15th October

Offshore finfish farms – a game breaking opportunity?

Donal Maguire

With the backing of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney, and in line with the actions set out under the department’s visionary ‘FOOD HARVEST 2020’ strategy, BIM and the Marine Institute are embarking on an ambitious project to fast-track development of one or more, large-scale offshore marine finfish production units off the west coast of Ireland. 

Highly automated offshore production nodes with fish cages and service platforms for personnel to transform Irish aquaculture. Artist's impression, BIM

Highly automated offshore production nodes with fish cages and service platforms for personnel to transform Irish aquaculture. Artist's impression, BIM

It is envisaged that these production units, which will each eventually generate in excess of 15,000 tonnes annually, will be located outside of any Natura 2000 designations, in areas with very high water exchange, remote from any possible negative interactions with migratory fish and be virtually invisible from the land. In the Minister’s words, the intention is to make a “game changing breakthrough in the development of Irish aquaculture”.  


Whilst this may appear to be a highly ambitious plan, it is not at all as far-fetched as it might seem at first sight.  Ireland has long pioneered salmon farming in high energy exposed locations.  Existing salmon farms near Clare Island, Co Mayo and close to Deenish Island in Co Kerry are the most exposed salmon farming operations globally. The hard won lessons and experience gained in learning to operate these sites is now set to be invaluable for the next wave of expansion in salmon farming worldwide.

The ‘near-offshore’ 
Growth of salmon farming in Norway has been spectacularly successful where annual output is currently in excess of 1 million tonnes; however the fjords are now effectively full. The same is largely true of Chile where the remaining space for expansion is located in the very far south of the country close to Antarctica.

This part of the world is utterly remote, very challenging and expensive to service and operate.  Consumer demand for salmon continues to grow as more and more product forms are being developed around this popular and versatile fish species and therefore more and more salmon is needed. Thus, the era of exposed high energy sites is now about to dawn for the rest of the salmon farming world.

Driving force
In this new and exciting space, Ireland’s tiny industry and its determined practitioners actually lead the way. Proof of concept has already been achieved in places such as Clare Island; what has not yet been capitalised upon is the very high assimilative capacity of these high energy locations.

BIM has conducted both practical and desk research, and has run projections of the potential profitability of offshore locations.  What emerges from these studies is a clear and rather startling finding. 

If offshore salmon farming is practiced at a sufficiently high level of production (10,000 tonnes per annum minimum per unit), then the unit cost of production is very competitive, despite the high capital cost required to safely occupy such sites at an acceptable level of operational risk. 

The concept behind this latest State-backed project is to identify one or more suitable production locations where such large-scale salmon farming could be practiced without excessive environmental impact; achieve local community ‘buy-in’; secure the necessary licences and operating permissions and then broker a significant foreign direct investment to bring about this development by private operators. 

The practicalities
A single production node generating 15,000 tonnes of output would create employment for 250 staff directly and a further 350 indirectly in goods and ancillary services.  It would also form the basis for a major centre of seafood production, which in turn would generate all kinds of synergistic development for smaller satellite seafood companies. These companies would benefit from the transport, processing and landing logistics necessary for the main production unit.

From the outset it is intended that local communities adjacent to these farms and their service points would be deeply involved at planning stage and would be guaranteed ongoing benefit in terms of direct employment and long-term commitment to social development.

Although challenging from a wave climate point of view, locations of this sort do have other natural benefits: water quality is consistently excellent; ectoparasitic infestation pressures are much lower (better for sea lice) – as is the likelihood of fish disease transmission from wild host interaction or horizontally from one farmed generation to another. Water temperatures and salinity are also more stable and less prone to fluctuations – all of which characteristics promote uninterrupted fish growth and top quality production. In short, these sites are tough on the human operator but excellent from the fish’s point of view.

Having said that, modern salmon farming technology such as automated remotely-controlled feeding barges; large well built service vessels; remote monitoring and advanced telemetry and oil industry style rostering and operational practices can all be combined to keep occupational health and safety levels at a low level of risk. No rocket science is needed.

All the component technologies have been fully developed and are freely available. What will be novel will be combining them together in large scale and in the right location to produce excellent Irish organic certified salmon.      

Reality or pipedream?
Preliminary studies carried out by BIM and the Marine Institute indicate that three such locations exist around our coast that could be bought into production using currently available technologies with immediate effect. Some large international salmon farming companies are already showing interest and even the most casual perusal of their balance sheets indicates they have the cash to make the investments needed to bring such units on line quickly.

It all hinges however on Ireland creating the right business climate to encourage these companies and to keep them here for the long-term benefit of vulnerable coastal communities.


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