As Alaska struggles to maintain commercial productivity in its most-valuable, wild-salmon fisheries, competition in the fish market is looming on every horizon.
Land-based salmon farms are popping up in odd places across the U.S., and the Norwegians and the Chinese are teaming to take salmon farming to new heights or, more accurately, new depths offshore.
China.org today reported the first delivery of a deepwater, “intelligent offshore farm” to the Norwegian company SalMar ASA. “Ocean Farm 1” is designed to be positioned in water 300 to 600 feet deep where currents can sweep it clean in four dimensions while computers monitor its performance.
“It is the world’s first offshore salmon farming equipment built on the same principle as semisubmersible installations used in the offshore oil and gas drilling sector,” the Chinese national website said.
“Unlike traditional fish farming facilities, the ocean farm embodies advanced technologies including automatic fishing, hydrological monitoring, deep-sea positioning and biological light adjustment systems.”
Open-ocean fish farms have been touted as one path to greening a business sometimes blamed for polluting protected bays and coves with fish waste.
“Impaired water quality is typically observed around farms in nearshore or intertidal habitats where flushing is minimal and at farms using feeds that include unprocessed raw fish rather than formulated feeds,” a report prepared for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded.
As aquaculture has evolved over the last two decades, however, “feed formulation and management…are largely credited for the reduction in water quality impacts,” the report continued. Proper siting in areas with sufficient flushing is important for eliminating nutrient enhancement, turbidity, and decreased dissolved oxygen. In the open ocean, water quality impacts are not likely to pose a great environmental threat when farms are properly sited and appropriately managed.”
Siting issues have cropped up as problems everywhere, including in Alaska where a fishermen’s group ran into opposition from environmentalist when it decided to park salmon net pens in Kachemak Bay between Homer and Kachemak Bay State Park. Alaska bans salmon farming, but allows salmon ranching.
The lines between the two blur when salmon ranchers try to raise fry and smolt to optimum sizes before turning them out to sea to compete with wild fish similarly migrating into the North Pacific. Size gives the hatchery fish a fin up on their wild counterparts.
Norway is primed to solve the siting issue in a major way, at least as regards farming, with a move to the open ocean.
The Norwegian way
Norway, which a lot of influential Alaskans see as a leader in the way to get things done in the far north, has been at the forefront of technological innovation since it got into the oil business in the North Sea in 1971. Now it is taking what it learned there and using it to accelerate aquaculture.
“When the Parliament agreed on ten policy guidelines for the oil and gas sector in 1971, protection of the environment was one of the rules,” reports Invest in Norway, an arm of the Norwegian government.
“The oil companies, oil service companies and the research and development centers have followed up. They have developed new ideas, tested them and then introduced them to operations on the Norwegian Continental Shelf. The industry has been looking for best available technology and has been willing to use the technology. As a result the Norwegian production of oil and gas causes far lower emissions per unit of oil equivalents produced than in other countries.
“These accomplishments have only been possible by the continuous efforts of the Norwegian industry to develop and implement increasingly advanced technologies.”
All that advanced offshore oil-and-gas tech is now fueling aquaculture tech.
Kongsberg Gruppen – a Norwegian technology company into everything from autonomous underwater vehicles (UAVs) to space surveillance to remotely operated electronic ships (think of them as the zero-emission drones of the sea) – has labeled the latest in offshore fish farming a paradigm shift.
Kongsberg was involved in developing some of the technology said to make Ocean 1 a fully automated facility that allows 3 or 4 people to “cultivate,” as the Chinese call it, up to 1.5 million fish per year.
“With greater focus on biology and nurturing healthier fish, the concept delivers significantly improved yields that will prove important in the decades to come as part of Norway’s strategy to leverage its aquaculture and offshore expertise to meet the challenges of accelerating population growth and the pressures this places on the world’s food supply chain,” Kongsberg president Egil Haugsdal said in an April statement.
Norwegian Fried Salmon?
Improved yields have some in the aquaculture business talking about salmon as the next chicken.
Global chicken consumption skyrocketed in modern times as technological changes made chickens cheaper and cheaper to produce. In the U.S. alone, the National Chicken Council reports, per capita consumption of chicken rose from 28 pounds in 1960 to 91 pounds last year.
“Until 1920, chicken meat was considered a luxury reserved for special occasions,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Chickens were strictly a by-product of egg production, as cockerels and unproductive hens were culled from the laying flock. Efforts to raise chickens for meat had been spotty and short-lived. In the mid 1920’s production of chickens for meat reached significant levels, and the poultry industry in the United States has evolved dramatically ever since.”
Commercial chicken farms figured out how to produce the animals cheaply on a massive scale. About 2 million metric tons of chicken meat was produced in the U.S. in 1960, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; production rose to more than 17 million tons last year.
Tyson Foods, a leader in growing the U.S chicken business, went from a $5 billion per year business in 1989 to an almost $35 billion per year business now, according to NPR.org.
Christopher Leonard, the author of “The Meat Racket,” told NPR he thought Don Tyson a genius who “saw that chicken would soon replace beef or pork as the most popular meat in the United States.”
“These days it takes less than eight pounds of food to raise a four‐pound chicken in eight weeks, pushing the industry’s net return to almost 5 cents a bird,” the New York Times reported back in 1979. “In 1957 it took twice the time and 10 pounds of feed to produce a four pound bird and the return was less.”
The numbers haven’t changed much since then. Chicken, according to the USDA, still has a “feed conversion ratio” of 2, meaning it takes two pounds of chicken food to produce a pound of chicken meat. Chicken, however, remains far and away the best investment in land-based meat production.
The feed conversion ratio for hogs is three or more. For cattle, it’s six. For salmon?
The Norwegians have it down to 1.35, according to Skretting, a major manufacturer of feed for the aquaculture industry.
Salmon aquaculture is not without its problems. Sea-lice infestations reduced anticipated production in Norway, Scotland, Canada and other countries last year, and farms in the Northern Hemisphere have been increasingly forced to resort to pesticides to kill the pests.
But aquaculture is now a full-fledged industrial agriculture , and it’s amazing the number of problems industrial agriculture has been able to overcome to boost food production.
In 1968, Stanford biology professor Paul Ehrlich’s book – “The Population Bomb” – predicted the deaths by starvation of hundreds of millions in the 1970s, including 65 million Americans. It didnt’ happen even as the global population doubled.
A science-driven “green revolution” transformed agriculture. Crop production soared. Civilization marched on. Progress is a hard thing to stop.
There is no indication that salmon farming, now a well-established industry, will be any different from any other farming. Salmon farmers already control 70 percent of the salmon market, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which echoes the USDA’s 1920 observation on chicken:
“Salmon consumption worldwide is three times higher than it was in 1980. What was once a luxury food is among the most popular fish species in the U.S., Europe and Japan. Salmon aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world.”
Little of this good news for Alaska fishermen, or Alaskans in general given the ban on fish farming. Not that the commercial salmon fishery in the 49th state is going away any day soon. The wild Alaska brand is a valuable one.
There is sure to be a continuing demand for the best of Alaska wild salmon, just as there is a demand for the best of almost everything.
But market forces can be expected to continually drive salmon prices down, and the more efficient and productive fish farms become, the more prices will fall with pressure coming both from deepwater and on land.
A salmon-raising fish farm in Wisconsin is just now going operational. Waste from the recycled water in the 40,000-square-foot “fish house” at Superior Fresh is used to fertilize plants in an associated 123,000-square-foot greenhouse, reported Aquaculture North America.
“We are raising the most premium salmon in the world,” company COO Brandon Gottsacker told the website. “The pristine water and the absence of antibiotics or pesticides, is something today’s consumers are demanding.”
Superior plans to market the same thing the promoters of wild, Alaska fish try to sell – quality. Alaska’s advantage is the state’s mystique. Superior advantage is that its closer to consumers and pitching healthy eating on multiple fronts.
“Our anticipated production of about 4,500 lbs of leafy greens and herbs a day will reach out to approximately 700 grocery stores between Minneapolis and Chicago,” Gottsacker told the website. “We plan to harvest between 16-40-day-old plants depending on the variety.
“Today, there are not very many options in this part of the country to purchase fresh, local, healthy produce, especially this time of year. Superior Fresh also plans to pursue USDA organic certification for all its leafy greens.”
Organic greens….Locally grown salmon produced in constantly monitored water screened to ensure the absence of pollutants….Fresh herbs….
Markets march on in their Darwinian way, shifting and changing by the day. Marketers adapt and flourish or stand pat and die. For a brief moment in time, Alaskans controlled salmon markets. Now, they live at the whim of the same.
Bristol Bay, which produces the bulk of Alaska’s high-value sockeye, saw a peak price of $2.11 per pound in 1988. Adjusted for inflation, that fish would be worth about $4.50 per pound in 2017 dollars. Bristol Bay fishermen would be happy to get a quarter of that this year.