AquaBounty, beyond salmon and North America

We spoke with Sylvia Wulf, CEO of AquaBounty, about the company's future plans, which can be summed up in two words: diversification and opportunity.
Sylvia Wulf, CEO of AquaBounty. Photo: AquaBounty Technologies, Inc.
Sylvia Wulf, CEO of AquaBounty. Photo: AquaBounty Technologies, Inc.

Following the latest news about AquaBounty's plans, we took advantage of our presence at the latest Seafood Expo North America held in Boston last month to meet with Sylvia Wulf and ask her about them. The CEO confirmed they would not stop producing genetically engineered (GE) salmon, but not only that. She also told us about diversification and the opportunity the company has to go beyond salmon and North America.

It's diversification, not stopping GE salmon

In Canada and the U.S., to be in a net pen, the salmon have to come from a North American strain. AquaBounty's broodstock is from the St. John River strain, so they qualify. "We are building production capacity of our transgenic eggs for use in our farms. However, the females are all conventional salmon producing conventional eggs, and then they get fertilized with our AquAdvantage salmon milt to produce our GE salmon, so we have excess conventional eggs," Wulf explained.

In addition, AquaBounty's CEO told WeAreAquaculture, they have had conversations with farmers in Canada and there appears to be demand for a second supply source. "Our facility is a pathogen-free facility, it's all bio-secure, so we've decided that we are going to utilize our genetics expertise to produce a North American salmon that we think will be good for the market," she added.

AquaBounty is not abandoning GE salmon production. They have just decided to listen to the market and seize the opportunity to meet the growing U.S. and Canadian market demand for conventional salmon eggs. Grow by diversifying.

"We produce enough eggs for our own use. We're building to be able to supply our farm in Ohio to generate an annual salmon harvest of 10,000 metric tons. But to do that, we have to constantly increase our stock, and that means we have excess conventional salmon eggs," she said. "It's diversification. It's not stopping what we're doing with our GE salmon, we keep those for ourselves."

AquaBounty grow-out tanks are designed to prevent leaks. Photo: AquaBounty Technologies, Inc.

Ohio farm, ahead despite difficulties

The new farm in Pioneer, Ohio, put AquaBounty in the headlines in recent months. First, when announcing its Q3 results, the company said constructing this new facility would require more than $320 million. As of today, its latest quarterly earnings release said it would cost between $375 and $395 million. Wulf admitted to WeAreAquaculture that the entire farm's cost would be higher than they had originally anticipated. Although she emphasized their decision to slow the pace of construction has proved beneficial.

"Everyone knows there have been supply chain challenges; there's been inflation," she told us. "So last fall, when we started to see costs really escalate, we made the decision not to stop but slow the pace until we saw whether or not inflation was going to stay high or whether it would start to come down. And from what we've seen we are glad we waited; we kept going with what we had already purchased. We made good progress on what we call phase one of the farm, and now we're back ramping up to get back on schedule. So, we're a few months behind, but the benefit was the cost of materials came down." However, rising costs have not been the only problem faced by the Ohio farm.

A few months ago, the project also came under criticism from some activist groups after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) found AquaBounty's GE salmon eggs pose no danger to the environment. When asked about it, the CEO reminded us that the company has the support of the FDA and Health Canada. AquaBounty sells all its output from the Indiana farm, has never had an escape in over 25 years of operation, and the fish are all sterile females. "So, their criticism isn't real," she summed up.

And she went further. "The second thing I always challenge them with is how are we going to feed 9 billion people unless we come up with new ways to produce food?" According to Wulf, if we think about where medicine is going, much of it uses our own genetics. She wonders why not use biotechnology to provide a healthy protein at an affordable cost to people who need to eat. "Unless they have a better plan, I think we're doing the right thing," she concluded.

Growing through new species

Wulf is well aware of her company's strengths, what they call "core competencies." There are two of them. First, they know how to operate a land-based RAS farm. Second, they have R&D capability in breeding genetics, health, nutrition, and gene editing and can use it to get better at farming all the time. Why not take advantage of them? "We think that applies to a number of species, but in particular, we're starting with shrimp," she confirmed.

And why shrimp? Because it's the most consumed species in the world, she said, and because it struggles with the same challenges that affect salmon, such as diseases or climate change. "We think that there is a market for shrimp produced in a bio-secure environment like we do with our salmon," she stated, "and by being close to markets, close to consumption, you're not flying shrimp from either Southeast Asia, India, or Ecuador."

"Why not produce in the countries that are consuming?" she wondered. As in the case of conventional salmon eggs, shrimp is not the only species under consideration. "We are still very interested in species like tilapia," Wulf told us. "Because it's a healthy, low-cost protein." Again, diversification and opportunity.

Nevertheless, Wulf made a point. "None of these are necessarily ones that we would genetically engineer", she said, "we just want to apply our ability to run that kind of farm for other species." Although many know AquaBounty as "the GE salmon farmer," that is not their only strength, as she shared above. Now, the company wants to focus more on its work as a specialist RAS farmer, an expertise not everyone can boast.

Wulf is aware of her company's strengths, what they call "core competencies." Photo: AquaBounty Technologies, Inc.

Growing with salmon in other locations

Therefore, another way to grow is by taking what they are good at and applying it elsewhere. "In addition to exploring sales of other species, we can take what we're doing with salmon and expand geographically", she claimed. That is, outside of North America, but where?

"We have approval in Brazil, and we know that Brazil is probably a good market for us," she told us. "We're pursuing field trials in China," she added, although she conceded that, before pursuing that, they want things to settle down a bit. "And then we're looking at the Middle East, Israel specifically," she disclosed. "That's another market that consumes quite a bit of salmon. It's a growing market, but they import everything. So, if we can produce salmon in Israel, it has the same benefits that it does in the U.S."

Those would be the markets where they think there's an opportunity for salmon and then, a chance to farm another species later. But does that mean they are abandoning the idea of further expansion in North America? Not exactly. "We think there's probably room for another three to four farms in North America," she claimed. "We believe that having those farms at different locations as opposed to one gigantic farm makes more sense because you're closer to the markets and you minimize your risk".

AquaBounty already has one farm in the U.S. and another under construction. We asked, are you thinking about Canada? "Absolutely," she answered. "The west coast of Canada is definitely not supportive of net pen farming. The east coast remains supportive, and we think there's an opportunity for a land-based farming operation in Canada. There's a lot of receptivity for that," she added. "They know how to farm, and they do net pens. So, we think Canada is a logical place to build a land-based farm."

About AquaBounty

AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. is a land-based fish farming expert raising Atlantic salmon to supply nearby markets. The company is currently operating land-based RAS farms located in Indiana, in the United States, and Prince Edward Island, Canada. There is one more farm on the way, a large-scale farm being built in Pioneer, Ohio, U.S. The company claims that its innovative land-based farms, combined with its expertise in genetic engineering, are the answer to the world's growing demand for high-quality seafood.

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