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Replacing Farms With Fish Farms: The Odd Solution To Both Hunger And Climate Change

Imagine a world where polluting, resource-intensive cow, pig, and chicken farms are replaced with giant tanks of fast-growing salmon. It might be a strange view of agriculture, but a potential huge shift in how we feed the planet.

Replacing Farms With Fish Farms: The Odd Solution To Both Hunger And Climate Change
Illustration: Oliver Munday Illustration: Oliver Munday

It may be the dead of winter, and the nation’s capital city may not be coastal, but this month marks the start of a distinct version of salmon season in and around Washington, D.C. Restaurants ranging from the iconic Chart House in Alexandria and Annapolis to all seven of critically acclaimed Top Chef contestant Bryan Voltaggio’s eateries will be offering preparations of a different kind of locally sourced fish on their menus.

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Meanwhile, the grocery store Wegmans plans to roll out large ice tables adorned with signage that plays up the nearby heritage. “We’ll make them kind of an event,” says company seafood manager Steve Philips. “They almost always sell out.”

The catch: All of these fish will be coming from 70 miles inland of the capital, from a company called Spring Hill. The fish will be harvested from a land-based “recirculating aquaculture system,” the industry term for a gigantic eco-friendly, land-based fish tank located at the Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

The Fish Farm Of The Future

The Institute is housed in a large warehouse surrounded by fields and pastures along an otherwise rural road. It holds a 40,000-gallon circular fish tank that resembles a large above-ground swimming pool with portholes. Beside it are several large water filtering towers, which are designed to strip out residual waste like leftover food and fish poop to be treated and broken down into nitrogen and phosphorous-rich fertilizer that settles in compost bins outside the building. Ninety-nine percent of the water is recycled.

The aquarium can generate its own current, so the fish inside swim in a continuous slow-moving circle as researchers monitor their growth. In nature, salmon are born in freshwater streams, migrate to the ocean to continue growing, and eventually return home to spawn. The warehouse is set up to simulate that, but in a freshwater-only environment. While technically the name for the setup is “recirculating aquaculture system” or “RAS,” Steve Summerfelt, the institute’s director of aquaculture systems research, prefers the term “land-based closed-containment system.”

The fish live their entire lives here, starting out as eggs in water-filled, temperature-controlled trays the size of desk drawers that are stacked nearby, moving on to a series of smaller adolescent-stage tanks before reaching the simulated ocean, and, eventually, being run through a stunner and placed on ice in another room before ending up on your plate. Since starting this research in 1990, the Institute has evolved to act like a commercial prototype, running studies to show that land-based aquaculture systems are both cost efficient and effective enough to work at scale. The result is a fish that’s local, sustainable, eco-friendly, but still instinctively wild.

On a recent day, fish were splashing near the surface of the large tank as Summerfelt, clad in khakis and a red polo, climbed a metal staircase to peer in. When he reached the top, all of the animals quickly dove toward bottom. “They don’t like red. I just scared them,” he said. “They’ll come back as I stand still.” To ensure it, he flipped on an automatic feeder that looked like a lawn-seed spreader, which chucked tiny food pellets across the top of the water.

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For chefs and retailers, the process represents the equally novel prospect of knowing exactly what happened to your food on its entire path to plate. The Chart House chef, Jeffrey Lewis, says the result is more flavorful than wild-caught salmon: “It’s really succulent . . . with a buttery, flakey taste to it.”

For the next month or so, Freshwater will distribute roughly 30,000 pounds of Spring Hill throughout D.C. But these fish farms aren’t just a solution to get the capital better fish in the off-season, they could be the answer to a rising global food shortage that’s contributing to climate change.

Raising livestock has become a major contributor to greenhouse gases. It’s also a resource-intensive way to make protein, a key dietary ingredient for ensuring people develop properly and avoid malnutrition. Not only is the world not supplying enough–—we’re in dire need of an alternative, especially as the world’s population is projected to jump another 30% to 9.7 billion by 2050.

Imagine a world where our primary protein source wasn’t environmentally damaging factory farms, but these eco-friendly, land-based fish tanks. Instead of being served antibiotic- and hormone-laden portions of pork, beef, or chicken, people would have access to fresh fillets from a process that obviates the need to dose away sickness, or artificially spur growth rates.

Fish isn’t just an alternative protein; it’s a better one, with less saturated fat than beef, and high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which help control blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and inflammation. There’s also way less of it in the ocean these days. More than 90% of all fisheries are fully exploited or overfished. That’s caused the availability of many species to simply collapse.

The current alternative of ocean-based aquaculture, which is basically putting fish in large pens anchored offshore, often requires antibiotics and pesticides to battle sickness and parasites, respectively, while leftover food and fish waste pollutes the area and may harm other species. That nutrient heavy muck can lead to noxious algae blooms, one of which killed at least 27 million salmon being raised in Chile last March. Not to mention the concern about escapees spreading disease and breeding vulnerabilities into wild stocks.

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All those problems–along with the accumulation of classic ocean-based contaminants like mercury and PCBs–disappear when you put your fish inside a sealed operation that rinses clean more efficiently than the ocean’s current. Schools would swim in what is essentially a stackable formation, which means yielding far more pounds per acre than some horizontally spread herd. Yet fish only account for about one-fifth of the world’s meat consumption. Ramp that up, and you’ve got a cleaner, safer, and perhaps eventually even cheaper way to feed the world.

Solving At Scale

From an economic perspective, a future of farmlands dotted with fish farming tanks filled with salmon makes sense: It’s one of America’s most consumed fish. We each eat about 2.3 pounds of it a year. That ties with our consumption rate of tuna, the industry leader several years ago, making salmon second only to shrimp in terms of volume sold at the seafood counter.

Part of the reason for that is because the fish itself is a nutritional marvel: It’s high in protein, low in fat, and loaded with an optimal combination of heart-healthy fatty acids. (That’s the exact opposite of many pond-farmed species like tilapia and catfish, which have been shown to cause health complications like inflammation.)

But salmon is a production marvel, too: Unlike most major aquatic predators (and market competitors like tuna), which have to eat voraciously to gain size, it has a feed conversion ratio of roughly one-to-one, meaning for every pound of food it eats it will also grow a pound. That’s a little better than catfish and tilapia and a lot better than chickens, pigs, and especially cattle, which have to eat roughly six pounds of food for every pound they gain.

The World Bank has suggested that developing a “reliable and sustainable” way to source more seafood could be crucial to keeping more people fed. What that means in raw numbers, though, is staggering. Aquaculture operations already provide more than 50% of the globe’s estimated 167 million tons. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, suppliers will need to come up with another 40 million tons a year just to maintain current consumption rates into 2030. That doesn’t begin to tackle the extreme protein shortage that’s expected to hit by mid-century, even if industry groups are trying to become more sustainable to fill the void.

One great way to feed others would be to stop gobbling up a huge share of the overseas food. Our country’s once-depleted coastal fisheries may be rebuilding–in 2015 eight stocks came off the NOAA Fisheries overfished list–but it’s not enough to handle demand. Instead, 91% of the seafood we eat is imported, creating an $11.2 billion annual trade deficit, second only to crude oil. Most of that salmon arrives from Canada, Norway, Chile, and Scotland, according to NOAA reports. In fact, earlier this year, as fish prices rose and oil prices plummeted, a single Norwegian salmon was actually valued at the same price as a barrel of oil.

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At the same time, traditional ways of sourcing are looking downright primitive. Wild catch methods tend to unintentionally hook or trap loads of non-targeted fish (also birds, sharks, and endangered turtles), which die after being roughly dragged on board. Their deaths disrupt the food chain, hurting fisheries further. Ocean pens have a seeping problem: They don’t contain disease or the “effluent,” an industry term for thousands of fish emptying their bowels over-and-over in the same spot.

Less than 25% of the salmon providers evaluated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program earned the group’s “best choice” rating for environmental sustainability, meaning there were no concerns that the way they’re caught or raised may harm other fish or the environment. To succeed, most of those top-ranked providers have stayed small, focusing on raising or catching only a top-quality product. That group includes a handful of this new wave of land-based tank startups.

In fact, because RAS systems are closed, self-contained loops they automatically receive the group’s highest rating. “In other cases, you have to think about how it’s caught, how it’s farmed, and the location,” says Ryan Bigelow, the program engagement manager at Seafood Watch. “In this case, we are operating on the assumption that when you move a species into one of these land-based tanks it addresses many of the concerns around aquaculture immediately.”

Spawning A New Industry

Already about a dozen land-based salmon farms are operational around the globe. Another dozen are producing trout or steelhead. At least one investor is betting big on that future: In April, Atlantic Sapphire will break ground on a self-contained commercial park in Florida with the capacity to supply roughly one-fifth of the existing U.S demand within the next decade. Founder and CEO Johan Andreassen, who used to own and run an ocean-based organic fish farm in Norway, sold that business and has already built a proof-of-concept land-based facility in Denmark.

From there, he began delivering limited batches of salmon to some distributors, restaurants, and retailers in the U.S., including Dean & Deluca in New York. “What we realized was the logistical cost to bring fish from a remote area in northern Europe to destinations in the United States was humongous, and, not only that, it cost a lot of carbon footprint in packaging and air freight,” Andreassen says. The overseas facility also imports many of the agricultural ingredients that go into its fish food from the U.S. anyway.

Atlantic Sapphire’s U.S. base requires agricultural, not industrial zoning, a sign that more farmers in the hinterlands could eventually adopt similar concepts. While it won’t reach full capacity until 2024, Andreassen considers his operation more like an animal-based Tesla. The cost and R&D lag time belies an inexorable clean-tech play. “There is no reason why you should have to import in the future,” he says, adding in classic Silicon Valley jargon that this will “disrupt” how fish get made. “It has the potential to dramatically change the world map of seafood, that’s for sure.”

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Tank-based systems currently represent just half a percent of total industry production, but other investors are poised to take the plunge. Industry reports about planned investment project that number to reach 7.5% within the next decade.

Among those watching closely is Whole Foods, which already sources some salmon and arctic char from a land-based tank operation in Iceland. “This has tremendous potential to solve those problems that industry struggles with,” says Carrie Brownstein, who coordinates the company’s global seafood quality standards. Whole Foods already has its own strict environmental and health standards that make other types of sourcing a continuous challenge.

For instance, ocean-based operations can’t use copper-based antifouling paint on their nets to automatically shed muck and grime because it’s potentially toxic to other sea life. Nets must be constantly hauled up and pressure cleaned. The company also mandates natural solutions to sea lice, a parasite that feeds on fish and has historically been controlled by pesticides. Sea lice cause infections that kill younger salmon and may ruin others for market. One option is introducing wrasse, a fish to eat the lice that are eating the salmon, which further complicates operations.

“There are a lot of things in our standards that most conventional farms cannot do,” Brownstein adds, noting that it’s increasingly difficult to create a top-quality product in the ocean. “I think our standards have actually lead to more farms wanting to try these things.”

Either way, business as usual isn’t really an option. The sea lice epidemic is linked to climate change, and standard operations are finding their usual chemical doses less effective. Global salmon production dropped sharply last year, as net pen producers suffered a half-billion in losses due to the parasite. As the world continues to warm up, the Freshwater Institute’s research should look more appealing: Land-based tanks don’t require nets at all–or have such infestations.

Long-term, land-based operations may also be better situated to maintain the nutritional quality of their catch. Omega-3 levels in open-pen operations are now half of what they were just five years ago, as manufacturers use cheaper feeds with less fish and fish oil. Recipes already tested at the Freshwater Institute show original levels can be maintained through diets using ingredients like peas, wheat, nut meal, fish offal, and even meal made from the feathers or blood leftover from poultry processing, all of which are free or cheap castoffs from other industries that could be located nearby. By using fish oils from a whitefish processing plant in Oregon, for instance, the facility was able to raise salmon that met the Seafood Watch standard for zero wild fish usage.

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At the Freshwater Institute, Summerfelt peers into a porthole at the bottom of the tank, watching as dozens of nicely muscled salmon swim past. “Some people say it’s not natural to feed those fish these by-products,” he adds. “But our country has so many of those by-products. And here we make a much better product than a cow, in my mind, or a chicken.”

All these factors have come together to create the market shift that Summerfelt has been waiting for. “It’s great that we value our resources, and then we have to be cost-effective,” he says. “[This is] only going to work if you can make money at it.”

Calculating Net Gain

Your average state-of-the-art land-tank system costs almost twice as much as any similar ocean-based net or pen operation, according to a financial analysis published by Freshwater Institute in the journal Aquacultural Engineering. (The price point is about $54 million to be commercially competitive.) For investors, the sales hook is that tank-raised fish typically command a 30% premium and can supply local markets that don’t require huge transport costs. Over about a decade, the up-front costs should even out. In the meantime, the food you’re supplying remains safe, secure, and won’t go belly up in some natural disaster.

The most slippery part is how long it takes to grow your first batch of fish. While traditional net-pen systems harvest every three years, RAS systems reduce that to two years from hatch by controlling variables like feed rate, the water’s speed, temperature, and oxygen-level, light, and crowding. At the same time, facilities can be hit by fluctuating fish food costs, especially as the price of fish oil–which is made from smaller fish like anchovies and sardines, a key piece of salmon’s diet–has risen to keep pace with demand.

As a result, three of the last four land-based salmon farms in the U.S. have failed. To hedge bets, Superior Fresh in Northfield, Wisconsin, which launched in 2016, is actually growing more food by repurposing their fish waste as fertilizer for a leafy greens operation that will act as a separate revenue stream. Another group in Indiana, Bell Aquaculture, has shifted from raising perch and salmon to trout, which can be harvested more quickly. If others mimic those concepts, there could be even more fresh produce and protein available.

To add to the sales potential, Freshwater is also honing in on how to make their salmon even tastier. Clean water and good food play a role, but so does slaughter. At harvest time, tank-based fish can be gently corralled to the edge of a pool, transferred into a purging tank, and then run through a stunning machine that fires a pneumatic piston to sever their brain stem while more blades cut the gills, so they’ll bleed out quick when placed on ice.

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That may sound gruesome, but because the fish is killed so quickly there’s little panic or struggle, which the Freshwater Institute has shown reduces lactic acid buildup in the meat. The Freshwater Institute, in partnership with the Ike Jime Federation, which promotes humane-slaughtering methods inspired by traditional Japanese harvesting techniques, have discovered through a small case study that this yields better quality, almost sashimi-quality meat. The hypothesis is that the more a fish struggles, say, while being reeled in by a fisherman or dragged on board in a net and then potentially left to asphyxiate, the more stressed its muscles get and the faster rigor mortis sets in.

“If you stress an animal out at the time of death, it has a deleterious effect on its eating quality,” says Andrew Tsui, the president of the Federation. “Some would say its sort of an effort toward animal welfare. A more cynical view is maybe it’s an effort to improve the quality of the food. Either way, the science lines up right.”

Because so many restaurants are carrying the fish this year, Wegmans stores may only have a week’s supply on hand. It’s still costly to source, says Philips, the seafood manager, so it’ll have a fairly high price. But he expects that customers will line up to buy it because they love what it represents. “Right now in Virginia stores, there’s a lot more acceptance of a higher price point when we tell the story,” he says. That price would drop if more producers dive in, and the process could ultimately feed a whole lot more people. “It’s not at the same price we need to be competitive with conventional salmon,” Philips adds. “Hopefully that’s just a matter of time.”

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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