Taking the sea out of seafood

Circular sushi?
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Land-based aquaculture can sound like a mirage — shrimp farms in the desert, salmon swimming "upstream" in an alpine village tank, tilapia swishing over the plains. And for a long time, ample production of sea delicacies in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) has been more dream than reality. Yet the technology and its innovators steadily have gained momentum and finally may be hitting their tipping point.

The allure of fish grown on land is easy to understand: Like all aquaculture, it reduces demand for wild fish, but unlike with sea-based pens, closed-loop RAS farms (PDF) run no risk of fish escaping to dilute the native gene pool, spread diseases or discharge waste and antibiotics into the wild. RAS farmers have near-full control over growing conditions, so they can optimize for growth and quality. And with its amenability to unlikely locations, RAS can sit near major consumer markets, providing fresh local seafood even when the shore is hundreds of miles away.

So why aren’t we eating it already? RAS entrepreneurs face three big challenges: energy; contamination risks; and money. Mimicking a natural system within strictly regulated parameters is an energy-intensive endeavor, and sustainability (not to mention costs) demands locating RAS facilities next to cheap, abundant energy sources. A pathogen let loose in a closed system can be a disaster, so RAS farmers have to be extra scrupulous about avoiding contamination.

Money may be the biggest hurdle: RAS operations need high volumes and relatively long ramp-ups to reach profitability, and the pile of patient capital needed to build and grow large, high-tech facilities can be as elusive as Moby Dick.

At the crest of innovation

That is starting to change as market trends shift the investment case. Surging market demand for seafood and increased efficiencies for farms are putting land-based RAS economics in a more flattering light. And with ocean aquaculture also facing growth curbs — caps on licenses, lack of viable locations, challenging disease outbreaks, worries about microplastics in wild-caught and farmed marine species — the seafood industry is starting to see RAS as a next-wave supply source, and as a needed complement to wild-caught or sea-farmed products. For large-scale operations focused on high-value species, the huge potential upside makes RAS worth the wait and the risk.

The Aquaculture Research Center (ARC) at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET), University of Maryland, 2018.
Fish 2.0
The Aquaculture Research Center at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, University of Maryland, 2018.
RAS projects are springing up globally, especially in the Nordic countries, the United States and Canada. Innovation in this area always has been a part of our Fish 2.0 network, including sushi-grade fish and glass eels in Maine, shrimp in New Mexico and salmon in the Alps. Businesses that have participated in Fish 2.0, for example, are gaining traction and demonstrate the promise of what’s to come.

Startup American Unagi, the audience favorite at Fish 2.0’s 2017 global forum, is returning eel production to the United States with its land-based farm — and producing traceable, sustainable seafood raised without antibiotics or hormones. Juvenile eels from Maine’s carefully managed fishery traditionally have been shipped to Asia to grow to maturity in unknown conditions; American Unagi hopes to turn that around with a clean, high-quality product finished at the source. Other operations in New Mexico, Florida, California and Ohio are producing shrimp in places where fresh seafood has been hard to come by and where consumer demand for domestic, labor-safe seafood is high.

Salmon so far has been the star of land-based aquaculture. RAS technology is widely used to grow smolts (young salmon). And innovators are working to realize its potential for full life-cycle production as an alternative to cage-based farming in the ocean.

Bigger is better

Supersized farms don’t always come to mind when we think about sustainable food, but in the case of land-based aquaculture, bigger really is better. RAS projects must be large to make sense financially, industry analyses show. And now that the industry is progressing from pilot projects to full-scale operations, sophisticated mega-RAS farms are on the horizon. Several projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars are under way, and many more are in the planning phases.

Investors also are seeing the promise in new fish feed ingredients — land-based aquaculture’s biggest production cost. RAS requires specialized feeds that work harmoniously with its finely tuned systems, and feed manufacturers are racing to formulate products that nurture healthy animals while reducing waste outputs, and thus making water-quality maintenance easier.

Marine aquaculture technologies and strategies also are advancing (PDF), which is all for the good — we’ll need productive, environmentally sound fish farms both in the ocean and on land in order to maintain and rebuild wild fisheries while feeding a protein-hungry world. Land-based fish farms, though, certainly have the most room to grow.

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