Part 3: Recirculating Aquaculture Systems — Aquaculture´s Path to Sustainability?

Tasked with feeding the growing global population, the aquaculture industry is facing severe sustainability and scaling challenges.  One of the technologies helping to bridge the gap between global protein demand and seafood production is Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS).  RAS are closed-loop systems where fish or other marine species are raised in tanks.  Water is filtered to remove gases and solid waste, purified, and recirculated — efficient systems can re-use more than 95% of water 

End-to-end RAS innovators (e.g., The Kingfish Company) combine proprietary system’s design, software, and in some cases genetics or feed specifically developed for RAS, while others develop personalized turnkey RAS systems (e.g., Nofitech, Billund Aquaculture) or SaaS (e.g., Singapore Aquaculture Technologies) for the design and management of new RAS farms.  

Sustainability Impact

RAS allows for higher density cultivation of marine species; however, high densities increase the risk of disease and health issues.  Leveraging AI, innovators are developing tools for the optimization and management of RAS facilities as well as disease detection and monitoring of fish health (e.g., ReelData) and water treatment and filtration technologies (e.g., BioWISH Technologies, BioFishency).  RAS facilities are separated from marine environments, eliminating the environmental hazards of net-pen fish farming. The geographic flexibility of RAS facilities is key to their sustainability potential, addressing both food insecurity and emissions reduction.  

Strategically located RAS facilities can provide access to fresh seafood to areas of limited access to sustainable protein sources.  Innovators are leveraging the sustainability potential of RAS to locate high-value products near demand markets, providing fresher products with a longer shelf-life with significantly reduced transport times and transport-related carbon footprints.  Vertical integration of genetics and hatcheries provide additional value and potential revenue streams, while partnerships with OEMs such as Veolia and Siemens support the development of proprietary facilities and operations software.  


Sustainability challenges: 

The operation of RAS facilities is extremely energy intensive, providing both an economic and a sustainability challenge for RAS innovators.  The energy demand of RAS is significantly greater than that of net-pen aquaculture: water filtration, treatment, and pumping, as well as monitoring and feeding technologies require a constant energy supply.  Energy use and feed are the two greatest contributors to both operational costs and emissions at RAS facilities. 

The source of an RAS facility´s energy contributes significantly to the overall carbon footprint of the final seafood product.  Innovators such as Salmon Evolution have committed to powering their RAS facilities with renewable energy, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of their products.  Several pilot facilities powered by solar and geothermal energy have been implemented in various locations with the goal of developing a net zero facility.  However, the integration of renewable energy can be challenging depending on jurisdiction and local grid dynamics and regulations. Offshore floating RAS facilities (e.g., Singapore Aquaculture Technologies) face additional challenges connecting to the grid including permits for undersea cables.  

Innovator challenges: 

Cost remains a significant barrier to entry and scale for RAS innovators.  Initial investment in the construction of facilities, including water purification and filtration systems, as well as ongoing operations and management tools and software and energy costs, limit the scaling of global RAS production and stand in the way of cost parity with conventionally-farmed seafood products.  

However, RAS facilities are trending towards cost parity with conventional aquaculture in the coming years:  the cost of sea farming licenses and environmental certifications is increasing for conventional aquaculture while turnkey RAS systems (e.g., AquaMaof) and optimization technologies are reducing the initial and operations costs for RAS farmers.  

In addition to costs, knowledge barriers stand in the way of the widespread implementation of RAS.  Each species has unique requirements, and not all are equally suited to being raised in an RAS facility.  In recent years, salmon farmers have suffered mass mortality events in their onshore facilities, causing them to shift focus from salmon to trout , a species seemingly better-suited to RAS.  Species-specific adaptations to a conventional RAS and operation, as well as feed, must be made in order to ensure animal health and survival (e.g., Vertical Ocean).  

What to Look For

Aquaculture is rapidly moving onshore.  Corporates, aquaculture incumbents, and OEMS are partnering with RAS innovators to implement new RAS facilities around the world.  Increasingly, innovative and sustainable onshore solutions such as multitrophic systems (e.g., Lisaqua), biofloc (e.g., Noray Seafood) and renewable energy incorporation (e.g., EcoArk) are addressing animal health, chemical usage, and carbon intensity.  Finally, interest in RAS production is broadening from the initial focus on salmon:  innovators are expanding into the cultivation of a wider variety of species such as shrimp, barramundi, catfish, and grouper.