"The Holy Grail of marine finfish production or any aquaculture production has been to get the best possible feed for the fish larvae. That is always considered to be marine zooplankton, which is what the fish are adapted to prey upon,” says Planktonic CEO Rune Husby.
“But there hasn't been any way of harvesting, collecting and storing marine zooplankton in such a way that it can be used in industrial aquaculture. So, fish farmers have had to settle for inferior products like artemia and rotifers, which have some shortcomings.”
But all that changed with Planktonic, the hatchery feed company founded in 2008 by Norwegian zooplankton specialists Dr Nils E. Tokle (Planktonic CTO) and Håvard Aakerøy (COO).
“These guys came up with the ingenious way of storing the zooplankton by cryopreservation - delivering a pure product with the best nutritional value that you can find,” Rune says.
It’s a true game changer for aquaculture producers: a live marine ingredient, that can be stored indefinitely and shipped to customers with no loss of quality, ready for thawing and feeding to fish larvae in hatcheries worldwide. So, how did the idea for Planktonic come about, and how did it develop from research-led startup to the innovative business it is today?
WeAreAquaculture spoke to Nils, Håvard and Rune in Trondheim, where the company’s headquarters and factory are located, to find out more about Planktonic’s remarkable story – and to discover what’s next on the agenda for this team of zooplankton feed innovators.
Nils was working at Trondheim’s University of Science and Technology as a marine biologist, researching zooplankton ecology, when inspiration struck. He and Håvard were investigating populations of zooplankton along the Norwegian coastline, when they realised that a potential solution for optimal hatchery feed was within reach.
We started to think about cryopreservation... At first we could only cryopreserve one gram of zooplankton. Now we produce on an industrial scale.Dr Nils E. Tokle, Planktonic CTO
“We were trawling with plankton nets, and we saw that the biomass of copepods in the sea could be a viable solution to harvest as natural feed for fish larvae,” Nils says.
However, the team soon had to rethink their choice of species.
“The industry demanded smaller plankton as prey, so we used a smaller mesh size,” he explains. But the material they were able to capture through this method was less pure, including a significant amount of bycatch and unwanted particles.
"One day we discovered the trawl had a lot of barnacle offspring. Then we thought, OK, why don't we go to the adult animals, extract the eggs directly from the barnacles and then rear the offspring for feed? We found that the barnacles contained a lot of eggs inside, all of them were fully packed. We made a test harvest of around ten kilos and found we could extract around 20% as pure eggs, which easily hatched.”
The team began harvesting the barnacle offspring using the same preservation technology developed for the copepods. But this approach meant they could not produce live prey.
“That’s when we started to think about cryopreservation. We realised the barnacles were quite robust - they could tolerate a lot of things,” Nils recalls. The team didn’t yet know how the barnacle plankton would stand up to the extremely low temperatures needed for cryopreservation, but they decided to try.
With no previous experience of cryopreservation technology, the team embarked on a series of trials freezing the barnacle larvae.
“After many attempts, then we saw that after thawing, some of the larvae were moving, and we continued fine-tuning the protocols. At first, we could only cryopreserve one gram, but soon we had developed to 200 or 300 grams in bulk.”
“Now we produce on an industrial scale, and the revitalization results are excellent when the product is thawed,” explains Nils.
Planktonic currently cultivates two distinct species of barnacles in its aquaculture sites dotted along the Norwegian coast. “This is extensive production. We harvest the barnacles when they are ripe and ready to reproduce,” Håvard says.
The barnacles are harvested from their natural habitat and substrate. Then, at their facilities in Trondheim, Planktonic extract the eggs, cultivating and then cryopreserving the zooplankton for supply to aquaculture companies across Europe and beyond.
"Most people, when they hear about cryopreservation, they imagine that we are producing in lab scale in micrograms. But in our factory, we’re actually producing one tonne of product per day,” says Håvard.
“It's a completely different scale. This is an industry now, it definitely doesn't look like a lab.”
“The CryoPlankton Large, our main product that we sell in the highest volume, is 50 million animals per kilo and the smallest product, CryoPlankton Micro, is two billion per kilo. So, it's a lot of animals," Håvard points out.
"By storing the product in liquid nitrogen, the plankton has an unlimited shelf life. At this low temperature, at -196 degrees, there is no chemical or biological activity. We could keep the product like that for thousands of years, as long as we supplied new liquid nitrogen to keep them cold.”
The CryoPlankton Large is 50 million animals per kilo and the smallest product, CryoPlankton Micro, is two billion per kilo. So, it's a lot of animals.Håvard Aakerøy, Planktonic COO
Each Planktonic container holds 80 kilograms of zooplankton, Håvard explains, and a typical hatchery will order several of these containers for every batch of fish produced.
Global shipping to customers is simple: once the containers are topped up with liquid nitrogen, they do not need to be refilled for two months. This means CryoPlankton can be sent worldwide in shipping containers.
Planktonic also provides the necessary equipment for the thawing process. “The customer simply thaws the product until the barnacle plankton start to swim again, and they can then be fed to the fish larvae.”
“We are the only company in the world that is making a product like this, or anything similar. So, we have had to develop new technology for all the steps in the production, both for cultivating the barnacles and all the different steps in the production process at the factory, and also the protocols for using the product at the hatcheries.”
Their unique approach has meant the team has had to innovate at every step.
We are the only company in the world that is making a product like this, or anything similar.Håvard Aakerøy, Planktonic COO
“There’s almost no equipment in our factory that we can buy off the shelf,” Håvard says. “So, we’ve been working on a lot of technology development over the years. We thought it would be possible to find solutions from other industries, but this is rarely the case. It has been quite challenging, but also very interesting work.”
The years of research and development have been well worth it, the team agree, with the technology and the product proven by satisfied customers.
“It’s very nice to see that it works so well in the hatcheries," adds Nils. “Some species with demanding nutritional needs like ballan wrasse, cod, and yellowtail kingfish are very challenging to produce, but they work very well with this new type of feed. It’s very satisfying to see that that it works so well in the hatcheries, and to know that our customers think it’s a very good solution for them.”
"We are still optimising the product, so it's becoming better and better, but we are also looking at other types of feeds," Nils says. That includes their recently launched cryopreserved plankton eggs, CryoPlankton Micro, which can be used for the first feeding of newly hatched fish larvae.
“We are also looking at other barnacle species, to see if it’s possible to cryopreserve species adapted to warmer climates.”
Initial trials show that barnacle species from tropical waters also tolerate cryopreservation extremely well.
“That was a little bit surprising because we thought maybe the harsh environment of our local barnacles was the reason we could cryopreserve those species, but it seems that we can use this technology on other species," Nils says, noting that other barnacle species can also be found in huge numbers in different areas of the world – opening up a huge range of possibilities for future innovation.
"Barnacles are literally growing on every rock on the seashore along the Norwegian coastline. They are also very abundant in other countries, which is a huge advantage. But the main reason we are trying out other species is that the size of the offspring fits very well in the feeding protocol for different species of fish,” Nils says.
The team envisage offering a wide assortment of live feeds for hatcheries to utilise at every step of fish growth and development, and for a wide variety of aquaculture species, Nils explains.
“We have taken a very complicated and unattainable process. We've made it work on an industrial scale, and now it's proven its worth. It delivers better performance than the other options, and it’s available for industrial aquaculture use. It’s not just a dream in the research lab. It's right here and now, making changes,” says Håvard.
Not only that, the team points out, using live zooplankton to feed fish at the larval stage produces healthier fish further down the line, even once they have transitioned to other types of feed.
Several scientific studies show positive long-term effects, with increased growth, improved feed conversion ratios and better specific growth rates in sea cages when fish larvae are given marine zooplankton early in life. The team also point out that their customers experience earlier weaning to dry feed.
We've taken a complex and unattainable process... and made it work on an industrial scale. It’s not just a dream in the research lab. It's right here and now, making changes.Håvard Aakerøy, Planktonic COO
“Using the CryoPlankton, you're producing better fish with a better immune system, higher stress tolerance and fewer deformities. Also, there are far less microorganisms associated with the use of CryoPlankton. This is due to both the production process and inherent properties of the nauplii. You don’t need to enrich it and they stay at a stage where they haven’t opened their mouths yet. This positively affects the gut microbiome of the larvae. As a consequence of all this you will see increased survival,” Rune adds.
“It means better utilisation of all the resources in the process. You're not discarding as many fish. You use less feed per fish. So, it supports more efficient and sustainable production of aquaculture species.”
“It's an abundant resource where you harvest the surplus - you're not depleting any stocks, and the barnacles quickly regenerate every year. You're ticking a lot of the correct boxes on sustainability. It’s quite a beautiful story if you look at it that way.”
The multiple advantages offered by Planktonic’s products have given them a “firm foothold” in Northern Europe, Rune says, enabling the company to continue expanding and innovating.
“Within a very short period of time, we have been able to become the market leader in the species that are dominating the Northern European production of marine finfish,” Rune explains.
That means producers of cleaner fish in Norway and the UK, cod in Norway, and Kingfish aquaculture in the Netherlands and Denmark.
We supply the biggest producers of cleaner fish, cod, and kingfish in Europe, and we've never lost a customer. Now we're looking to grow.Rune Husby, Planktonic CEO
“We’re now looking forward to expanding to the southern parts of Europe - and other parts of the world as well, particularly the Middle East, Asia, and some specific countries in the Americas. So, we are using the position we have today and experience we have gained to move outside northern Europe."
"We have proven our worth,” Rune continues. “We are delivering to the biggest producers of cleaner fish, cod, and kingfish in Europe. We supply large corporations on a regular basis, and we have never lost a customer. All the customers that have come on board with us have continued with us."
“We've firmly positioned ourselves within the value chain, and now we’re looking to grow.”
Read more about Planktonic: TalentView: Antonio Coli, Global Sales Director for Planktonic