Aquaculture, News

Taking Tradition Out To Sea

Norwegians may not have invented fish farming, including its shellfish variants, but Norwegian aquaculture exporters can claim a disproportionate share of a flourishing industry still riding a decade-long boom.

As quotas for wild species fluctuate annually in the attempt to manage worldwide stocks, the value of farming finfish and shellfish to provide a reliable food supply to the world’s expanding populations continues to rise. Norwegian aquaculture producers are tapping into this potential and taking the traditionally fjord-bound industry out to the open sea.

Norwegian fish farming pioneers referred to the salmon that filled their coastal cages as the golden fish. In fact, the origins of farmed fish lie with the eastern cultures that gave us the goldfish of pet-store fame. The ancient Chinese were the first to collect fish eggs with sunken mats that encouraged spawning. The mats of fertilized eggs were then sold to growers who used ponds and rice fields to nourish their growing fish. In the fourteenth century, French monk Dom Pinchon used Chinese methods and then buried the fertilized eggs in sand for hatching. Early in the last century, a Danish trout farmer may have given impetus to Norway’s market-leading farmed fish production by inventing a circulation system to provide fresh water for fish to swim in, increasing production and reducing the incidence of disease.

According to British trout-farmers, this innovation launched the commercial trout-for-table farming industry. Several decades passed before the potential of fish farming was recognized and harnessed by entrepreneurs and investors who saw an opportunity for financial rewards, as well as by national governments pressed for solutions to the economic problems of coastal areas. Today, trout and salmon farming account for a greater share of Norwegian meat production than the combined outputs of agricultural activities. Finfish and shellfish provide 20,000 jobs while keeping many other segments, like the transport industry, busy with contracts amounting to millions of dollars.

Steadying Supply – Expanding Exports

Norwegian fish farms remain traditional operations, despite the technological expertise of the Norwegian firms that supply them with the latest equipment and know-how. An understanding that traditional fish farming has more in common with the cost equations and traditions of agriculture than with those of fishing has helped Norway attain the status of the world’s leading producer of farmed salmon.

Overall Norwegian seafood exports reached USD 3.4 billion in 2000, making Norway the world’s largest exporter of seafood, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Aquaculture exports, including technology and services, totalled USD 1.7 billion in the same year. While the trend towards ownership concentration changes the look of Norwegian aquaculture, the resulting proliferation of advanced equipment helps harvest 500,000 tonnes of fish annually. Among the preponderance of salmon are cold-water species such as trout and arctic char. A report commissioned by the Norwegian government estimates that by 2030, fish farms in Norway could be harvesting 4 million tonnes annually.

Heading to Sea

Over the last few years, Norway’s aquaculture outfitters have worked to develop cost-cutting products, and the industry has grown increasingly competitive. Norwegian products and expertise are popular imports in Chile, one of the fastest growing salmon-farming countries, where farmed fish exports have doubled in the past two years. Chile’s coastal geography looks a lot like Norway’s, with traditional fish farming carried out in licensed operations along coastal coves and fjords. Augmenting Chile’s burgeoning activities is a planned open-sea zone for cleaner aquaculture, into which large-scale, heavy-duty Norwegian fish farming equipment could soon start employing economies of scale.

Norwegian designers are pioneers in developing the special techniques and equipment necessary for open-sea fish farming. Production barges employed in Canada proved they could eliminate the transport, specialty vessel and labour costs associated with the separation from industrial infrastructure that denotes the best farming areas. Melbu Tech AS, a Norwegian company that develops sorting and slaughtering equipment, is cooperating with its Chilean clients to produce a processing pontoon to enhance fish quality and cost-efficiency. Dedicated transport vessels are also available from Norwegian shipyards to facilitate all farming operations, intensive or extensive. Specialty ships fitted with tanks and employing cooling technology transport stocks to processing platforms or plants. It is the open-sea way.

By 2002 or 2003, all production equipment will have to be type certified, as Norwegian aquaculture moves from reinventing an industry to establishing the standard for safety and operability. Type certification for watercraft, cages, cage cleaners, lights, barges and pontoons – the fish farmer’s accoutrements – is an aim of the global aquaculture industry. Ensuring safety in an increasingly technical, knowledge-based industry follows the lead of more developed industrial sectors, where the elimination of equipment faults as causes for operational failures permits insurance and attracts investment.

Staying at Sea

If this frontier of open seafood production has the look and feel of the offshore industry, it is because pioneers like Storm Havbruk AS and its Norwegian partner companies are backing proven mooring and structural concepts used in oil and gas exploration. Caging systems connected by steel platforms and rugged enough for unprotected waters provide stability in waves exceeding 2.5 metres. The designs have been tested for operability and the safe rearing of salmon in rough seas. Like the crews of offshore installations, operators running open sea farms will bunker down for a stint offshore in accommodations designed in Norway. Norwegian companies Marine Construction AS and Procean AS already build furnished crew huts for feed barges and integrated farming systems.

Rearing salmon in open water requires a complement of gear tough enough to withstand service at sea. Three companies merged recently to form AKVAsmart ASA, which supplies adaptive feeding systems and feeding rafts, as well as advanced IT for the control and automation of breeding installations, including more exposed sites. Fish farming in open waters keeps operations clear of coastal fisheries and agricultural run-off. Open water installations benefit from better water flows, and turbulent, oxygenated and deeper water improves fish health and broadens the range of farmable species. This thinking is consistent with a World Health Organization and UN Food and Agriculture Organization report asking member governments to ensure safety in fish farm management: The report points to a reduced risk of contamination by chemical or biological agents in open water.

Norway’s fish farmers learned to cut costs in the tough primary market of the European Union. Norwegian aquaculture technology helps derive every possible benefit to offset the lower-price advantage enjoyed by full-fledged EU member states and seafood exporters from the developing world. Eksportfinans ASA, the Norwegian export credit institute, has helped finance the delivery of barges, production platforms, feeding systems and crew facilities worldwide – surging Chilean aquaculture is an important client. Moreover, the industry tools Norwegian designers offer are helping turn the leases of their end-users into secure assets.

Pioneering Problem Solvers

The continued expansion of the aquaculture industry depends on innovation. In response, the Norwegian fisheries research community has committed its resources to solving fish farming’s most pressing problems. For the domestic market, and increasingly for international clients, Norwegian researchers have tackled challenges related to fish breeding, fish hatching, fish health and fish feeding in a concerted effort to ensure the best possible utilization of marine resources. The rewards have been many and often obvious in an industry that owes no small debt to the focused efforts of Norway’s research rank and file.

Norwegian researchers have specialized in commercial salmon breeding, helping to make Norway a leader in the field of stock enhancement for salmon and trout. These activities attract some of Norway’s best bioengineers and research scientists, spawning a healthy competitiveness among the many research entities. The Research Council of Norway’s aquaculture programme grants funding to winning research proposals aimed at a crucial and promising industry.

The Research Council’s Aquaculture 2000-2004 programme allocates resources for work in the many disciplines involved in what is now termed knowledge-based fish farming. Against a backdrop of increasing interest in the commercial breeding of other species, notably cod and halibut, the Research Council of Norway and the Norwegian Industrial and Regional Development Fund are allocating funds for cod breeding, as cod is typical of species that have great commercial potential but are fraught with production challenges.

Norwegian institutional and industrial researchers, as well as hatcheries operators, have learned they can study successful cultivation in regions like the Mediterranean and apply new methods to the propagation of their favourite cold-water fish. International contacts and knowledge exchange help to eliminate obstacles in the path of aquaculture growth worldwide. Bigger markets, sharing information and Norway’s commitment to UN conventions aimed at staving off world food shortages are behind recent aquaculture-related agreements with Chile and China. In the agreement with Chile, a meeting of minds between research councils is envisioned as a means of overcoming common challenges in the breeding of salmon and other species. China, the world’s biggest farmed fish producer at 9 billion tonnes, will exchange ideas and experiences with Norway.

New Science, New Species

The best species are those that grow quickly, reproduce easily, have low fixed costs and fetch high prices. These characteristics and the range and availability of such species are expanding, in no small part due to the insight and achievements of Norwegian expertise. A diversified funding base enables Norwegian research bodies such as SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture, the Centre for Aquaculture and Fisheries and the Institute of Marine Research to advise national authorities and promote and distribute research results.

For thirty years, the Institute for Aquaculture Research, Akvaforsk AS, has worked to advance the science of traditional selective breeding, has evaluated feed and stock for each farm application and has driven the technology behind vaccines and the techniques of mass inoculation. In that time, the amount of feed needed to produce 1 kilogram of fish meat has dropped from 3 kg to 1 kg. The research institute has contributed to the faster-growing, illness-resistant fish that form the basis for today’s booming aquaculture industry. The commercial effect of the institute’s research activity has been increased cost-effectiveness for breeders and the dissemination of expert knowledge among domestic and international producers. The institution solves production and scientific problems for clients as diverse as shrimp farmers in Latin America and farmers grappling with production techniques for 16 other species in 25 countries. In this spirit, Akvaforsk helped to establish Chile’s first independent research institute in 2001. The applied R&D teams of consultancy Akvaplan-niva AS study marine ecosystems and cultivation techniques for commercial and national entities worldwide, including over 2,000 aquaculture-related commissions in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas.

SINTEF Fisheries and Agriculture is a research institute directly involved in international development programmes to improve aquaculture in developing countries. Many of the institute’s clients are development cooperation organizations, banks and national governments. SINTEF is providing Taiwan with turnkey fish farms, and it provides technical solutions to enhance the profitability of finfish and shellfish farms. Together with other Norwegian researchers, SINTEF is involved in new-species fry production, the problem of sea lice, salmon escapees, streamlining logistics, open-sea installations, lobster farming in filtered water and video surveillance of fish in their cages.

Health and Halibut

With consumers becoming ever-more discerning and increasingly fearful of BSC and E coli in beef, precautions must be taken against the likelihood of fish-borne health threats. Understanding that fish health and human health are intertwined, Norwegian aquaculture researchers and producers have developed techniques and technology to ward off dangers and to safeguard the industry’s bottom line. Norwegian manufacturers make fish meal of outstanding quality that is devoid of substances that may cause injury to fish, people or the environment. The advent of feed quotas in Norway as a means of regulating fish farming may have offered the stimulus producers of fishmeal needed to focus on quality.

The Norwegian research group, SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture, has helped develop technology to detect unwanted substances across the fish farming industry: field software to test the full industry chain is available for players with an interest in checking exports for quality. SINTEF’s bioresearch is at the heart of these innovations, as is its information and communications technology. Norwegian researchers’ extensive environmental monitoring of cultivation sites frames the exhaustive efforts by feed developers to ensure traceablity and fish health. Strict national guidelines govern traceability in Norway. Accreditation and ISO 9002 assurance are needed to analyze feeds, identify treatments and control fish life cycles. Controlled traceability entails inspections and quality control, for which the fishmeal industry in Norway has developed product quality documentation based on microbiological, chemical and biological analyses. In addition, Norwegian participation in the EU-financed Tracefish initiative will entail the voluntary disclosure of traceable data for fish products in Europe.

Good feed and clean farming techniques have produced fish able to withstand the assaults of pathogens. In addition, feeding systems, monitoring equipment and sound environmental management keep fish healthy, all of which are the new strengths of an industry. Standing by, just in case is Norway-based Brdr. Wingan AS – the world’s largest supplier of fish vaccination services. The company inoculates 70 million smolt and adult fish annually throughout Europe and North America. The largest fish farms are among its customers. Norwegian aquaculture has evolved by employing ecologically sound practises, and in the process has helped the worldwide industry steer safely through uncertainty. As a result, aquaculture is enjoying and looking forward to the knowledge dividend.