Manned installations far out to sea and powered by renewable energy could be the future for Scottish fish farming
When President Obama holidayed with his family in Hawaii last autumn, among the dishes served by their private chef Stephen Butler was yellowtail fish; sliced, drizzled with chilli oil, lightly steamed and finished with seared ginger, green onions, ‘micro’ herbs and a citrus sauce. “It has such a beautiful clean, rich taste that preparation can be very simple,” said Butler. “It was awesome, and a huge hit with the Obama family.” In the wild, the species of yellowtail that Obama enjoyed is deep-swimming and considered a ‘trash fish’; of little value and most often discarded if caught. But Butler had used a farmed version. This was no ordinary farm, however; it was sited half a mile off the coast of Hawaii, in briskly-flowing waters 200ft deep.
“Through culturing,” said Neil Sims, president of Kona Blue Water Farms, “we render [the yellowfish] into a superb product.” Farming conjures images of fish reared in the shallows close to the shore. The practice has long prompted accusations that it pollutes inland waters, spreads disease to wild fish and, through the use of fishmeal for feed, depletes the aquatic food chain. Though the industry regards these claims as exaggerated, Blue Water Farms’ trademarked Kona Kampachi is emblematic of an emerging business with the potential to transform fish farming’s image as well as the global food economy and public health.
In this scenario, the fish are farmed much further out to sea on a diet of vegetable matter, specially grown to provide essential protein and oils, in conditions where the likelihood of pollution drops close to zero. The development of mariculture, as it is called, is an ecological imperative, said Sims. Recent studies suggest that 90 per cent of the ocean’s top-end fish have disappeared. Around 25 per cent of fish stocks globally have collapsed, but the fishing industry has not gone away; it has moved on to the 75 per cent remaining.
“The ecological imperative is not just about numbers,” said Sims, a marine biologist, “it is about fragile ecosystems in waters that are already under pressure from nutrient pollution, sedimentation run-off or acidification. It is about lessening the indignities that we visit upon the ocean through destructive fishing practices such as dredging.
“We need to stop thinking of marine creatures as solely extractive resources. We need to give back to the oceans, rather than to just keep taking. We need to develop a sense of stewardship and a culture of nurture. We need to move towards mariculture; growing more of our seafood in the ocean. Responsible open ocean mariculture is where the future of seafood lies,” he said.
It was also a public health priority, he said, both in the developed world where an increase in fish consumption would drastically reduce disease and in the developing world where population increase demands a sustainable food source to cope with demand.
There was, acknowledged Sims, considerable emotion generated by fish farming: “Most comes from farmed salmon. This is not necessarily the salmon farmers’ fault. Thirty years ago, when salmon farming was first developing, the science was very poorly understood and the methods were rustic.
But there have been tremendous advances in feed science, fish physiology and ocean engineering.” The time was right, he said, to explore how fish farming can evolve into a global food production system. He pointed to Europe for a model of sustainable open ocean mariculture: “The Mediterranean seabass and sea bream industries produce around 150,000 tons of fish annually [along] the coastlines of Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. There is very little emotion attached to these operations and very few objections from environmentalists or local communities. These are marine fish welladapted to culture in the ocean, they meet a tremendous market demand for high value marine fish and commercial fisheries have pretty much wiped out the wild seabass and sea bream stocks.” Sims spoke of ‘the blue horizon’ represented by mariculture; in Scotland, Phil Thomas, chairman of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, has for some time urged the ‘farming of the blue acres’. Now, the possibilities for Scotland are becoming clearer to the industry and the Scottish Government: the chance to reclaim its status as a technological leader; the synergies that could be achieved with renewable power; and the transformational impact that offshore fish farming could have on the Scottish economy.
Thomas, with a distinguished career in food and agriculture behind him, has the perspective to articulate the promise for Scotland and the globe of mariculture (or aquaculture, to use the all encompassing term for seafood production): “There’s an inevitable line of thought that runs: if you have a population that’s growing and that is eating more fish then demand is increasing at a time when wild catch fisheries are, in most parts of the world, reaching their limit or declining. The logic that flows from that brings you to aquaculture. There is huge potential there that is genuinely not developed yet. Even now it’s a relatively new industry that didn’t really start to come on stream on any kind of real scale until the early nineties.” When first investing, farmers understandably concentrated on a high-value fish – salmon.
But, said Thomas, there is considerable potential for other varieties, as evidenced by farms throughout Europe. Shellfish also represents a prime opportunity and mussel production in Scotland, in particular, could grow substantially if the predominantly small producers begin to achieve economies of scale.
Offshore fish farming is beginning to take hold in Scotland. Marine Harvest revealed plans earlier this month for a £40 million “open sea” system of large, residential fish farms, creating 40 jobs. Possible sites include the seas off the Outer Hebrides, the Highlands and Argyll and Bute. Residential fish farms already operate in Norway and Canada. They would be the first of their kind in Scotland, and three times the size of existing farms. If given the go-ahead, Marine Harvest said it would build four sites and hopes to begin stocking them by September 2012. “We believe the future of fish farming lies further offshore,” said Alan Sutherland, managing director of Marine Harvest Scotland.
Thomas said that Scotland, with its history and experience in fish farming, was “wellplaced” to develop new sites and technologies.
There is growing interest in the synergy that could be achieved with renewable energy: “Once you start to consider the two together it changes the dynamic of where farms could be placed; by sharing hard anchor points and with their own power supply, there is a whole series of possibilities that didn’t exist before.” As well as fish farming itself, Thomas envisages scope “downstream and upstream” of the producers; for suppliers of equipment and know-how to producers and for producers to supply more sophisticated products to retailers. Last autumn, Stirling-based Scottish Sea Farms, which operates facilities in Shetland and Argyll, was recognised with an industry award for its high-protein, low-fat Lochmuir brand of salmon supplied to Marks and Spencer. The company was also a pioneer of ‘well boats’ which maintain the welfare of fish during transportation to shore and ensure freshness for customers.
The Scottish Government has begun to develop a strategy for the industry. Last July, Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham announced the establishment of working groups to examine seafood health, licensing of aquaculture developments, marketing and access to finance. The groups will contribute to the Government’s aquaculture framework published last May.
And in August, Cunningham signed a memorandum of understanding with her Norwegian counterpart that was designed to recognise Scotland and Norway’s shared interest in aquaculture development; establish a joint committee for bilateral cooperation on aquaculture; provide greater dividends through a more collaborative approach; identify technical equipment standards that reduce environmental impact; and to extend dialogue to include active collaboration on economic, social and environmental issues.
“The aquaculture industry is vitally important to Scotland both economically and socially, in particular to many remote and rural communities,” said Cunningham.
“We want an industry that is competitive, growing, profitable, diverse and sustainable. It is already a major success story for Scotland, but the industry has potential that can be unlocked further. By working together, Scotland and Norway could be a powerhouse of finfish aquaculture research. I look forward to demonstrating Scotland’s wealth of knowledge, skills and proficiency on an international platform.” Scotland’s strategy will complement a European initiative to revitalise a sector that has stagnated across the region (see panel).
Challenges for the industry at home also remain, however: “There are three things that need to come together to make it all happen,” said Thomas. “The biggest single one is change in the planning system. The Scottish Government is working on this and I’m optimistic that we will see changes there.
Within the last few months we have managed to get everyone into one room and to start talking about solutions instead of problems.
People realise that the system was acting as a barrier, not just to new farms but to the rationalisation of old farms.
“The next area where Scotland has a huge opportunity to be at the forefront is in research and development. Historically, we have been very good but have lost our way. Over the past 20 years, Norway has caught up and passed us and we need to re-establish that leading position.” Last Tuesday, Thomas attended a conference in Glasgow aimed at bringing the expertise of the scientific community to bear on the real-world problems, such as disease, and opportunities, such as net technology, of the industry.
“And thirdly, as the industry has become more sophisticated, the demand for skilled workers has increased. Companies have started to tell us that they are having difficulty in finding the right quality of people. So that is an education and training issue that needs to be addressed.” The room for industry expansion is there, said Thomas. Using salmon as an illustration, Scotland currently produces about 140,000 tons a year. Over the next five years that will increase to 200,000 tons. “That’s not an aspiration, a glint in the eye of the producers,” he said, “that’s based on plans that companies already have in place. The longer-term prospect is more difficult to judge but it will certainly be above that.”