Steep learning curve ahead for RAS

Example of a RAS facility. Photo: AquaBioTech Group.
Example of a RAS facility. Photo: AquaBioTech Group.

With all the good and all the bad, land-based farms based on RAS systems are grabbing more and more headlines every day. One day we read about the success of a pilot production that bodes well for the future and the next about the refusal of a permit for the opening of another farm. Today we highlight major new investors in a land-based project, and tomorrow we know about delays in the construction of another due to supply chain problems. But, what real impact will RAS have on global production? Is its potential so huge? Will production estimates be met? From producers to investors, through technology companies or institutions, we talked to several experts to find an answer.

Is it 'fashionable' to breed in RAS systems?

In December 2021, after being designated as 'Young Research Talent' by the Research Council of Norway and receiving a grant to further develop his project called RASHealth, the Nofima scientist Vasco Mota stated: "The potential of RAS is huge. Fish cultured in RAS have one of the smallest environmental footprints in the animal food production industry. Currently, its complexity and high initial cost to build are shortcomings for a wider adaption. It may take five, ten or fifteen years, but RAS technology is going to be the future. It is definitely not a question of if, but when". That was just over half a year ago and, as noted, the headlines in the trade press seem to agree with him that it is no longer a question of "if", and that "when" seems to be getting closer.

What's happening? Is it becoming 'fashionable' to breed in RAS systems? "More than fashionable it just makes environmental and business sense", tells Max Francia, Director of Marketing at Atlantic Sapphire, "RAS, or land-based farming in general, is an important part of the solution when it comes to finding truly sustainable and healthy protein sources", he adds. George D. Mantas, Director of Business Development at AquaBioTech, has a similar view. "RAS might seem fashionable today, but rest assured that it will not go out of fashion anytime soon", he says, "we are rapidly reaching a point where RAS is becoming mainstream for more and more species. The economic and technical justification is clear in many cases and markets and opportunities evolve, there will be more good reasons to justify the integration RAS technology into the production strategy".

Bernt Olav Røttingsnes, CEO of Nordic Aquafarms, also talks about evolution. "We believe consumers will care more and more about where and how their food is produced, that airborne food will no longer be accepted, and that fish welfare and protection of the ocean will be even more important for governments and consumers. RAS will play an important role in this development, giving us the opportunity to produce fish where people live", he claims. "This is not 'fashionable', it is a proven way of producing food", concludes. Sandra Bravo, Director of the Chilean Aquaculture Institute (Universidad Austral de Chile), agrees. Concise but very clear, she assures that "farming salmon in RAS systems is not a fashion"

"In nowadays worldwide population keeps growing, becoming more environmentally aware and in demand for high-quality protein, while the natural resources are being depleted and aquaculture needs to catch up with the demand. Adding to that environmental regulations and the acceleration of urbanization, especially during the COVID period, countries are realizing that local production is a necessary tool for achieving stability", resumes Shai Silberman, AquaMaof VP Marketing & Sales.

Shai Silberman, AquaMaof VP Marketing & Sales. Photo: Moshik Brin.

The advantages of land-based breeding

But Shai Silberman does not stop there when it comes to listing the advantages of land-based aquaculture. "Located near the local market with no need to be near big source of water- lakes, revers oceans etc.- and significantly shortening the supply chain, RAS facility provides fresh, tasty and nutritious fish to the local market, and reducing transportation and CO2 emission", he says. Producing locally and thus reducing the carbon footprint is, as we have said, one of the strengths of this type of production, but not its only advantage, from Nordic Aquafarms, Røttingsnes adds another. "We can produce high-quality salmon in the US and yellowtail kingfish in Europe, with no air freight, high focus on fish welfare and limited discharge to the ocean", he states. So, the protection of the oceans is another favorable point for this production system.

Max Francia, of Atlantic Sapphire, also delves into environmental benefits and coastal protection. "Of course, the carbon footprint is significantly reduced due to the avoidance of air freight to the end consumer market, but also coastal areas and wild species are protected since our Bluehouse technology enables the production of salmon without discharging wastewater or other waste into rivers or oceans at all. Our water source is underground and after treatment it is injected into a porous South Florida Boulder zone where it is purified for thousands of years", he tells WeAreAquaculture. And adds one more: "Most of the environmental and fish welfare issues present in traditional salmon farming are solved with our Bluehouse technology".

This point of view of animal welfare is also pointed out by the organizations. "In my opinion, RAS production is not as much a matter of carbon footprint reduction as is related to animal welfare and reduced environmental impact", says Øyvind Fylling-Jensen, CEO of Nofima, "both investment cost and energy consumption must be taken into consideration". The Director of the Chilean Aquaculture Institute, Sandra Bravo, follows a similar line. "Although it is true that the initial investment is high due to the high technology used, the operating costs are lower compared to the traditional system of salmon production in cages at sea", she explains, "this is because by having control of all the parameters, the fish get sick less, there is no use of medicines, there is no need to vaccinate the fish, there are no problems with fouling adhered to the nets, there are no problems with predators".

Finally, from AquaBioTech, George D. Mantas, adds another advantage that, although less commented on than the previous ones, can undoubtedly be described as key. "Beyond the technological advantages, environmental, etc. which I believe are well understood from an industry standpoint, I see that this RAS evolution is changing the once old school, old-fashion aquaculture industry into a more modern, dynamic and attractive industry for the younger generation. This transformation attracts a new wave of talent to the industry, and a plethora of investors that the industry has never seen before. It is that fresh wave that will help the industry get to the next level".

Looking for a new wave of talent

As Mantas says, when talking about the human factor in RAS production, a new wave of talent is needed and, of course, each one has his own method to attract it. "This is biology and technology working together. You need to make the right choices when it comes to RAS technology, there are no plug-and-play RAS systems out there, and you need to have the right team", explains the CEO of Nordic Aquafarms, Bernt Olav Røttingsnes. "Therefore, we have decided to have our own RAS engineering team to develop our systems, based on their long experience from designing RAS systems for the salmon industry and our own experience from producing salmon and yellowtail kingfish in Norway and Denmark, and we have built teams in the US, Norway and Denmark with experience from designing, building and operating RAS farms". In total, there are more than 65 dedicated employees, but how have they managed to make the offer attractive to them? "Our experience is that we find qualified people when the RAS farm is in or near a city where people want to live. This has been an important selection criterion when we decided where to locate our farms", says Røttingsnes.

So, as said, each one has his own way to find this talent, but, as Max Francia explains, "the human resource component is crucial, of course". At Atlantic Sapphire, they do it with a mix of international and local talent. "It may start with talent sourced from different geographical areas, sometimes coming from the traditional salmon sector, but mostly we are developing local talent, contributing to the communities where we operate". To achieve this, it comes into play another point that George D. Mantas emphasizes. "It is widely acknowledged that the human resource will be the item in the shortest supply in the coming years, if not already, but industry is gearing up for this challenge and preparing to educate a new generation of fish farmers with new skills", the AquaBioTech Business Development Director states.

Much of this teaching he talks about is not something that you can learn at a conventional university or college campus, so, in the opposite model to that proposed by Nordic Aquafarms and which is, in fact, the most common, technology companies, in addition to offering their external engineering services, also offer training services so that future operators of the facilities in operation – often local labor – learn how to work with these systems. "AquaBioTech Group sort to use its own research facility to train people in the principles of RAS technology, as well as offering operational support to all our projects", explains Mantas. "We also embed technical staff on-site with our client until the project is up and running ensuring that there is a sufficient transfer of knowledge to our client partners to run the RAS facilities at their full capacity". And not just that, "furthermore, we are also collaborating with certain universities and vocational institutes to develop applied curriculums that are adapted to the new realities of the sector".

All this training, this investment in talent, is closely related to another key point of RAS production systems: technology. "This is a very important subject and one of the most important aspects of AquaMaof R&D in the company's R&D and Training facility in Poland", Shai Silberman tells us.  "We invest significant efforts in automatization, based on AI and machine learning in order to minimize the human resources required to operate the facility and to avoid the possibility of human error". Thus, while it is true that this technology reduces the number of human resources needed to operate the facility, it also seems to be true that it turns them into specialists. In the end, the result of this mix of talent and technology is improved performance and reliability. We can only hope that, in the long term, this will also translate into new jobs directly or indirectly related to land-based aquaculture.

Automatic feeding in a RAS facility. Photo: Ane S. Skarvøy, Skarvøy Media.

Automated, reliable, and attractive for investment?

To be honest, no one is surprised by these efforts and investments in automation. In everyone's mind, one of the pain points in RAS facilities is that a human error can have greater consequences than an installation at sea. However, according to experts, this is becoming increasingly rare. "Human errors can always be devastating for any operation, but in a highly controlled RAS environment, the potential for human error actually has more chances of being overcome as the level of monitoring, control and automation evolves", George D. Mantas explains. According to the AquaBioTech Business Development Director, "with the continuous development of smarter monitoring and control systems and the integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning, risks are being managed in a far more sophisticated way than they ever have been before".

"Our Bluehouses have monitoring systems, 24 x 7, tracking dozens and dozens of parameters across biosecurity, chemistry, biology, water quality and many others. This ensures controls is in place and any potential deviations are addressed timely", Atlantic Sapphire's Marketing Director, tells us, and continues, "Artificial Intelligence is already playing a role as well, as these are evolving systems and optimization is always within our goals". The AquaMaof's VP Marketing & Sales adds other benefits. "Automation is also allowing minimum interference during the fish life cycle, reducing stress factors, such as noise, creating optimal rearing conditions, safeguarding the fish mental and physical health, and prioritizing fish wellbeing", he remarks.

One thing everyone we have talked to agrees on is that RAS technology is here to stay and will be an integral part of aquaculture production in the future. That means that, as Sandra Bravo, director of Chile's Aquaculture Institute, points out, "salmon can be farmed at any latitude". However, Øyvind Fylling-Jensen, CEO of Nofima, adds a nuance: "The question is not only about where to produce but also related to species and stage in the life cycle of the fish". Although, as he further adds, "RAS technology will continue to develop as challenges are being solved by research, step by step".

""The learning curve is steep, especially for large scale operations, so the difficulties faced by companies are numerous, ranging from logistics, to water management, to construction. Current state of affairs is not helping in general as supply chains are disrupted and inflation is persistent; however, once economies of scale are achieved, this technology ensures an environmental-friendly and profitable process is possible, that can grow significantly", explains Max Francia. "Having reliable partners throughout the process is also instrumental in ensuring success", he says. All in all, it seems that RAS is becoming an increasingly attractive sector for investors, even for those traditionally related to offshore production, as is the case of Nordlaks investing in Atlantic Sapphire itself part of the money set aside to buy a grow-out permit in Norway next autumn's auction.

So, will production estimates be met?

Now that we have seen that, according to those involved, RAS is not 'fashionable' but a proven way of producing food that makes environmental and business sense, we return to the original questions. What real impact will RAS have on global production? Will production estimates be met? As we said at the beginning of this article, we have talked to several experts to find an answer, but the truth is that hardly anyone dares to give a categorical yes or no, let alone concrete figures. However, they do give us some clues.

"The question on production estimates is difficult", says the CEO of Nofima. "If all ongoing, full-scale land-based RAS aquaculture projects – more than 90 worldwide – are to be realized, the production volumes will increase significantly", Øyvind Fylling-Jensen claims. However, there is a but. "The question is also related to area, location, energy consumption, energy access, regulatory issues, and access to capital. It will take significant time before production estimates are being met", he says. Bernt Olav Røttingsnes, CEO of Nordic Aquafarms, is of a similar opinion. "Estimates may be met, but it will take many years to get there", he points. For her part, the director of the Chilean Aquaculture Institute is more definitive. "It will never be possible to reach with these systems on land, the tons currently produced by Norway and Chile", assures Sandra Bravo.

The Marketing Director of Atlantic Sapphire, Max Francia, is one of the most specific when it comes to answering. "Bluehouse is aiming to become an important part of the growing US salmon market over the next ten years, expecting to reach approximately 20% market share in a decade", he tells WeAreAquaculture. Nevertheless, Max Francia adds something else. "Developments in RAS and other innovative aquaculture technologies are required to try and meet the rising demand at a global level". A statement that could be completed with this one by George D. Mantas: "What is clear is that the global aquaculture production will not meet its future goals unless it integrates more RAS technology into the production strategy", the AquaBioTech Business Development Director says. And, adds: "As the larger RAS grow-out projects are realised then we will see that contribution being reflected in the increased global production figures".

That's how the industry sees it, but how does it look from the investor side? "In the short-term, I expect RAS will have a marginal impact only as volumes are growing from a very low base, expansion is capital-intensive and financing is scarce", claims Erik Tveteraas, Investment Director at Nutreco. "Longer-term however, I believe RAS will have a meaningful share of world supply, perhaps in the range of 1/6 to 1/5 of global production. I view RAS as additive to sea cage production, not disruptive or substitutive. There's enough room to grow for RAS, offshore, flow-through systems and closed ocean systems. The main constraints are regulatory and capital – not demand".

Atlantic Sapphire CTO and co-founder, Thue Holm, with one of Atlantic Sapphire's Bluehouse salmons. Photo: Atlantic Sapphire.

We started by saying that onshore farms based on RAS systems are increasingly in the news and we wonder if the potential of RAS is so huge, if they will be able to meet the expectations created around them. If we talk about sustainability, animal welfare, or carbon footprint reduction, we dare to say that they will certainly achieve it. The path of technology also seems to be very well marked and, hand in hand with it, talent will necessarily evolve. However, if we talk about production figures, after talking to all the experts, we end up saying that, if they do, it will not be in the short term. Expressions such as "it will take significant time" or "it will take many years" are examples of this; the boldest has spoken of ten years. RAS is here to stay, no doubt about it, but it still has difficulties ahead and, as one of them said, "the learning curve is steep". Of course, RAS is an industry with a future, although, as our last expert pointed out, as far as total production is concerned, rather than something disruptive or substitutive, right now, it seems a complementary line to traditional sea farm production.

*Cover photo: AquaBioTech Group.

Related Stories

No stories found.