Cruising the blue economy

by | Mar 16, 2022 | Opinion

Aquaculture is booming. Half of the world’s seafood comes from aquaculture and this is expected to grow a third again by 2030. New Zealand wants to grow our agriculture industry from today’s 600 million to 1 billion by 2025 and 3 billion by 2035. 

Trouble is, while coastal fish farming might reduce pressure on wild stocks and provide viable protein alternatives, it comes with its own high environmental cost. New Zealand is pioneering innovative mobile fish farms designed for the open ocean. The idea is to start with what’s best for the fish. Vincent Hearing spoke to Plant and Food Research scientists Susie Black, and Damian Moran to find out more. 


Vincent: The idea of a mobile fish farm sounds fantastic. What is it?

Suzie: Aquaculture usually happens in sea pens, often close to the coast, and in one place. The fish have to deal with the environment they’re in year round — whether that’s experiencing a summer, a winter or other extreme conditions. With the mobile systems we are at the first stage of developing proof of concept for, we’re able to move them to take the fish to the water temperatures, to clean water, and to environments the fish actually like to be in. 

VH: Is that a new concept — a New Zealand invention?

SB: Yeah, to the extent of our vision we’re looking at. There are many researchers around the world looking at open ocean aquaculture. The approach of a lot is to have massive engineered structures, stuck in one place to withstand huge wave heights, really extreme elements. There have been a few different technologies developed that have a mobile element to them, but not quite to the degree that we’re trying to explore.

Plant & Food Research joins Blue Economy CRC project exploring the use of floating platforms.

VH: That’s interesting. We’ve got a history in innovation in this space. It was Plant and Food that developed the precision seafood harvesting net which has had so much publicity. Is Plant and Food alone in producing this mobile concept or are there other partners?

SB: It’d be great to say we could do this all by ourselves, but we’ve got a remarkable team of collaborators. We’re working with the Cawthron Institute, University of Auckland, the University of Otago. We’ve got our international collaborators up in Norway at SINTEF, also University of Exeter,  Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, and the University of Rostock in Germany as well. So definitely a great collaboration.

VH: What are the advantages of mobile over non-mobile systems?

SB: It’s understanding what does the fish need to be at its best. Being able to move the fish enclosures to areas that are going to be great for the fish around water, temperature, water quality and things like that. But we don’t want to stop there. We really want to take that whole of ecosystem approach to the design so the production system we create is not only great for the fish inside, but also great for the environment it sits within.

VH: You would be one of the rare fish farmers that actually thinks about the fish and builds from the fish up!

SB: You don’t wanna just build a system and try to stuff efficient into it. We’re trying to build the system around the fish. So yeah, it is a bit of a different approach in the research world. We’ve gone down a different route that looks after the animal and the environment. But to say that it’s a different approach for aquaculture — I don’t think that the fish farmers would say that. They’re very much in tune with their animals and animal husbandry. 

VH: What about the potential for using this technology to expand the number of species that could be considered for farming?

SB: There’s quite a bit of potential. At the moment in New Zealand, we’ve got some issues with climate change around warming waters, and some areas of the country that just aren’t suitable for the species we grow here — Chinook salmon. What if a mobile production system could go to different temperatures, down south and in the cooler temperatures for salmon, or elsewhere to farm snapper,  trevally, or other New Zealand species. There’s opportunity to increase our resilience and food security.

Damian Moran, scientist with Plant and Food Research

VH: Damian, tell us about the challenges around feed.

DM: Certainly there are issues to do with the footprint and the impact of fish farming. Unlike cows and sheep which graze on grass, we are usually farming predators, animals that are used to eating protein and fat. So for a lot of species we have to take those ingredients from other ecosystems, near the top of the food pyramid. Finding that at a global scale is an ecological challenge. Fish diets, 30 or 40 years ago, a lot of them started off as waste fish, trash fish is what people used to refer to them. Eventually we moved towards a more manufactured diet made up of powders, meals and flowers sourced from all over the world. The impact or footprint of the production of those ingredients, although they are away from where the fish are farmed, are part of the system. Growing fish is a very large ecological system that usually extends well beyond the sea to land production systems. There’s a lot of complex, interlinked issues there.

VH: The possibility of farming a different type of fish, does that change the way you think about feed?

DM: There is a lot of interest in farming herbivorous species that would eat algae or plant material. If we think about the ocean, there are not a huge number of vegetarian fish species compared to say fresh water. That’s just how those ecosystems have evolved. But there are some herbivorous species that we should definitely look into more because if we can feed fish on diets that are lower down the food chain we can potentially have a lower footprint.

VH: I suppose the fish farms you are talking about could become the fish food for other farms as well,  producing is a more sustainable feed stock.

DM: Yeah, that’s true. So thinking about how we can design the bottom of the food pyramids for these fish. Under some scenarios we may grow other fish and then feed them to fish we farm and harvest for eating. That could extend to all sorts of things. Because we’re looking at supplying the fish with protein and fat we can look at insect production. We could use sand hopper type insects from different ecosystems. We can potentially take that protein and fat, process and modify it, providing it’s suitable for the fish we’re trying to grow. 

VH: It opens up the possibility of ingredients into other parts of the food system, right? We’re not just talking about fish as a food or fish for other fish feed, but as a source of protein into human diets, for instance, as an ingredient.

DM: Exactly. We eat an increasingly large amount of processed foods. It generally has a sort of negative connotation, but there are, as you say, a variety of ways we can deliver low footprint, healthy protein and fat to people by taking this approach of recombining and modifying ingredients.

VH: Damian, in another article you compared the range of protein options available in the sea, compared to what we have on land. You said: “We’ve got cow sheep, pigs and chickens, goats, and so on, but in the ocean there are many thousands of species yet to be explored for their potential, whether as food or other uses.” That really blew my mind. But I suppose that’s the point of the blue economy, right? It’s this massive unexplored opportunity for not just exploration and enjoyment, but as a food source.

DM: Yeah, that’s right. If you think about what our current diets tend to rely on in terms of animal protein, it’s a relatively narrow range of sources globally. There are various historical and contingency reasons why that is so. But if we think about what we could farm in the sea and for the moment, even just restricting us to the world of fish, we’re talking about, tens of thousands of different species. There’s a high diversity and, you know, potentially any one of those things could be domesticated or farmed or deliberately produced. So yeah, there is a lot of potential out there.

VH: Susie, we’re all trying to find our place in the sun with regard to our story around food production and why people would buy from New Zealand. Is there a particular fish or maybe even an approach to fish that is the New Zealand story?

SB: I think you just touched on it Vincent. It’s the approach, not necessarily just one species, but having that whole of ecosystem approach and having the most sustainable production systems. That’s really where New Zealand has a real focus. And it would be great to have everything going out as boutique. We’re not going to be able to produce the billions of tons of foods other larger countries are. So everything that we do produce should be of the highest quality. I really see the opportunity of the technology development and the approach of these systems that could be exported to the world. That I think is the really special thing of New Zealand.

VH: So we’re talking about the IP of fish farming, not just the produce. And we’ve got some sort of heritage in this, I’m thinking about the intelligence around kiwifruit developed by Plant & Food. 

Suzy Black, scientist with Plant and Food Research

SB: Yeah. We’ve got some pretty clever people around here and all around in the country. It’s bringing people together to tackle these really tricky topics like open ocean agriculture. We’re just right at the start of the journey, trying to figure out the right questions to ask. We’re not saying we’ve knocked this challenge off, not even close, but I’m pretty confident that we’ll get there. It’s certainly not going to be done by a couple of people. It’s just about a whole of country approach to pull this one off.

DM: Suzie’s right, it’s going to be the way we farm these fish. One area we’re working on is trying to figure out how we can produce diets within New Zealand for these fish, so we can produce fish that are made of New Zealand, not just made in New Zealand from imported ingredients, which is how it works in New Zealand currently and around a lot of the world. We want to give the fish a particular provenance, and build a world-leading food ecosystem under the fish in the best way possible. So that when people buy fish from New Zealand, they know what they’re getting, where the food’s coming from for the fish they’re buying. And there’s a whole food story that sits behind the fish, because consumers are becoming more aware of the total footprint of food production. So that’s one angle. 

One thing we hope will be fairly unique from New Zealand as we enter into a more holistic and full treaty partnership with Maori, is recognition of the special sort of ownership and guardianship that Maori have over our native species — which are often taunga if we’re talking about fish species. We’re not talking about cows and sheep here, we’re talking about tāmure, snapper. Um, we’re talking about, native marine finn fish species, that if we’re gonna domesticate and derive commercial value from it, there’s a whole discussion and approach that we’re, not just Plant and Food, but others as well are looking to engage in as we develop this aquaculture sector and industry for New Zealand. And that could be quite unique.

SB: There are a lot of unexplored opportunities still out there, whether aquaculture or wild fishing. And it’s that passion around looking after the animal. If you look after the animal, the animal will look after you, whether that’s in quality or price or things like that. It’s also being able to support our industries and developing technologies, real game changes that can change people’s lives. That’s a real buzz of the job.

VH: How far away are we from seeing a commercial expression of these mobile fish farms you’re working on?

SB: As I mentioned before, this is proof of concept stages. Getting some prototypes in the water and seeing if they’re physically strong enough to withstand the conditions we are going to expose them to. Next step is putting fish into those prototypes and making sure the fish like being in them, they grow well, and the overall system sits well within the environment with the lightest footprint it can have. We have a long way to go through that prototyping stage and then some pilot scale trials. Before we get into that commercial stage we’re looking at operational challenges and things like that. It sounds like a long time, but perhaps in 20 years time, we may be getting there. It takes that long to iron out those challenges. If we are able to demonstrate that proof of concept, show people there’s an opportunity, then people will become interested and take it that step further. We’re not going to do this all by ourselves. It’s our job to demonstrate what’s possible, or what are the tools needed to make this possibility a reality. That’s really our job as scientists, to show people something’s possible that they they’ve never thought about before, and then making that a reality.

VH: You’re both young enough, by the look of it, to see 20 years out and still be, um, you know, cogent and all that. What does success look like for you Damian, in say, 10 or 20 years.

DM: Assuming the regulatory framework has been sorted, and that we’ve broadly solved some of the challenges of actually farming fish in the sea. I’d say it’s going to be a lot more dynamic and fluid than we can currently imagine is a fish farming operation. It’s going to be well monitored, have as lower footprint as we can possibly do. It’s going to be socially acceptable and not drastically negatively impact things like seabirds or Marine mammals. We are pushing out into new spaces where there’s little persistent human presence, so we’ve got to make sure we don’t repeat some of the problems our four bearers encountered as they developed new food production systems.

VH: How about you, Susie?

SB: Yeah, as Damien mentioned, we haven’t had a great track record in some of these production systems over the years, and we must and will do better. And the production systems around the country, expanding on that, starting at that smaller scale, maybe we could have community-based farms where people are growing their own fish out in their own production systems. 

At a regional level, taking it into the tropics, what about growing fish for reef restoration and restocking? There are many opportunities that this type of technology could open up, not just seafood production for food. There are a myriad of other opportunities around environmental concerns.

VH: It really feels like we’re at the cusp of something quite new. What you’ve just described is really quite interesting. And that was only in half an hour!

This is an edited transcript of a longer interview. Click here to listen to the full interview.

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