Thursday, 5 May 2016

Marine Harvest Closed Containment: The Future?

Sea lice control, R&D top Marine Harvest farming agenda

Mitigation of sea lice remains one of Marine Harvest’s chief goals, as it looks to focus its farming operations on "sustainable" growth in anticipation of the salmon supply bottleneck expected later this year.
Writing in the Norwegian group’s recent annual report, CEO Alf-Helge Aarskog said “biological issues” meant supply was in danger of falling further behind growing demand.
“This is not good for the long-term development of the industry, and we are convinced that better production methods are required to ensure
growth,” he said.

Aarskog suggested that Marine Harvest has a responsibility, as a leader of the “blue revolution” to “make sure growth is achieved sustainably”. Last year, he added, was “challenging from a cost perspective”, with the Bergen-based farmer allocating more of the company purse to sea lice control than in 2014.

Namely, this constituted the roll-out of the group’s new “zero adult female” strategy. The policy, which was developed in 2014, has, according to the report, “resulted in changes in our farming operations, requiring the constant monitoring of lice numbers and treatment at an individual pen level".

The strategy will be deployed further this year. “We have generated more knowledge and further validated the concept,” said the company. “We have achieved promising results from the operationalization of the strategy in several parts of Norway, and will continue to focus on implementation and validation in 2016.”

However, it admitted that while the strategy could mitigate the sea lice challenge, “it may not solve the problem completely”. This had led the group to explore other solutions, including, more recently, various closed-containment systems for fish farming. The 'egg', Marine Harvest is seeking 14 development licenses from the Norwegian government to test and develop a new closed farm technology, based on the "egg" concept – a construction shaped thereof, which has a height of 44 meters, and is 33 meters in width. With 90% of the construction submerged under water, each "egg" has the capacity to accommodate 1,000 metric tons of salmon, while combatting lice outbreaks and escapes.

The technology, which Marine Harvest began developing with Hauge Aqua in 2015, was also conceived in response to a poor year for fish escapes, in which there were 16 reported escape incidents, with more than 94,000 fish lost.
“Our performance in this area in 2015 was not acceptable,” said the group. “The egg potentially offers many advantages to conventional salmon farming methods such as cost reductions from reduced sea lice treatment, reduced fish escapes and better feeding control.”

The next step will be to conduct trials of the egg in 2016 and 2017 with salmon in pilot and prototype structures. Then, in 2018, Marine Harvest hopes to deploy ten units to a seawater site.

 “We have a target of zero fish escapes, and we strive constantly to prevent escapes and improve methods, equipment and procedures that can minimize or eliminate them.”

Further R&D consolidation
It’s perhaps a revealing statistic that Marine Harvest's gross expenditure on research and development last year was NOK 235 million ($28.6m) in 2015 – roughly 80% more than across the previous 12 months. Over the last decade, R&D spending has, in fact, leaped by approximately to 1,205%.

The development of technology, such as the egg, is therefore clearly valued by the group as its aims to become a more sustainable farmer. Current projects on the books involve the likes of the Marine Harvest Fish Feed Averoy trial unit – a small-cage trial unit, including pens with feed recovery, specially designed for feed and feeding trials, and utilized by Marine Harvest Fish Feed, as well as for other trials of value to the group’s farming operations.

In addition, Marine Harvest is able to avail itself of the Centre for Aquaculture Competence (CAC) in Norway. The CAC – which expanded from three to five R&D licenses – is based on a co-ownership agreement with Skretting and AquaGroup, and focuses on full-scale validation trials and R&D on large-scale effects, and has a set-up similar to a commercial farm. The recent license expansion also now enables the CAC to pursue annual projects, instead of bi-annual projects -- as it did previously -- permitting greater potential of knowledge generation. Other irons in the fire, outside Norway, include the Ardnish trial unit, Scotland – a trial unit equipped with small and medium-sized cages, including pens with feed recovery, specially designed for feed and feeding trials – and a small-cage experimental unit in Huenquillahue, Chile.

During 2015 greater attention was paid to several projects related to infectious diseases. Marine Harvest joined forces with the Research Council of Norway for a project aimed at understanding the role of piscine reovirus both in freshwater and seawater is in its final stages. Furthermore, several projects related to risk factors for pancreas disease were undertaken last year.

The group, which, like many of its peers, has come out as a proponent of cleaner fish to tackle sea lice, last year developed a “best practice manual for the use of cleaner fish, where welfare aspects are highlighted to ensure they are as efficacious as possible”.

“It has become increasingly evident that greater attention must be paid to fish welfare during  the development of new technological solutions in the aquaculture industry, including non-medicinal solutions for lice control, new harvesting methods to comply with pathogen-free transport and new production methods [in either closed or semi-closed facilities, or in more
exposed locations],” it said.

“Going forward, we will therefore increase our focus on the interaction between fish welfare and technology within our R&D-priorities. Another key goal related to Marine Harvest’s cleaner footprint pledge is the reduction of its dependence on medicines to treat sea lice, while limiting the discharge of medicinal residues from operations. During 2015, it developed and tested a new concept called the “hydrolicer” – a method of sea lice removal in which the lice are physically flushed off larger fish using seawater at low pressure.

Efforts in this area are set to continue on a global scale in 2016, with the expansion of cleaner fish farming operations in Norway, Scotland, Ireland, the Faroe Island and Chile; field validation and documentation of the effect of pen skirts to reduce the influx of lice from the open sea; field validation of deep lights, in combination with skirts and cleaner fish; and large-scale field trials of deep lights and deep feeding systems.

2020 ASC target

Running parallel to all this is Marine Harvest’s desire to become 100% certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council by 2020; as of the end of 2015, 40% of all sites for Atlantic salmon were certified. In order to achieve this, the group will provide running global training sessions, with the goal of sharing knowledge and experience through worldwide networks, as well as actively participating in the standards taskforce of the Global Salmon Initiative. Sea lice aside, Marine Harvest has been hit by some other upstream challenges of late, too. The group has estimated that 2.7m out of 2.9m fish died as a result of the recent algal bloom in Chile; the remaining 200,000 fish are believed to be lost. Consequently, on April 11, it announced up to 500 jobs in the country could go as part of an emergency restructuring.

Farming operations have also been subject to higher costs due to a rise in the price of feed ingredients, exacerbated by the weakening of the Norwegian krone against the euro and US dollar. But Aarskog is still of the belief that opportunities afforded by the salmon farming market still far outweigh its challenges, as he told delegates at last month’s North Atlantic Seafood Forum in Bergen, Norway. While guidance growth for the industry this year is between -6% and -2%, “there are tremendous opportunities to grow further,” said the chief executive.