‘There are many myths surrounding fish farming’: How aquaculture is leveraging tech for an economically and environmentally bright future

Global oceans play an important role in planetary health, providing ecosystem services that range from supporting communities reliant on the blue economy, to oxygenated water, acting as a heat and carbon sink and moderating the climate.

But the health of our oceans are under stress.

“Issues and threats currently facing our oceans are coming from a lot of different directions, whether it’s the climate crisis, whether its overfishing, whether its resource extraction. Our oceans are in trouble,”​ Mhairr McCann, World Ocean Day Youth Advisory Council Member, told a recent roundtable facilitated by IBM.

If the prognosis is bad for ocean health, is the cure to stop eating fish altogether?

McCann doesn’t think so. Pointing to the important role that seafood plays in food security and livelihoods, she insists that the focus must be on developing a more sustainable seafood sector. “If we do this right, [environmental and economic objectives] can go hand-in-hand. The option of stopping eating fish would be unjust.”

Donna Lanzetta, CEO of fish farming company Manna Fish Farms, is inclined to agree. With 97% of the Earth’s surface covered by water, taking nutrition from the sea will be key to feeding the growing world population and meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, she maintained. “Beyond protein, seafood provides a source of vitamin D, vitamin A, selenium, zinc, iron and so much more,”​ the seafood expert noted.

“To stop eating seafood is not the solution. The solution would be to have responsible actors out in the ocean, committed to transparency, so we can base our decisions on scientific facts and not inflammatory projections or past operations.

“We want to produce seafood that takes pressure off wild stocks, to be the be the most efficient in all ways… To go out into the ocean is a privilege.”

Busting the ‘myths’ surrounding farmed fish

Lanzetta was eager to dispel a number of ‘myths’ she said have come to be associated with seafood – and farmed seafood in particular.

“There are many myths surrounding fish farming. The statistics say 46% of people think negatively about farmed fish,”​ the CEO noted.

“One myth I’d like to rebut today is the myth that the conventional fishing industry can’t coexist with aquaculture… As we move towards a more sustainable future its going to be a collaboration.”​ 

Aquaculture also has a bad reputation for pollution. Eutrophication – where water is enriched in dissolved nutrients that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life, resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen – is a concerning side-effect of fish farming. As is marine animal waste from aquaculture facilities that make their way into the ecosystem, affecting other fish and resulting in nutrient pollution.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, Lanzetta insisted. “We have new tools and technologies that minimise the waste of feed. We can use artificial intelligence to get the optimal amount of feed and make sure there isn’t too much choking out the life on the bottom of the seafloor. Most importantly, we have new technology and sensors and modelling that can calculate exactly what that impact is and we can base our decisions on the scientific facts.”

‘Technology has been transformative’

For Dalhousie University oceanographer Professor Jon Grant, recent technological developments have meant that the aquaculture sector has been able to go further, faster, on its sustainability journey.

“For fish farming, where there is a lot of hardware in the water, ocean technology has been transformative in the last five years. Companies have come on with wireless sensors for temperature, oxygen and other variables. They have produced a dense information and sensor network that is available to farmers in real time on their smartphones.”

This data is used to inform decisions about feeding, stocking, and health treatments, the oceanographer noted. “They also make a difference to fish welfare,” ​he continued, pointing to the use of heart rate monitors to track wellbeing.

The important role that seafood plays in livelihoods was underscored by Steinar Sønsteby, CEO of IT infrastructure firm Atea. Seafood, Sønsteby noted, is the country’s second largest export and an industry deeply embedded in Norwegian culture. “Fishing has been the backbone of Norwegian society for as long as we have existed.”

He agrees that the effective collection and use of data has the power to transform how fish is farmed, empowering farmers and consumers to make sustainable decisions. To reach this vision, Atea has helped build the Norwegian Seafood Network.

Working alongside IBM and the Norwegian Seafood Association, Atia is developing tech solutions to help boost sustainable seafood production and increase transparency and traceability.

“Data is the answer… Through blockchain we are guaranteeing the data put into the blockchain cannot be manipulated, that is so important. The data is collected automatically through sensors across the whole value chain… from feed to food.”

The biggest challenge in rolling out this project was overcoming the ‘technical debt’ of an industry based on traditional knowledge. But uptake has been strong among farmers and, importantly, their customers.

“The most interesting thing that’s happened over the last two years is that customers are asking for this information. In retail stores and restaurants people are using QR codes [to see if the seafood was sustainably produced].” 

The expert panel concluded that simply ‘not eating fish’ will not solve the problems facing today’s oceans. However, there was optimism that new technologies will deliver solutions.

As McCann concluded: “Technology can play a key role in solving a lot of global challenges, especially those that relate to oceans.”

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