Making offshore aquaculture a reality

WeAreAquaculture interviewed Hans V. Bjelland, Director of Norway’s EXPOSED research center, to find out more about the future of offshore.
The aim of SINTEF's Exposed project is to develop knowledge and technologies for EXPOSED aquaculture operations, enabling a sustainable expansion of the fish farming industry. Photo: SINTEF
The aim of SINTEF's Exposed project is to develop knowledge and technologies for EXPOSED aquaculture operations, enabling a sustainable expansion of the fish farming industry. Photo: SINTEF

The global aquaculture industry is awash with grand plans for farming in exposed and offshore locations, from SalMar's experimental Ocean Farm 1 in Norway to newcomer Impact-9's Net9 system in Scotland. Companies as well as governments around the world have started gearing up for the development of offshore aquaculture, with projects being developed in the U.S., Canada, Chile, Scotland, and Norway. 

Norwegian research organisation SINTEF estimates that by 2050, the offshore aquaculture industry could be worth as much as NOK 100 billion (€9.7 billion/$9.2 billion), supporting many tens of thousands of employees.  

Indeed, Norway has been something of a trail-blazer in global offshore development. One of its largest salmon farming companies, SalMar, is already operating the pioneering experimental facility Ocean Farm 1 located off the coast of Trøndelag, Norway. More recently, Salmar joined with Norwegian energy tech giant Aker to create SalMar Aker Ocean, applying for permission to site the world's first purely offshore fish farm approximately 50 nautical miles west of Frøya in Central Norway.  

Meanwhile, the Norwegian government has taken another step towards development of offshore farming along Norway's coastline, launching a public consultation on the impact of offshore aquaculture at three potential sites, with responses due at the end of this month. 

But how can all this potential be translated into commercially-viable, not to say operationally practical, safe and sustainable, fish farms in offshore or otherwise exposed locations?  

To find out more, WeAreAquaculture spoke to Hans Bjelland, Director of EXPOSED, SINTEF's Center for research and innovation on sustainable offshore seafood production. 

Identifying challenges, envisioning solutions 

EXPOSED brings together both research and industry partners, Bjelland explains, with the aim of supporting the development of aquaculture operations in Norwegian coastal areas which are currently inaccessible due to highly demanding conditions of gale-force winds, extreme waves and powerful ocean currents. 

"We wanted to define not only the challenges of exposed and offshore aquaculture, but also to envision solutions," says Bjelland. 

"We already had several research projects related to the challenges of coping with more extreme weather and locations along the Norwegian coast, so we had a fairly good picture of the kind of struggles that fish farmers experience. When the opportunity came to establish a research centre looking at offshore aquaculture, we grabbed it." 

The center, Bjelland says, has for the last eight years brought together leading aquaculture companies, key service and technology providers, and prominent research partners, to work on both technical innovations and the practical know-how needed to make offshore aquaculture both feasible and sustainable.

Hans Bjelland with colleague Kristine Størkersen. Photo: SINTEF.

Safety and reliability essential for continued development offshore

Four of the research areas, Bjelland says, focus on technological innovations for safe and reliable aquaculture operations. "We've been looking at autonomous systems and remote operations monitoring and decision support, construction, and vessel design," he says. "These innovations are needed by the industry to ensure production can be maintained under all conditions, and also to enable operations to be more robust, secure and predictable." 

The final two research areas, Bjelland explains, investigate the equally important areas of safety and risk management for both people and facilities, and fish welfare and behaviour. 

The solutions developed by EXPOSED will enable the increased use of more exposed locations, Bjelland says, which in turn will contribute to sustainable growth in aquaculture production, both in Norway and around the world. 

"Our intention has been to generate expertise and solutions that can also benefit more sheltered production, as well as exposed offshore locations." 

Harsh weather and waves make day-to-day operations extremely difficult 

Even the simplest everyday fish farming activities are highly challenging in offshore conditions, Bjelland explains.  

"Of course, you have additional challenges with offshore facilities related to the distance from shore and the distance from infrastructures, such as vessel transfer times and emergency response times. But the main challenge is the harsh weather and the sea state."

Aerial view of an offshore aquaculture facility. Photo: SINTEF.

Bjelland says that EXPOSED researchers have been involved in designing structures to withstand extreme conditions, including ensuring the cages can hold up to the powerful forces posed by exposed offshore locations. This includes being able to resist extreme wave heights that are, on average, exceeded only once every 20, 50, or 100 years. 

But beyond the demands of extraordinary waves and weather, he says, fish farms need to be able to maintain operations in exposed locations day-in, day-out, 365 days a year. 

"Being able to feed the fish, to remove fish for inspection, to inspect the nets – the harsh conditions impact all of these daily operations. Farmers need to be able to really farm every day, as well as performing the more specific operations like harvesting, sea lice removal, or other kinds of treatments." 

Dangerous work: how to reduce the risks? 

That's why the Center's central theme is exposed aquaculture operations, he explains. "It's not just the extreme conditions, but really the daily operations and more routine work that we've been focusing on." 

"Designing the farm to withstand these forces is of course a challenge, but it's more of an economic challenge to find the cost-efficient way of doing that. Companies also need to develop the right operational procedures to cope with those really rough conditions along the coast, both in Norway and internationally. It's a risky environment for the fish farmer." 

"These are some of the most dangerous working conditions that exist. I don't think that we can accept that that kind of risk level if we are going to expand the industry or even move it further off shore."  

"It's very difficult to do daily operations like inspection or cleaning, all those kinds of operations are required for the fish welfare, but also for the legislation and the authorities. The more demanding vessel operations like mooring, and the kinds of operations where vessels interact with the firm – these are difficult but also potentially very dangerous." 

"We see that if we don't have the tools and technology available, we are not able to perform those operations for extended periods of time. There could be a period of two to three weeks where we can't do a certain operation. That's just not good enough." 

"It's important to ensure that fish thrive in these conditions… Large designs require you to have a very large fish population". Photo: SINTEF.

Large pens mean large fish populations: ensuring fish can thrive offshore 

Another fundamental challenge for exposed aquaculture is achieving optimal fish health and welfare. "It's important to ensure that fish thrive in these conditions. We know a lot about how fish cope with rapid swimming, how they can swim for a long period of time and under which conditions." 

However, there are still a few questions remaining. "It's regarding how they cope with waves and how they behave. Also, if and to what extent fish submerge below the wave – because waves are the most energetic on the surface." 

The team has also been investigating how fish interact with the offshore cage structures themselves. "Different structure designs might cause turbulence or different conditions throughout the volume, which can be beneficial for the fish. We've been looking at how to take that into consideration when designing structures." 

Some of the most recent structures in development for offshore are very large, Bjelland notes, which means farmers will need different approaches to how the fish within them are managed and monitored.  

"These large designs require you to have a very large fish population within each unit, so we have to look at how that affects the oxygen availability within the cage, and how the fish choose to utilize that volume." 

Learning from the people at the front line of exposed aquaculture 

Since its inception, the Centre has partnered with some of the biggest industry players in Norway, Bjelland says, with a focus on applied research that has direct relevance for both fish farmers and the technology companies that supply them.  

"We had three major Norwegian fish farming companies as our partners – Cermaq, Mowi and Salmar. We also worked with some very major technological partners." 

"It was a very good fit, because we were able to directly address the challenges and needs of the end users. And we had a lot of eager companies wanting to develop solutions for those," he says.

"A lot of the benefits of our research centre is that it gave an arena and forum for exchanges between partners. We put a lot of effort into having common workshops, innovation sprints, and dissemination. Industry partners were able to talk about solutions and challenges, as well as researchers bringing their perspectives." 

Among the many outcomes from the Centre's work, which encompassed applied research and innovation projects during its 8-year history, perhaps the most significant have been the development of essential hands-on knowledge to benefit industry partners. 

"Innovations are not only products that have been developed and are ready for sale. They also include know-how and competence that is transferred to the companies, into processes, management procedures and so on." 

"Some of the projects we've run have led to specific innovations, while others have produced fundamental research knowledge that just now starts to become solutions available to the industry. Some innovations take 10 or 15 years before realization." 

"Within the framework of risk and safety management research, our work has tied into the industry partners' operations management, as well as technology development." 

Norway is a pioneer in offshore aquaculture. Pictured: Ocean Farm 1 of SalMar Aker Ocean, the world's first offshore salmon farm. Photo: SalMar.

Ensuring exposed research is relevant to industry needs 

A core part of the Center's work has been to engage directly with fish farm workers and managers. What have the researchers learned from working with the people at the front line of the industry? 

"It has been very important for us to organize facilitated workshops where we engage with the people and fish farmers. These are the people who experience these harsh weather conditions on their bodies every day. We were able to tap into their know-how on the best ways to handle that." 

"We need to make sure that our work is useful and relevant. It has been very useful for the industry partners that develop and provide technology solutions and services to really understand what the fish farmers' daily operations are, and what kind of needs they have." 

Through the EXPOSED research centre, companies that are usually commercial rivals were able to cooperate on key practical issues, Bjelland says.  

"We saw our partners were able to compare notes between organizations and also within organizations. They were able to discuss what kind of safety criteria they use in operations, the limits they use, their approach to different types of operations. This information sharing is very much in need." 

"Most of our research has been focused on those areas that are precompetitive, and most of the challenges we have addressed are something all partners can benefit from."  

Looking ahead: better monitoring technology for autonomous operations  

One of the main developments the researchers envision for the industry is better technology to monitor farms in offshore and exposed locations. 

"Better monitoring technology will help us know more about what kinds of conditions such farms experience, and how the fish, the operators and the vessels cope with those conditions." More information and improved understanding from monitoring will enable researchers, farmers, and technologists to continue improving and adapting technology and operations procedures. 

"There is a data need," Bjelland says. "Operations need to be carried out without the need for humans to be physically on the floating collars, or physically handling equipment. It's a very challenging task because these are very dynamic environments." 

In support of this, Bjelland and his colleagues have been working on how vessels interact with the fish farm structures. "We also looked at utilizing ROVs – underwater vehicles – to increase efficiency and provide control for operations such as inspection, cleaning and dead fish removal." 

"We've also been working on how to make cages that provide good working conditions and also adapt to vessel operations. The interactions between the different systems are often the bottleneck." 

Better know-how on offshore means more sites can be developed 

How does Bjelland see the future of offshore and exposed aquaculture developing, both in Norway and globally? 

"I think it's useful to distinguish actually between what we have been defining as exposed aquaculture and what normally is called offshore or open ocean aquaculture," Bjelland says. "And that's with regard not only to the locations and the sea states at those locations, but also in terms of which type of technology that is used." 

"Fish farming pens using circular flexible collars and nets is a technology that has potential for expanded use in locations that are more exposed than the current sites. We see in Norway and elsewhere exposed sites using this technology that have been abandoned because the daily management is too complicated." 

"We believe that there is a huge potential in developing that technology and management operations to cope with the challenges for this sort of set-up. And by doing so, I think there is a huge potential for those lower-cost fish farm sites to be developed." 

Bjelland says another important development will be open ocean offshore structures made in a different way. "Using more rigid structures, but still using nets, will provide a very different experience of farming, but it's a lot more costly." 

Bird's-eye view of Ocean Farm 1 of SalMar Aker Ocean, the world's first offshore salmon farm. The company is cooperating with Norwegian authorities, the aquaculture industry and other stakeholders to establish the framework conditions for this new activity. Photo: SalMar.

A potential offshore boom on the horizon, in Norway and around the world? 

Bjelland points out that the potential for this kind of open ocean farming using rigid structures is opening up in Norway, with three potential coastal areas under focus by the Norwegian Government. but he says that globally there is increased interest in open ocean offshore aquaculture. 

"Exposed aquaculture is mainly relevant for those areas that already farm closer to the coast and then they can just expand into more exposed areas." 

"Open ocean offshore aquaculture will also open up possibilities in areas that are not currently fish farming regions. For example, for salmon, which has been shown to be a very profitable species. With open ocean aquaculture, you can go into sea areas where the oxygen levels and the temperatures are preferable for those kinds of species." 

Profitability and aquaculture infrastructure key to development of new areas 

Although it is possible that new areas around the globe will be developed using these approaches, Bjelland does not necessarily foresee a "boom" in places where coastal aquaculture has never been a key industry.  

"It's not like you either produce in sheltered areas or you produce only in the open ocean. I think a very important limiting factor for new areas is whether you have the production infrastructure already in place, for smolt and the different steps in the production process, as well as the competence, the industry, and the ecosystem around it," he says. 

Other species may also be developed for offshore in future, but salmon is likely to dominate since profitability will undoubtedly remain the most crucial factor, Bjelland notes. "It has to be cost-efficient. You have to be able to bring it home economically." 

Next steps for EXPOSED include adaptation of existing tech for offshore 

The funding for the current EXPOSED research centre is coming to an end, but Bjelland says he and his team have big plans for the future. 

"We're continuing our work on different types of aquaculture production systems, from land-based systems to semi-closed and more conventional flow through systems at sea. We've worked on a lot of interesting projects, for example for validating new structures, we're certainly going to continue that, as well as continuing to look at the knowledge needs for going offshore." 

"I would also like to maintain focus on how to utilize the potential of current technologies in new ways, for example submergence, that might also be a solution for open ocean aquaculture." 

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