The growth of aquaculture has been one of the big stories in the fishing industry over the past couple of decades, as fish raised in farms has grown from about 20% of captured fish in the 1990s to half of all fish caught in by 2020, according to a report issued by the United Nations.
But fish farming, while lauded by many experts as a way to relieve stress on ever-declining wild fish populations, is seen as rife with problems by others. Critics say fish farms can expose local fish populations to parasites such as fish lice, as well as antibiotics, and other chemicals. They also say farms pollute waters with unnatural amounts of concentrated fish feces emitted from farm enclosures. Farmed fish also can escape enclosures, which can pose harm to wild fish populations through interbreeding, especially if the farmed fish are genetically modified.
But a new generation of fish farming startups believe that pushing aquaculture away from the shore and into the deep sea, aided by the use of advanced technology such as sensors, automation, and artificial intelligence, will alleviate many of the problems associated with near-shore fish farming and produce a cleaner, more abundant harvest that is desperately needed to feed a growing global population.
One such company is Forever Oceans which has developed a system for farming fish miles offshore in the open ocean. The company, a spinoff of Lockheed Martin, says it can place its fish enclosures 10 miles offshore, up to 6000 thousand feet deep, and allow them to essentially drift naturally in the ocean’s current using a “patented single-point mooring.”
Forever Oceans uses sensors and cameras to monitor water quality and fish behavior, and “AI-driven” management software can make precision adjustments to feeding amount and timing and control hazards such as algae blooms. Underwater images captured by the system’s cameras are processed by what the company describes as biomass software to determine when the fish are ready to harvest. The entire process, which the company says drastically reduces the amount of human interaction with the fish population, is managed hundreds of miles away in a central operations center where a “single employee can monitor and manage our entire global network of farms via their laptop or mobile phone.”
Forever Oceans and other startups in this space believe that pushing fish farms further offshore and deeper underwater allows the fish to live in a more natural environment. Deep ocean currents, they say, can wash away pollutants and naturally clean enclosures, which keeps disease to a minimum. Proponents also believe these systems are better than land-based systems because open ocean farms utilize deep ocean tides as a natural filtration system, resulting in less energy usage and better access to naturally provided nutrients.
While it’s too soon to tell if deep-sea fish farming grows to become a significant slice of the overall aquaculture market, it definitely has momentum. Ever since the first deep-sea aquaculture project launched off the shores of Norway in 2018, a number of startups like Forever Oceans, Mowi, Innovasea, and Blue Ocean Mariculture have started to work on systems to enable fish farming in the open ocean.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this new movement for pushing fish farms into the deep ocean is not without its critics. Last fall, a coalition of environmental groups filed a legal challenge to a permit for a facility off the coast of Florida owned by Ocean Era, a company that has deployed Forever Oceans technology. They claim the EPA issued the permit without adequately vetting the facility’s environmental impact.
For its part, Forever Oceans continues to push forward, building out farm systems across the globe. Last June, the company said it would farm 2,500 tonnes of fish to be harvested over the next 12 months from their Panamanian farm and would bring on more fish capacity from farm sites being developed in Indonesia and Brazil. And this week, the company announced its farm-raised Kanpachi, a popular sushi-grade ray-finned fish, is now on the menus of 75 restaurants across the U.S, including Charlie Palmer Steak in Napa and Michelin-star Gravitas in Washington D.C.