Japanese company spearheads land-based salmon farming

Spearheading land-based salmon farming FRD Japan’s pilot salmon plant is located in Kisarazu City and the company has ambitious plans for the future. Photo: FRD Japan

The demand for marine products in Japan continues to rise, but with limited areas suitable for farming at sea, one company has developed a recirculating aquaculture system for salmon using artificial seawater. Businessman Tetsuro Sogo has big plans for the future, as he aims to meet the growing demand for salmon across Japan, reports Bonnie Waycott

Salmon is one of Japan's most popular fish, often seen at conveyor belt sushi bars and restaurants across the country. To address high consumer demand, Japan's commercial salmon market is currently supported by large-volume imports of cultivated salmon from countries such as Norway and Chile.

Regions in Japan have been vying to produce their own brands of high-quality salmon for a long time, but despite being surrounded by ocean, farming the species at sea is a complicated prospect due to high water temperatures in summer. This restricts offshore salmon farming to the winter months so farmed salmon must be imported from colder climates. Japan also has a limited number of areas such as calm inlets or bays that are suitable for farming this species offshore.

Now, one company in Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo is tapping into the potential of farming salmon inland. Tetsuro Sogo, chief operating officer at FRD Japan, hopes that his work will lead to cost-effective land-based salmon farming and homegrown salmon for Japanese consumers. At the same time, he says, such farming could take off in Japan for other reasons.

"The global demand for seafood has been rising each year, and aquaculture has expanded vastly over the last 30 to 40 years to meet it," he said. "The global population is currently around 7 billion. If it reaches 10 billion in 40 years' time, naturally the global demand for seafood will keep rising. But it's impossible to farm certain fish at sea now. Salmon farming, for example, can only be done in Chile and Norway, but even in those countries only a few new licenses are being issued for aquaculture because the sea is already full of cages. Put simply, supply is not catching up with growing demand."

Tetsuro Sogo believes that land-based salmon farming in Japan could help to address this, and hopes that FRD Japan can become the world's first successful example. Raising fish in land-based tanks on a commercial scale is usually considered uneconomical, but FRD Japan has high potential for several reasons.

In conventional recirculation aquaculture systems, at least 20% to 30% of the water is thrown out and new seawater or ground water added each day. But FRD Japan's system first converts tap water into seawater. Once put into tanks, this water can be used continuously and doesn't need to be discarded and replaced. Bacteria-based filtration technology then cycles the water through a closed containment environment.

"In Asia, when it comes to salmon farming, it costs a lot to take seawater from the ocean and add it to a conventional recirculation aquaculture system. Another issue is water temperature, because it's high in summer and thus unsuitable," he said. "It's usually around 30°C, but salmon farming needs cold water of around 15°C. Other countries in Asia, not just Japan, are attempting salmon farming. But because of the summer water temperatures, they can only farm at sea for half the year, and the size of the fish they harvest is small. Atlantic salmon from Norway is about 4 or 5kg on average. Trout from Chile is at least 3kg, and this is the size you need for decent sushi and sashimi in Japan. Put simply, if you farm salmon at sea in Japan or anywhere in Asia, the harvest time is limited to April or May, and it's impossible to ship raw salmon throughout the year.”

“If your seawater is 30°C, you need to chill it so it reaches 15°C and this can incur high electricity costs," he continued. "This is a huge issue for conventional recirculation aquaculture systems but we can keep our water temperature steady at 15°C and maintain low electricity costs."

Feed is another key issue for FRD Japan. Depending on cost, the company works with Japanese feed manufacturers and aims to use low fishmeal feed throughout its operations. One criterion when choosing feed is whether the feed and manufacturer have been certified by the ASC. FRD Japan takes care to ensure that they can trace each step of their feed's manufacturing process.

Because the water in FRD Japan's system isn't replaced, some organic substances that are difficult to break down build up while others decrease. One of the most poisonous materials for fish that tends to build up in the system is ammonia. FRD Japan's system has a two-stage filtration device that uses bacteria to break ammonia down into nitrogen gas. A separate denitrification tank is then used to deoxidize these nitrates and release harmless nitrogen from the water. The company has also developed technology using gaseous chlorine generated through the electrolysis of seawater, to break down other organic substances in addition to ammonia and nitrates. Another advantage of this system is that it can stop the entry of bacteria and viruses in seawater that are often the cause of fish disease, and can be set up anywhere with a tap water source.

"Our system is drawing attention but there is always room for improvement," Tetsuro Sogo said. "Things are going well on a small scale, but we will need to see whether we can produce the same results as we keep on growing. Another issue is that a denitrification tank incurs various operating costs. For example, ideal conditions for denitrifying bacteria include a steady supply of nutrients. We provide these but they cost a lot, so we'd like to find a way to reduce the supply."

Enquiries from outside Japan generally fall into two categories - European funds and e-commerce sites, or supermarkets in China and other countries in Asia that sell salmon. With the EU being the centre of the salmon farming industry, Tetsuro Sogo wants to respond positively to its enquiries and says it may be a positive thing for his company to connect with EU firms and individuals.

In Asia, because of possible price fluctuations and uncertainty over importing from Chile or Norway, some companies are considering establishing their own salmon farming systems and are reaching out to FRD Japan. With the demand for salmon rising most in the region, he believes that more places that sell salmon will want to farm and produce the species themselves. This has made it all the more important for FRD Japan to become the world's first successful example. A pilot plant is currently being developed and operated in Kisarazu city, Chiba prefecture, near Tokyo, and by 2021, the company aims to start constructing a commercial plant capable of producing 1500 tonnes of salmon.

"Because of the decreasing population, demand for salmon in Japan isn't rising as much as the rest of Asia," he said. "Nevertheless, it is still high, so it makes sense to establish the first successful case for this type of salmon farming right here in Japan."

Tetsuro Sogo believes that in future, land-based aquaculture will develop the most in Asia. By establishing plants right next to major consumption areas, it will also be possible to keep transportation costs low and distribute fresh produce.

In order to meet demand and become more sustainable, the aquaculture industry will need to make further investments and develop new innovations, be it on land or at sea, and FRD Japan's innovation could be a massive boost for Japan.

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