23rd October

Farming the deep blue

Farmed finfish production in Ireland has the potential to increase its current output by 150,000 tonnes a year if the development of offshore sites and the required technology become economically viable.

This is according to Farming the Deep Blue – a major report jointly commissioned by BIM and the Marine Institute  to gauge the potential of offshore finfish farming in Ireland, and internationally.

Launched last October, Farming the Deep Blue signalled the start of a two-day conference of the same name hosted in Limerick by BIM. The event brought together international practitioners and experts to assess the current status of global offshore marine finfish farming.


Estimating the economic benefit to Ireland, the report predicts that a yearly aquaculture harvest of that magnitude would translate to a first-sale value of €500 million. This raw material would trigger downstream processing and ancillary activities worth a further €250 million. In terms of employment, it would support 4,500 jobs – most of them in peripheral rural communities.

Quoting a recent FAO study* of future trends in the supply/demand balance of fishery products, the report predicts that by 2030, the per annum worldwide demand for fishery products will have soared to 180 million tonnes.
This is a 40 per cent increase on the 140 million tonnes supplied by capture fisheries and aquaculture combined in 2001. (Roughly 70 per cent from the capture fishery and 30 per cent from aquaculture)

According to the FAO, ‘aquaculture is growing more rapidly than all other animal food producing sectors. Worldwide, aquaculture has increased at an average compounded rate of 9.2 per cent since 1970, compared with 1.4 per cent for capture fisheries, and 2.8 per cent for terrestrial farmed meat production systems.’

And with the capture fishery component expected to remain static at 100 million tonnes, a shortfall of about 40 million tonnes is inevitable by 2030 - the so-called ‘FAO Gap’. To fill this gap the rate of growth in marine aquaculture production will have to increase substantially.
If such a growth rate is achieved, the annual aquaculture harvest will be supplying nearly 50 per cent of the world’s fish products within a generation.

Realistic targets
Addressing the conference, the report’s author, James Ryan – one of Ireland’s most experienced salmon farmers, and a long-time advocate of offshore aquaculture explained why finfish aquaculture was being forced to expand at offshore sites.
“With constraints on expansion within inshore aquaculture areas and the high costs associated with pump-ashore systems, it is unlikely that these methods alone will produce enough marine finfish to meet the demand forecasted.”
He added: “Competition for space in the inshore zone, characterised by Class 1 and Class 2 type sites, is set to intensify, forcing expansion in marine finfish farming further and further offshore.”
Ryan defended the FAO target as “realistic”, but he said they would be met only if there was a co-ordinated international approach to research and development.
“For us in aquaculture, the challenge is clear. Can we fill the FAO Gap with another 40 million tonnes of production by 2030? I believe that the answer is yes,” he said.
Ryan added that the challenges presented by offshore fish farming would be too great for any single company or indeed any single country to address alone. “The level of increased production can only be achieved by developing offshore finfish farming on a large scale."
“Up to now, offshore development has been un-co-ordinated, poorly-resourced, and happening too slowly. In the last 20 years, we’ve got better at what we do, but not a lot has changed. We need now to go offshore, but the available technologies don’t match those ambitions and the pace of those technologies has been too slow,” he added.
International hub
Part of the solution too, Ryan said, would be to establish “a global community operating in a high-tech virtual environment, which would serve as an international focal point for the development of offshore aquaculture.”

He suggested naming this body the International Council for Offshore Aquaculture (ICOAD), and he revealed that proposals for its formation had already been developed by experts in the field of building virtual communities at the University of Limerick.

“ICOAD would help us to communicate with one another to pool resources and source the funding that will be required. And it might even help with marketing and strategy development. But overall, ICOAD would make offshore aquaculture an international mission so that these concepts could become a reality.”

*The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2002

 James Ryan makes the case

“By 2030, annual production from aquaculture is expected to be 80 million tonnes, representing an increase of more than 40 million tonnes in thirty years. This figure breaks down as follows:

• 39 million tonnes from marine and brackish water
• 41 million tonnes from freshwater (predominantly from China and southeast Asia)

“Breaking that 39 million tonnes down further, we have to take some liberties. In order to reach 40 million tonnes by 2030, aquaculture will have to increase by three per cent a year from the present day. That’s not a lot really. I think we can do it. The liberty is to assume that marine finfish aquaculture will increase by four per cent a year on the basis of what’s happening now and with the amount of resources going into aquaculture.

“That would represent an annual production of 10 million tonnes from finfish aquaculture in 2030 – quite an increase on the present three million tonnes. So we’re talking about increasing finfish in the sea – not just offshore – from three million tonnes to 10 million tonnes. The targets we should be trying to achieve are as follows:
6 million tonnes from Class 1 sites (sheltered/inshore/small degree of exposure/significant wave height <0.5 metres) and Class 2 (sites semi-exposed/inshore/moderate exposure/significant wave height 0.5-1.0 metre)

• 200,000 tonnes from onshore pump-ashore seawater tank systems

• 2.4 million tonnes from Class 3 sites (exposed/offshore/medium exposure/significant wave height 1.0-2.0 metres)

• 1.4 million tonnes from Class 4 sites (open ocean/offshore/high exposure/significant wave height 2.0-3.0 metres)

Total offshore production therefore will be 3.8 million tonnes. This will be worth €15 billion a year. If we accept that as a target, it certainly sounds like a worthwhile target to me!”

Getting there
“So how are we going to achieve 3.8 million tonnes offshore? It’s important to understand that offshore is very different from inshore. “We will have to understand where we are going and what we are doing. We will have to understand all the features of the site, like the wave energies and patterns. And we will have to apply suitable technologies to minimise ware and tear at these locations.

“Offshore fish farming will require a lot more advanced planning than we have been used to up to now. We will have to think about everything in advance in order to be aware of what the ocean might throw at us at these exposed sites.

“We will definitely have to look at larger cages – capable of 1,000 tonnes production, even 2,000 tonnes production capacity. Sites will be larger too, with production capacities of 10-20,000 tonnes annually.

“There will have to be remote monitoring and operation. We cannot be only dependent on boats with staff having to go out in what are generally hostile conditions. If we embrace all this technology, we will be reducing the risks of going offshore. That must me music to the ears of the insurers.

“This all sounds very ambitious, but that’s what we need to be doing to achieve the necessary economies of scale. The approach must be holistic from the start.

“I see the need for a mix of technologies – a mix of rubber-collar cages and steel cages. But I think we can achieve the next step if we follow the co-operative route we are proposing at this conference.

“But many of us feel that the future will be in submerged structures given the problems we have operating on the surface. The sensible thing is to get away from the wave action and be submerged."


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