Ecologically tempting but economically risky

Is the era of salmon farming in floating net cages coming to an end? More and more critics are calling for a shift of production to land-based facilities because of the numerous risks to which open systems in the sea are exposed: adverse weather conditions, toxic algal blooms, jellyfish plagues, diseases and parasites. Added to these hazards is the fact that floating farms have a strong impact on the marine environment. But would land-based farming really solve all the problems?

An attempt to draw the balance of salmon farming since its early beginnings would probably give a rather mixed picture. On the one hand, there have been indisputable achievements: total production has risen to over 2.3 million tonnes and is relatively stable. Salmon is in demand and now available almost anywhere in the world. On the other hand, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that difficulties are growing in many places, and particularly in the big producer countries. In Chile, when the industry just seemed to have more or less conquered the ISA crisis, the next disaster was already waiting around the corner in the shape of toxic algal bloom. And Norway, the most important producer country, has despite all efforts been unable to gain control of the sea lice problem. Production is stagnating, a development that is not only felt by smokehouses and retail chains but also by consumers who find they have less in their purses as salmon prices rise. One can’t help but get the impression that the salmon industry is currently at an impasse.

Environmentalists and scientists see the reason for the industry’s present plight mainly in the methods that are currently used to farm salmon in the sea. They are particularly critical of the floating net pens, for these “open systems” interact directly with the environment. This does have certain advantages because the fishes can then grow in their natural surroundings, constantly swimming in clean water, but it can also lead to problems. Storms, wind and waves inflict damages on the pens, seals and other predators attack the nets, toxic algae, tiny jellyfish and parasites get through the net meshes, and sometimes serious diseases cause havoc on the farms. The salmon are subject to such risks nearly every day of the 18 to 24 months that they spend in the marine enclosures and no one can predict exactly how high the losses will be or if all will ultimately turn out well.

So wouldn’t it actually be better to move salmon production from the “open” enclosures in the sea to enclosed facilities on land where environmental impacts can not only be effectively controlled but also often be specifically influenced? At the centre of such considerations are mostly Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS), also called closed loop systems, where the water in which the fishes grow circulates constantly. Integrated water treatment technology ensures that the water is repeatedly cleaned and recycled in such a way that it can be used several times. Over the past few years this elaborate and complex technology has made considerable progress, making it seem feasible and manageable for commercial usage on the industrial scale that is today characteristic of salmon farming.

Already now farmed salmon spend the first third, sometimes even half, of their lives in land-based facilities, for (as we know) smolts are reared in freshwater.

Land-based production promises greater sustainability

In some respects RAS are autonomous systems which make the choice of location largely independent of a permanent water supply. Their separation from the environment isolates the farmed salmon from their relatives in the wild which also solves the problem of escapes from the net cages. In addition, it acts as a barrier that keeps diseases and parasites such as sea lice away from the breeding tanks. That is why this kind of system can get by without the use of vaccinations, pesticides or aggressive chemicals. And because water temperatures in RAS are always ideal the salmon eat throughout the year, they grow uniformly and develop much faster to a marketable size. On average, an RAS will enable time savings of about 6 months compared to traditional net enclosures. Because in many countries approval is no longer given to applications for marine farms RAS are often the only way to pursue aquaculture today. In the face of the convincing benefits and opportunities offered by this technology one might now expect conventional salmon farmers to be investing in RAS as a means of expanding their production. Particularly since farmed salmon already today spend at least the first third, sometimes even half, of their lives in land-based facilities because the species lives in freshwater up to the smolt stage. As a rule this phase is carried out in raceways but occasionally also in recirculating systems.

Steven Summerfelt, the Aquaculture Director at the US-American Conservation Fund Freshwater, is convinced that the future of salmon farming is in land-based RAS. The Atlantic Salmon Federation, which is committed to the conservation and protection of wild salmon stocks, is calling for a changeover to this environmentally friendly technology. A study published in June 2016 by the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) confirmed that aquaculture in enclosed systems on land had decisive advantages with regard to the sustainability of farming methods. However, although the number of supporters is growing, RAS technology remains controversial in much of the salmon industry.


First land-based salmon farms already in operation

Hardly more than a dozen such farming systems are currently in the planning, construction, or operation phase worldwide. There are three in each of Canada and the USA, two in each of Denmark and China, one in Poland and one in France. The planned capacity of these recirculating systems is altogether 10,000 t per year, or approximately 0.4 per cent of global salmon production. The world’s first land-based salmon farm, the RAS of Langsand Laks, began producing in Hvide Sande in Ringköbing Fjord in 2013. This company is to supply 2,000 t salmon per year once it is working at full capacity. Danish Salmon, which is located near Hirtshals, is equipped for the same production volume. In November 2014 Jurassic Salmon went into operation in Karnice near Szczecin as the first land-based salmon farm in Poland. The farm covers an area of just under 8,000 square metres and once everything is running it should produce 1,000 t salmon per year. Interest is growing in France, too. With Bdv (SAS) a small 50 tonne system is already in operation in Normandy near Géfosse-Fontenay. And the salmon smokehouse and processor Meralliance has announced that it plans to set up a land-based 4,000 square metre RAS in Brittany in the port of Guilvinec (Département Finistère) which will have an annual capacity of 800 tonnes.

In China, too, which currently imports 30,000 to 50,000 t salmon per year, there are serious intentions to produce the species locally in RAS. The 1,000 t Yantai Salmon Farm of Shandong Oriental Ocean Sci-Tech already supplied 400 t salmon in 2015. The company now wants to gradually increase production. However, it is uncertain whether a second project was in fact realised. The investor, a Chinese state-owned water supplier, wanted to have the Danish specialist Billung Aqua set up a 1,000 t RAS for Atlantic salmon in the Gobi desert in Central Asia. Since its announcement in 2013, however, little has been heard of the project. The basic intention to produce salmon in China remains an ongoing issue, however. Only recently, the Chinese planning office Sinor which supports European companies looking to enter the Chinese market announced that it was planning the construction of a 10,000 t RAS. And land-based salmon farming is planned in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), too, and was scheduled to start in April 2015. In addition to sea bass, sea bream and grouper, Fish Farm LLC was to farm 200 t of salmon in a separate hall. The technology partner for this recirculating system was the Danish subsidiary of the Norwegian Akva Group which announced the signing of a contract with the Fish Farm LLC (headquarters: Dubai) worth 9.5 million euros in November 2013. Since then, however, little has been heard of this project.

Asgeir Brynjulfsson/Langsand Laks
Salmon farming on land has some distinct advantages with regards to sustainability, but not everyone in the industry is convinced by recirculation technology.

Financial requirements often much higher than expected

There is no lack of audacious plans, projects and announcements in the RAS scene. But it is often not easy to find out at a later date whether they were actually realised or if they have been postponed or even given up altogether. Some projects are still haunting the internet although the investors have long since pulled out. The announcement by Palom Aquaculture to set up a land-based 500 t farm for Atlantic salmon (with the perspective of even extending production to 1,500 t) at a former base of the US Marines in the state of Maine does not seem to have been implemented yet. When searching the web for news of any developments in this direction one only gets project sketches and budget figures. And the fate of the land-based 3,000 t mega salmon farm whose construction was to begin in 2014 on the Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland is equally unclear. Apparently it was money that was lacking, for in the official project announcement it said that they were looking for investors who could provide about 15 million GBP or approximately 18.1 million euros.

Financing problems are a problem for almost all operators of recirculating systems. The investment and operating costs of RAS are considerable and it often takes several years for production to yield any profits. Although industry experts claim that, when assessed fairly, the operating costs of land-based facilities are hardly higher than those of marine farms because the boats which are a necessary part of any marine aquaculture facility cause enormous costs, neutral studies have shown that RAS farming is 10 to 15 per cent more expensive than marine farming even in the most favourable of cases. This can also be seen in the balance of Langsand Laks. After a debt of about 700,000 euros accrued in the first twelve months the operating losses rose to 2 million euros in 2014 despite the fact that 352 tonnes of live salmon had already been sold.  The company expects to achieve profitability for the first time in 2016. It is difficult to assess cost-effectiveness in some recirculating systems because state subsidies or financial aid from the EFF fund of the EU tend to cloud any clear view of economic realities. In spite of cost-saving advantages such as the relative closeness to the markets or the possibility to produce throughout the year RAS remain a particularly expensive method for producing fish. This is presumably one major reason why conventional salmon farmers have so far been hesitant and are still delaying the transition from the sea to the land.

And higher costs are not the only problem, for from a technical and biological viewpoint RAS can have some unpleasant surprises in store, too. Sustainable Fish Farming (SFF) in Nova Scotia, Canada, which produces about 100 t salmon per year experienced quite a setback last year when there was an electricity cut over a period of six hours during the night time one weekend. This had not only paralyzed the system’s pumps and oxygen supply but also switched off the alarm and backup system. 12,000 salmon, the first from land-based production in the province of Nova Scotia, were lost. Total damages amounted to 225,000 euros.

Considerable progress but more research needed

In a lot of recirculating aquaculture systems there also arises the problem that up to one third of the male salmon reach sexual maturity prematurely, mostly at a weight of 1.5 to 2 kilograms. In spite of feeding, these fishes stop growing and lose the salmon’s typical silvery hue, and the quality of their meat diminishes strongly so that they are practically no longer marketable. The reasons for this phenomenon are still not clear. There are guesses that the constant temperatures in the systems are to blame. The influence of female sex pheromones is also being discussed as a possible reason. These hormones are excreted in low concentrations by female salmon. In farms located in the sea these attractants are immediately diluted and washed away but in the RAS tanks they can accumulate and stimulate the male fishes. By altering the daily light-dark rhythm the problem can be limited to just a few per cent of the stock but it cannot be completely eliminated. Currently efforts are being made to solve the prematurity problem through new, RAS optimized strains of salmon.

In theory it is correct that fishes farmed in RAS are less at risk to diseases, making medication unnecessary. However, to achieve this, all biosecurity measures have to be adhered to exactly in order to protect the system from external influences. In everyday practice this is difficult to achieve however, because there are numerous vectors with which germs can get into the system: inadequately disinfected staff, contaminated feed, unhygienic instruments, or previously infected fry. Once a pathogen has overcome the safety barrier the constantly warm, humid climate in the RAS offers optimal conditions for growth and it can then spread very quickly. Fighting such a pathogen in an RAS is often more difficult than in the open sea because the use of certain drugs is prohibited in RAS due to the fact that they harm the bacteria used during water treatment. At Langsand Laks, for example, there were initial problems with a bacterial furunculosis infection which was so persistent that the system had to be shut down completely, thoroughly disinfected and then restarted.

The Canadian salmon producer Kuterra had similar experiences in the north of Vancouver Island where they have operated an RAS since 2013. The plant cost 6.7 million USD and has six tanks each with 40,000 Atlantic salmon which swim there in freshwater (!) until they are ready for market. In the opinion of the plant operators who belong to the Nemgis, the country’s “First Nation”, this gives the salmon a particularly mild, full-bodied, slightly buttery flavour. Kuterra market their salmon at premium prices which are 15 to 50 per cent above conventional prices for marine farmed salmon. Although the company alleges the salmon easily find buyers Kuterra has still not reached break-even point. It is not only the high production costs that are to blame for this but apparently also quality problems in the first production batches. Some salmon reached maturity prematurely, were too small and displayed discolouration in the fillets, as well as, frequently, having an off-flavour. The farm technology didn’t work as expected. Pumps had to be replaced, additional oxygen supply systems had to be installed, and a defect feeding system that threw up to 75 kg more feed than required into the water every day had to be repaired. All of this meant additional costs which had not been anticipated in the original business plan. In addition, mortality was high in the first three production cycles: between 13 and 29%. The cause was a fungal infection in the smolts which is normally not a problem because the salt water kills the fungus when the smolts are put into the sea. Kuterra salmon continue to live in freshwater, however, which had led to the losses. The problem is said to have in the meantime been solved and mortality is now below 10%. What remains, however, are financial losses, so that three years after the start the company is still not making profits.

Langsand Laks
The trickling filter removes carbon dioxide from the water at a Danish land-based salmon farm.


Profitability doubts dampen optimism

In spite of some unresolved issues land-based salmon production is playing an increasingly important role in strategic planning simulations for the future of aquaculture, particularly since traditional marine farms are facing ever increasing challenges. Under pressure of rising production costs which according to a statement by the consultant Kjell Bjordal increased by 55.6% in the last decade experts are in the meantime having serious thoughts even in Norway about whether a shift of salmon production from the sea to the land might be feasible. Lack of space would presumably not be a problem: based on Bjordal’s calculations an area of 4.8 square kilometres would be absolutely sufficient for Norway’s current salmon production of 1.2 million tonnes in land-based RAS. A working group of the Ministry of Fisheries recommends that, to promote land-based salmon production, the responsible authorities issue an unlimited number of special licences without the fees that are generally charged. So far no one need fear that Norwegian salmon will flood the market from land-based farms, however, for experts from the research institute Nofima have recalculated and come to the sobering conclusion that even under the condition that it would be possible to hold 180 kg of salmon per cubic metre in RAS tanks, for an annual production of 2,000 t, salmon tanks with a total volume of 11,000 cubic metres would be necessary. The investment necessary for that would be 150 to 200 million NOK, or 16 to 21 million euros. That would make land-based production five to seven times more expensive than production in floating sea cages.

The Irish Salmon Growers’ Association come to the same conclusion based on the “Assessment of land-based grow-out of salmon in closed containment systems under Irish conditions” and the study “Potential for Land-based Salmon Grow-out in Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) in Ireland”: salmon farming on land is still far too expensive and unprofitable. However, if it is a question of eliminating risks to natural fish populations in the wild RAS are already indisputable. A convincing example of this is Aqua Bounty which keeps its genetically engineered AquAdvantage Salmon strictly isolated in recirculating systems.