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Anticipating - and designing for - aquaculture's future

The year is 2020, and Norway's fish and aquaculture trade is so large that the Norwegian government has created a state company called Statfisk, modelled after the Norwegian oil company Statoil. Researchers have bred fish that can thrive on plant-based fish food, easing pressure on the earth's dwindling marine resources while boosting profits of fish farmers worldwide. Farmed fish is so abundant and healthy that it has become one of the world's chief protein sources, and McFishburgers are a staple in fast-food restaurants across the globe.

When the Research Council of Norway asked 70 aquaculture specialists to look into their crystal balls and predict the future, these were some of the prospects experts envisioned. Foreseeing challenges was part of the exercise as well, in an effort to spur the country's leading aquaculture figures to think both broadly and boldly, and to respond to challenges as well as opportunities.


Anticipating aquaculture's future - and designing for it - is the hallmark of Norway's expanding aquaculture industry. Marine biologists, engineers, and experts in aquaculture and fish health are constantly generating advanced ideas about new species for cultivation, breakthroughs in brood stock breeding, and new approaches to farming equipment, feed types and disease control. Cooperation between researchers and industry results in a combined effort that gives Norwegian aquaculture its spirit of creativity and innovation, which makes for the highest quality fish and aquaculture products.


Norway's aquaculture industry, just 35 years old, has become a giant. Norway is the world's largest exporter of farmed Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout, and the third-largest seafood exporter in the world, after China and Thailand. In 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, 629,000 tonnes of farmed salmon and trout were sold with a market value of NOK 11.2 billion. An estimated 3,650 employees work directly for the aquaculture industry's 1,460 aquaculture concerns, with another 20,000 workers estimated to be employed by industries that serve fish farmers.


While salmon and rainbow trout dominate the country's aquaculture exports, new and developing products, like farmed cod, halibut and king crab, are growing at an impressive pace. Other advances in feeding, disease control, and aquaculture equipment have made Norway's aquaculture industry a place where today's ideas become tomorrow's innovations.


"The future is really exciting," says Bjørn-Erik Stabell, at the Norwegian Seafood Export Council (NSEC), based in Tromsø in northern Norway. "Particularly when it comes to new species, we have huge opportunities ahead."


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King crab is one of Norway's new areas of focus in aquaculture.
© Per Eide/Norwegian Seafood Export Council












A Carefully Chosen Heritage
Researchers at Norway's Akvaforsk Genetics Center in Sunndalsøra are in pursuit of the perfect parents for hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon fry and other commercial fish species. The group is a subsidiary of AKVAFORSK, the Institute of Aquaculture Research, Norway's largest aquaculture research institution.


Careful breeding programmes are in large part one of the reasons for the industry's impressive growth, says Morten Rye, scientific director at the Genetics Center. "It is fundamental to aquaculture that you base production on the most effective material," he said.


Salmon stocks have now been bred across eight generations, in which researchers choose the salmon that show the most efficient growth rates, highest disease resistance, most delayed sexual maturity and best fat deposition. "We are not removing or adding genes," Rye explains. Hormone manipulation or genetic modification is not permitted in Norway. Thus, the centre doesn't manipulate genes, but uses molecular genetics as a research tool. Researchers are now working to find the DNA markers that identify fish with economically desirable traits - an enormously challenging process, but one that will result in increased efficiency in breeding, Rye says. For example, researchers at AKVAFORSK have recently patented a cod gene that can match cod families to specific local farm conditions. Being able to spot variations in the gene will enable breeders to screen brood stock so that stock are sent to be farmed in conditions that suit them best.


A combined effort called cGRASP, with researchers from the United States, Scotland and the Centre for Integrative Genetics at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås, is designed to expand our understanding of the genetic makeup of salmon and salmon relatives. The results should shed light on the genetic control of qualities like fillet quality, fillet colour, disease and parasite resistance and efficient food use, said Professor Stig Omhold, Norwegian project leader. For example, using genetic tools to identify salmon that are best at producing the desired pink flesh colour could save the industry millions of kroner per year: it costs as much for feed additives to produce farmed salmon's pink flesh colour as it does for the food itself. 


Genetics is also the concern of the Norwegian College of Fishery Science in Tromsø, which opened an archive for marine organisms, called Marbank, in November 2005. A related research arm, Marbio, will examine marine organisms for potentially useful compounds for medicines and other substances.


Twenty-Four International Chefs, Halibut & King Crab
Many features made Atlantic salmon an easy choice for aquaculture, but one of the most important has been egg size and the robustness of salmon fry. Cod and halibut have proven more challenging to farm, partly because their eggs are so small and their young so fragile, said Akvaforsk Genetics Center's Rye.


"Salmon eggs are 200 times bigger than cod eggs - they're much easier to handle," Rye said. Nonetheless, more than 200 Norwegian companies raised roughly 3,200 tonnes of cod for commercial sale in 2004, up from 2,560 tonnes in 2003. Of that, 2,531 tonnes were exported, or about three times as much as in 2004, said the NSEC's Stabell.


The Norwegian government established a dedicated cod breeding programme in 2003 at the Aquaculture Research Station in Tromsø. In early 2006, researchers chose young from the first group of parents that had been bred for their superior characteristics. "You could say we've just selected the first generation that is better than its parents," said Kjersti Fjalstad, leader of the Tromsø breeding programme.


Norwegian blue mussels are another species that are prime for aquaculture. "This is an industry that has been waiting for its big breakthrough in the markets," Stabell said. Norwegian mussels worth NOK 17.7 million were exported in 2005, he said.


Two other Norwegian farmed seafood products have been selected as the main ingredients for an international culinary competition in Lyon called the Bocuse D'Or, Stabell said. Farmed Norwegian white halibut and farmed and wild-caught Norwegian red king crab will be the main ingredients when 24 chefs from around the globe prepare their dishes for the 2007 competition, Stabell said.


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Cultivation of blue mussels in Norway is a growing industry.
© Per Eide/Norwegian Seafood Export Council


Vegetarian Fish

Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout, cod and halibut are top predators: they eat other, smaller fish in the wild. On average, it takes four kilograms of small fish to produce one kilogram of salmon. Therein lies the catch, so to speak. With wild fish stocks worldwide under heavy pressure, fish farmers want food that doesn't require fish as its main ingredient. Alternative food sources can also be cheaper.


Researchers are tackling this problem via two different approaches. One is selective breeding, where scientists choose fish that are most efficient at converting food into body mass. Selective breeding by the Akvaforsk Genetics Center has improved the feed conversion ratio for Norwegian salmon so much that salmon farmers have been able to reduce the amount of feed by 210 grams per kilogram of fish produced, resulting in millions of kroner of savings every year.


Another approach is changing the feed itself. Yoav Barr, a researcher at AKVAFORSK, has been working to enrich the small zooplankton that are fed to farmed fish larvae. Early research shows that the enriched zooplankton are twice as rich in essential ingredients as standard larvae food.


Other researchers at AKVAFORSK are looking at soy proteins as a replacement for a part of costly fish proteins. As much as 25 percent soybean meal in cod food, along with soy oil substituted for fish oil, gave good growth and fillet quality in farmed cod, said Turid Mørkøre, an AKVAFORSK researcher. She says that soy is an excellent alternative because of its availability and low cost.


Marine proteins and oils may not necessarily have to come from fish, a possibility being investigated by researchers at SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture, a branch of the SINTEF group of Norway, one of Europe's largest contract research organizations. One approach is to harvest small zooplankton rich in the kinds of marine proteins and fats that fish need, and convert them into fish food. SINTEF researchers have a multi-year project examining this possibility.


The best feed in the world isn't worth much unless it is delivered to fish efficiently. Industry's answer to this challenge has been companies like Arena Aquaculture, which has developed feeders and monitoring equipment that integrate environmental factors with feeding responses. Betten Maskinstasjon has helped pioneer aquaculture feeding systems; to date, the company has shipped nearly 8,000 automatic feeders across the globe.


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Cflow Fish Handling vacuum pumps and flow pumps help transport fish from cages to boats to processing plants.
© Cflow Fish Handling


Watching Out for Fish Welfare
Happy fish are healthier and grow better than stressed fish, numerous research findings have shown. But providing these conditions demands constant vigilance. One company, AKVAsmart, has developed an integrated software program called FishTalk, which enables farmers to keep track of environmental and fish health factors. The company's innovation won the 2005 Nor-Fishing Innovations Prize.


Monitoring fish conditions may also be easier with "Smart Tags", a product under development by an EU-funded project called SEAFOODplus. Fiskeriforskning (the Norwegian Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture Research), a Trondheim-based company called Thelma, and researchers in the Department of Engineering Cybernetics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) are cooperating on the project. Smart Tags are inserted directly into fish, and detect physiological changes that measure fish stress and food uptake.


It's not just farmers who watch out for fish welfare. Aas Mek. Verksted is a shipyard founded in 1911 that has expanded its offerings to include well boats to transport fish from farms throughout Norway's fjords to centralized processing plants. Keeping fish happy is also an important design component for Cflow Fish Handling, which makes the vacuum pumps and flow pumps needed to move fish from cages to boats to processing plants.


Curbing Nomads
Salmon, trout and cod like to roam. Mostly, clever designs and vigilance enable farmers to thwart the nomadic tendencies of fish, but about one percent of Norway's farmed salmon do manage to escape. In 2004, that amounted to 348,000 salmon escapees, a significant drop from 2003, according to Statistics Norway.


Nor-Mær provides tough steel cage systems and other equipment to hinder wandering fish. The systems don't require waterproofing and provide clean, strong nets for fish. Not all fish need to be farmed in the sea; AquaOptima has specialized in land-based fish farming systems with a patented integrated feed waste and excrement control, called ECO-TRAP. The system enables fish farmers to observe the amount of waste feed, which allow rations to be adjusted. Tanks are also a critical component for fish farming, and Bia Miljø is a leading producer of glass-reinforced plastic and glass-reinforced vinylester products, for everything from septic tanks to feeding vessels.


As farmed cod become a larger portion of the aquaculture market, researchers are studying cod escapee behaviour. Scientists at Fiskeriforskning and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research have implanted transmitters in 25 farmed cod to track fish movements when they are freed. The researchers also hope the transmitters might have commercial value in enabling farmers to recapture their finned charges. "The goal is to find out where the escaping cod go and whether this technology can make it easier to capture escaped cod," said Pål Arne Bjørn at Fiskeriforskning.


Keeping Fish Healthy
Every individual farmed fish represents an investment, and its loss, a cost. Thus, keeping fish healthy while they are growing to market size is critical. Norway has always been a leader in farmed fish health. The use of antibiotics in salmon production, for example, is less than one percent of that in the late 1980s, even though ten times more fish are now produced.


Part of this success is due to companies like PHARMAQ, which has pioneered vaccines to prevent illnesses such as infectious pancreatic necrosis, cold water vibriosis and furunculosis. Another problem posed by aquaculture is salmon lice. Norway has strict regulations governing delousing, but farmers would rather be wholly rid of the problem. 


Frank Nilsen, research leader for marine genomics at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, is head of a group working on the development of a vaccine against lice in cooperation with Intervet Norbio, a vaccine manufacturer. The team has found a formulation that works in the laboratory. The trick now is to determine if the vaccine can be produced on a commercial scale, Nilsen said. "We are very excited," he said. "What we saw in the lab is that the lice disappear - they die or fall off the fish."


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Vaccination quality is an essential trait of fish welfare, and is one of PHARMAQ's trademarks












Legislation, Standardization & A Boom in Research
In recognition of aquaculture's tremendous importance to the economy, and to support the industry's efforts to provide top-quality services and goods while protecting the environment, the Norwegian government enacted a new Aquaculture Act, effective as of January 2006. The act deregulates ownership rules and simplifies application processes. At the same time, it requires a specific environmental assessment of coastal zones before aquaculture is established, so that other uses and conservation goals are protected.


Norway's strong oversight of the aquaculture industry includes compliance with international standards and requirements. Standards Norway is the Norwegian member of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The company develops Norwegian standards for everything from methods for measuring the environmental impacts of marine fish farms to assessing the quality and characteristics of salmon fillets.

The Norwegian Food Safety Authority monitors farmed fish for substances such as lead and cadmium, and has always found levels well below national and international limits.


Aquastructures in Trondheim certifies new and existing fish farming equipment in line with national and international standards. The company uses highly advanced software tools such as AquaSim to predict equipment behaviour, while the company's analyses allow fish farmers to develop efficient, cost-effective maintenance plans.


Laws, standards and certifications are of particular interest to today's industries, but the Research Council of Norway has a different focus: to prepare for the future, by providing research money and supporting the country's best thinkers as they solve aquaculture's challenges and develop new products and tools.


Aquaculture has been selected as one of the Research Council's seven large-scale research programmes, a designation that reflects the importance of aquaculture to the Norwegian economy, said Rolf Giskeødegård, aquaculture programme coordinator. The Research Council awarded about NOK 120 million in funds for aquaculture research in 2006, he said. "This is an industry that has a lot of potential for expansion and development," he said. "Research can be a major contributor to that."


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Aquastructures' advanced software tools help fish farmers develop efficient, cost-effective maintenance plans.
© Aquastructures


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