Offshore farming – unlocking growth potential

Offshore farming – unlocking growth potential OMC Asia brought together industry figures from around the world to discuss SE Asia’s offshore farming options

Presentations and discussions at the Offshore Mariculture Conference in Singapore made clear the potential of the open ocean in creating a more dynamic and sustainable aquaculture industry, reports Bonnie Waycott.

Organised by Mercator Media and sponsored by Refa Med, BlueSea Technology, Empyreal, Steinsvik and the World Aquaculture Society's Asia Pacific Chapter, this year's Offshore Mariculture Conference was the first to be held in Asia and covered the entire process of setting up an offshore operation. It also attempted to tackle a key question - could the future of aquaculture now lie offshore? Speakers and attendees from around the world gathered in Singapore to share their insights into this particular sector of aquaculture.

Large-scale offshore farming is seen by many as the best way for Singapore to meet the growing demand for seafood. The country's aquaculture industry only produces about 5% of national consumption but the government is taking the industry's growth seriously and working to develop it further, according to Dr. Guillaume Drillet, the Immediate Past-President of the World Aquaculture Society's Asia Pacific Chapter. He believes that offshore aquaculture in Singapore will protect terrestrial habitats and their biodiversity, and during his keynote address, indicated that more such farming will take place.

However, the conference made it clear that it was also important to consider the Southeast Asia region as a whole and not focus only on Singapore, in light of the country's small size and limited space available for offshore development. Conference Chairman Alessandro Lovatelli of the FAO was keen to emphasise this and stated that in addition to its surrounding seas, Singapore has potential in other areas – as a financial hub and easy entry port.

Offshore aquaculture in Singapore is already underway. Founded in 2008, Barramundi Asia has one of only two fish farming licences in Singapore's southern waters. The largest fish farm by biomass for barramundi, it focuses on the full value chain from the hatchery, nursery and cage farm stages to processing and marketing with its own registered Kühlbarra brand. A glimpse of offshore potential came from owner Joep Kleine Staarman, who added that tackling the issue of disease and having several market leaders would make the offshore industry even better than it is today.

"The important issue for offshore farming in Southeast Asia and globally is the need for vaccines, otherwise it is impossible to produce fish in the open water," he said. "Knowing about different diseases and being able to vaccinate against them makes an industry possible. You also need to be in an industry where there are market leaders. Let's have an industry with a few major players and let's do this the right way. Then we will have a very good business."

Speakers at the conference were keen to highlight the advantages of offshore farming, including minimal environmental impact. Product presentations also described the possibility of keeping fish cages secure in challenging ocean conditions by submerging them so they could still withstand turbulent surface water. But factors to consider when setting up an offshore farm drew much attention.

"It's essential to conduct a proper study of the site you have in mind, and assess prevailing and extreme conditions such as winds, waves and currents," said Refa Med co-founder and CEO Darko Lisac. "This will allow you to understand how many days in a year could be hardest to reach your farm or when it might be impossible to feed your fish. Other factors to consider are seabed topography, composition, infrastructure, availability of skilled staff, proximity to a harbour and feeding. For example, can you install automated feeding systems, or do you need feed barges, buoys or feed boats?"

"People must be able to derive everything from your marketing plan," said Troy Keast, Director of Aquaculture and Sustainability at Philips Foods. "Hatchery and cage configurations are among the many areas to include. Don't tell the market what standards you are going to adopt. The market needs to tell you."

"Certification is crucial," commented Matt Brooker of The Fishin' Company. "Traceability, for customers' purposes, is an egg-to-plate solution in understanding where their products are coming from. It will be an expectation, over time, that that kind of information is available."

Reaching for the full potential

The prospects of sea cage farming in Southeast Asia may seem high, but the use of marine areas of tropical Southeast Asia for food production has not reached the level of its potential. Independent aquaculture advisor Niels Svennevig touched upon possible reasons, including business structures that are predominantly small-scale and family-based, small investments, production volumes that are constrained by high production costs, a lack of protected sites and difficulties governing, with the main market target being the domestic and regional, high-value but small live fish segment.

To address these, he stressed a large-volume approach with intensive investment that makes full use of exposed sites that would make fish thrive through good water quality, and the importance of large, traceable, consistent production of medium-value fish by efficiency of scale and risk management.

Among the challenges facing the offshore aquaculture industry, piracy and security were seen as two of the biggest. Although the basics of offshore technology and systems are well known in Southeast Asia, theft and security are much more of a danger compared to other offshore farming countries such as Norway. The role of government in addressing this was acknowledged, while the cost of investment into offshore aquaculture systems was also discussed, particularly as such investments can be more costly than smaller coastal operations.

What can be done to attract investment? Mike Velings, Founder & Managing Partner of Aquaspark, said "the ideal would be that if we show that you can actually have really truly sustainable, healthy and affordable aquaculture in a really public way, with financial returns that are at least similar to a more traditional way of doing business, we can actually help in the development of two thirds of the aquaculture industry that does not exist yet."

Another issue is feed, and in particular what can be done to ensure quality feed and help for aquaculture in general. Feed is considered the single largest operational cost in farming finfish. Jesper Clausen, Technology Application Lead for Asia South at Cargill, explained that like individuals, ingredients can be similar or different. He emphasised the importance of continuous testing to ensure a high-quality end product, and more valuable knowledge of raw materials for feed firms. Flexible processing, he said, will also allow for new raw materials to be tried at plants and open up more potential feed options, while feed performance needs to be measured based on return of investment, not on the cost of feed.

It was clear during the conference that people are positive about offshore aquaculture in Southeast Asia. But although it seems to be the preferred format, the market is brutal and a good market plan will be required. Investors, governments and other parties interested in the industry will need to think about possible markets and how those markets could be developed. Certification, and the need to meet sustainability standards, is vital when establishing an offshore farm. In future, the use of sea space will also be critical. It will take time to develop new regulations but these will need to be developed for offshore farming to move rapidly into new areas.

Help feed and nourish the world

With offshore aquaculture in the spotlight in Southeast Asia, there will be an increasing need for more large-scale hatcheries so the industry can develop further. Hatcheries will also allow offshore farms to have ready, quality fingerlings whenever required. Indeed, without hatchery technology, the aquaculture industry cannot grow, according to Daniel Benetti, Director of Aquaculture at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

On the last day of the conference, Offshore Mariculture Conference attendees were given a unique opportunity to see a hatchery for themselves at the Marine Aquaculture Centre of the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) on St John's Island.

The first call was the microalgae production laboratory where green algae species and brown flagellates are stored at around 4°C and cultured as feed for brine shrimp, rotifer and copepods. The group was then taken to the artemia and rotifer culture lab, where both are produced in different sizes.

Deputy Director of the Aquaculture Technology Department Dr. Jiang Junhui explained that the aim of such production is to develop culture techniques and improve the nutritional quality of both species. The third call focused on the larval development of Asian sea bass. Visitors were shown a series of tanks, each containing 21 to 30 fish aged around 7, and some separate tanks containing larvae as part of an RAS system offering full control of water parameters and better disease management. One of AVA's key projects is marker-assisted selection (MAS) so that fish with a high growth rate, high disease resistance and good flesh quality can be produced.

Practical demonstrations of work at a hatchery, and what can be done before species are farmed offshore, were a fitting end to a productive conference. The output from aquaculture is undoubtedly growing. Shifting it offshore appears to tick all the right boxes but it will take the continued efforts of governments, scientists and industries to come together and address the challenges. Only in this way can the possibility of future sustainable production at sea be contemplated.

"Someone said you have to be fish crazy to invest in aquaculture, especially in Southeast Asia," said Cargill's Jesper Clausen. "The mission should be to try to manage our risks and make it a little less crazy to invest and think about how we can truly help feed and nourish the world as we so often claim aquaculture should do."

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