open systems doesn’t cause pollution. New feeds and feeding technologies, along with robots that suck up waste, also can reduce pollution. Even better, innovators are upcycling (PDF) the nutrient-rich byproducts of fish farming into fertilizers or other products.

5. Resource efficiency: More efficient energy and water use in aquaculture production systems is an environmental imperative that also improves profitability. As water gets scarce worldwide, it becomes more expensive, and you don’t want to pay for electricity from the grid to run your fish farm if you can help it. Many fish farmers already are using solar and geothermal power. The next step is applying water and energy efficiency innovations from other industries to the aquaculture sector.

The tipping point is here

When I look at aquaculture, I think, "The time is now."

We know what the problems are, and creative thinkers from a range of disciplines are working to solve them. Many of the solutions above have multiple benefits — optimizing feeds and improving open-water cage designs, for example, reduce both disease and pollution. Most are also targeted at salmon and shrimp farming, which historically have been the most challenging in terms of sustainability.

New technologies and farming strategies under development increase quality as well as sustainability. When we pair these advances with emerging traceability solutions — a super-active innovation area for both wild and farmed seafood — we can fill the seafood case with branded products people can trust.

Yes, there are challenges, but that’s why there are great opportunities for innovation. Investing in sustainable aquaculture makes sense on several levels: It serves a high-demand market waiting to snap up quality supply. It helps economies to grow. And it provides healthy protein to a growing global population.

The time is right for aquaculture to take off. It’s already happening, and the 2018–19 cycle of the Fish 2.0 competition for sustainable seafood businesses reflects that: We have both U.S. and global aquaculture tracks, and most regional tracks are open to aquaculture-related enterprises. That’s because everyone, from NGOs to seafood leaders to investors, has recognized the need to grow sustainable aquaculture.

In the United States and globally, the market is ready.

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