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Chad Gillen | May 12th, 2023
Aquaculture is not a new idea, but its growth in popularity in recent years has the potential to change the modern world’s food supply for the better. With roots dating back 4,000 years to China, American aquaculture is in its infancy by comparison, first gaining traction in the late 19th century to boost fish stocks for sport fishing.
Today, more than 50% of all global seafood is produced through aquaculture and is estimated to grow to 62% by 2030, while wild capture fishing is beginning to decline, due to overfishing and climate conditions. Total world aquaculture has increased by 609% in annual output from 1990 to 2020. Aquaculture increases seafood supply, supports commercial fisheries, maintains economic activity in coastal communities, and restores habitats and at-risk species.
American aquaculture began back in 1955 with the commercialization of catfish in the Mississippi Delta region to boost fish stocks for sport fishing, and for the first decade only remained a regional operation. In 2022, catfish reached cumulative total sales of USD $447 million, a 5% increase from 2021, when total sales were USD $427 million.
Interestingly, The United Nations FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 reportidentified the United States as the country with the highest growth potential for ocean farming globally, yet 92% of all American seafood is imported, and more than half is estimated to come from foreign aquaculture. With the need to double aquaculture production by 2030 to meet the growing demand for seafood consumption, American aquaculture has the opportunity to expand its market share to become a major player in the industry. Currently, the US is a minor aquaculture provider globally, ranking 18th in the world, while China dominates the industry, producing more than all other countries in the world, by far.
In the past few decades, we have seen notable growth in aquaculture, both globally and in America, but the industry still faces many challenges. Various factors impede the growth of American aquaculture, from regulatory barriers and economic challenges to environmental concerns. Let’s explore some of these challenges faced by the American aquaculture industry and the ways in which stakeholders are working to address these issues.
American aquaculture faces several economic challenges, such as:
When setting up an aquaculture operation, there are many financial components that need to be considered, including the cost of land, equipment, infrastructure, and labor. The requirement of such a substantial capital investment can be a difficult barrier to entry for small-scale operations to overcome, which ultimately limits the growth of the industry.
With limited insurance options for aquaculture farmers, it can be difficult to manage operating costs and risks such as disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and equipment failure. The perception of risk also creates a challenge for aquaculture farmers looking to secure financing and insurance, since many financial institutions view aquaculture as a high-risk investment.
Currently, the US imports 92% of its seafood, which is often cheaper than domestically produced aquaculture products. This makes competition from imports a significant challenge. When considering the high cost of operations and production, keeping prices competitive can be a significant hurdle.
Market volatility can also be a difficult challenge to overcome. The unpredictability of the market for aquaculture products, with persistent fluctuations in demand and prices, can make it a challenge for producers to plan and invest in their operations.
Environmental concerns are perhaps the most hotly debated topic in the industry. All food production on the planet has an environmental impact, but aquaculture has earned a controversial reputation largely from corporate irresponsibility and a lack of clearly defined and strictly enforced safety protocols. Some important discussions include:
The accumulation of excess nutrients, organic matter, and chemical contaminants from aquaculture farms can impact the water quality and local aquatic ecosystems. Algal bloom, oxygen depletion, and other water quality issues are challenges fish farmers are faced with solving, often through the utilization of technology such as remotely operated vehicles.
Disease outbreaks and parasite infestations can devastate aquaculture farms and surrounding aquatic ecosystems and wild fish populations. 30 years ago it was common to use antibiotics and other medications that impacted water quality. Today, more environmentally safe options are available or being explored, such as probiotics, prebiotics, immunostimulants, and vaccines. Of course, strict sanitation practices can also help prevent the introduction and spread of disease in aquaculture operations.
Many aquaculture fish are genetically modified or bred for specific traits, so fish and marine life escapes can also potentially lead to genetic pollution by altering their habitat and competition for resources with wild fish populations. This can lead to habitat destruction and degradation if not controlled.
With access to the right tools, these issues can be caught early, by doing daily inspections, which have been made capable in recent years by utilizing underwater ROVs, proven to be an affordable and highly effective way to optimize maintenance schedules with much higher frequencies than was previously possible. More and more aquaculture farms are realizing that simply equipping operations with ROVs will help improve quality, efficiency, safety, and revenue.
Another obstacle American aquaculture faces is the lack of clear legislation to allow new projects to move forward. New legislation in 2016 allowed the US to conduct marine aquaculture in offshore Federal waters; however, this ruling was contested in 2018, with the courts siding with the plaintiffs. In 2020, the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act was reintroduced to establish national standards for sustainable offshore aquaculture. The goal of this bill was to harmonize the permitting system for offshore aquaculture for farms in federal waters. This would support the development of sustainable aquaculture in the US, create new jobs, and reduce the US seafood trade deficit.
In 2017, American aquaculture was a $1.5 billion industry annually and created 1.7 million jobs, according to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). In 2023, it has jumped to $2.1 billion, and is projected to reach $20.1 billion by 2030.
Currently, there are no American aquaculture farms in federal waters, but as a leader in aquaculture technologies and home of some of the best managed fisheries in the world, the US is positioned to be a global leader in the industry.
American aquaculture production spans across many states in the US, each contributing to the growth and development of the industry. Each state has its own unique focus on specific species of marine life, from catfish and tilapia to shellfish such as oysters and shrimp, with some states producing large volumes of seafood, becoming major players in the aquaculture sector, and driving growth in the industry.
Some of the top US states with the biggest aquaculture productioninclude:
The major food fish species grown in the United States include catfish, crawfish, and trout from freshwater productions. The top species for marine finfish is Atlantic salmon, while the leading marine shellfish species are oysters, followed by shrimp, mussels, clams, and abalone.
American aquaculture also produces nonfood species such as baitfish, algae and aquatic plants, as well as ornamental fish in a range of environments including freshwater, saltwater, cold water, and warm water. Aquatic plants include both edible varieties and plants for use in wetland restoration projects.
Some other major fish species grown in the US include:
As new technologies and feed options become available, more species of fish will become available for growth in aquaculture operations, further expanding the value of fish farms and aquaculture in America.
Aquaculture around the world has proven to be an excellent method of sustainable food production and has become vital for increasing the global food supply. It also contributes to the economy by creating jobs and provides a more sustainable source of food while protecting the dwindling populations of wild fish, in which many species are endangered by the threat of extinction caused by over-farming and climate change. Aquaculture plays a part in the repopulation of wild fish species, adding millions of hatchlings into the wild environments, with an estimated 70-80% of Pacific Northwest salmon being born from hatcheries.
It’s estimated that food production will need to increase by as much as 60% by 2050 to sustain and feed a global population of approximately 10 billion people. Nearly all of the planet’s fertile land is in use, whereas only 2% of the oceans (which cover 71% of the planet) are responsible for food supply. This positions aquaculture as a leading sustainable source of food in the years to come.
Although the current focus on aquaculture is marine farming,75% of all edible seafood produced from aquaculture comes from land-based freshwater farms. Much of the contention against American aquaculture in federal waters comes from the use of fish meal and fish oil as the main ingredients for producing fish feeds. Reliance on small fish such as anchovies for fish feed can lead to overfishing and negatively impacting marine ecosystems, as well as using up a food resource that could be potentially consumed by humans.
However, this argument often comes from politically charged opinion pieces that fail to consider all the factors on both sides of the argument. It’s easy to feel alarmed when confronted with statistics such as global fish feed production tripling from 2000 to 2017, but that can be misleading when it doesn’t also mention that the use of pelagic fish in fish feed has actually been reduced by over 30% in the same period.
The formula of feed has been improved in recent years, making it much more efficient and tailored to the specific dietary needs of each fish breed. With fish meal being replaced by alternative vegetable, bacterial, algal, and insect-based alternative ingredients, as well as the utilization of fish processing waste (which accounts for about 30% of all fish meal), our reliance on farming small, wild fish for aquaculture feed has been noticeably reduced.
Also, the production of mollusks (clams, oysters, mussels, and other bivalves) and seaweeds have doubled over the last 20 years, and these species not only provide food but also water filtration and nutrient capture, which contributes to the sustainability of aquaculture farming.
The aquaculture industry is in a unique position, especially when it comes to involvement with rural populations with limited resources, to support economic growth and help communities rise out of poverty.
In the Mwenezi district of Zimbabwe, for example, when faced with declining employment opportunities, three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) stepped in to implement fish farming in the communities. This provided employment opportunities that improved household incomes and also increased food security and generated local support.
Not only does aquaculture support sustainable economic growth in waterfronts and coastal communities, but it also drives employment in other verticals of the industry, such as seafood processing and feed and equipment manufacturing.
There are many valid concerns about the environmental damage caused by aquafarming, due in part to the poor practices of salmon farming in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the ongoing destruction of mangroves to create shrimp ponds in some parts of South Asia.
That reputation has been carried across all sectors of the industry for the past 40 years; however, new technological advancements and the knowledge we have gained from our mistakes of the past have evolved the industry in positive ways.
There has been a dramatic decline in the amount of wild fish used in feed, as well as the use of antibiotics to treat diseases, and improvements in siting practices ensure that fin fish have less of an impact on their surrounding environment.
Ultimately, all food production has an environmental impact, and while there are still challenges we need to overcome, the industry has come a long way and has become a viable source of sustainable food. Fish farms also produce fewer carbon emissions and utilize less fresh water and arable land per pound of production than land-based livestock.
Aquaculture, done in a socially and environmentally friendly manner, is the only way to meet the growing demand for seafood, while also creating jobs, generating revenues, and taking pressure off over-stretched capture fisheries.” claims Randall Brummet, a senior fisheries specialist at The World Bank.
Aquaculture is one of the most environmentally sustainable ways to produce food and protein and can offer improved nutrition and food security for many communities. Leading health experts promote the value of adding seafood to our diet, since it contains nutrients that are linked to a range of health benefits, including a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, and is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart and brain health.
With wild-caught fish stocks in decline and freshwater sources overdrawn, a sustainable food source is becoming increasingly important. Aquaculture is not only a viable alternative but can also have a positive impact on the environment.
Oysters can filter 50 gallons of water per day, for example, and seaweed is exceptionally effective at removing excess nutrients from the water, which improves the health of eutrophic estuaries, as well as carbon dioxide, which mitigates ocean acidification in localized areas. Shellfish and seaweed farms (and aquaculture infrastructures in general) also provide a habitat for wild fish and help to increase the diversity of species.
Aquaculture farming systems vary in type, from offshore pens to land-based ponds and closed recirculation systems. The majority of aquaculture happens in land-based operations, though offshore farms in Federal waters have a high level of potential for future expansion. With clear and strict regulations that hold corporations accountable, ethical offshore aquaculture farming could be our best option for managing the global food supply.
Let’s take a look at each of the aquaculture farming systems and how they are operated:
Water-based systems consist of cages or pens, between 6 and 60 cubic feet in size, typically found in offshore coastal regions or freshwater lakes. These pens are made from metal, wood, or bamboo, which floats on the surface of the water and connects to a mesh enclosure, designed to allow water to flow freely through, which helps manage waste.
A major concern of open-net pen and cage systems is the free exchange of waste, chemicals, parasites, and diseases that can be caused by having high-density populations in the nets. These chemicals, parasites, and diseases can then spread out into the surrounding populations of wild fish, having a dramatic effect on the environment and ecosystems in direct contact with these systems.
Ethically responsible fish farms generally have wastewater treatment facilities onsite to help mitigate pollutants, and can also use recycled wastewater in innovative ways, such as being a source for nutrient-rich irrigation for agriculture or using it to sustain filter-feeder and bottom-feeder farm stocks, such as shellfish and catfish. Certifiably sustainable companies also don’t rely on antibiotics or chemicals to keep their stocks healthy, which helps preserve local ecosystems further.
Submersible net pens are another alternative to offshore fish farm systems, which are typically more remote than open-net pens. These systems are fully underwater, which protects them from the elements and makes it much less likely that captive fish can escape the pens.
Because of the environmental concerns of offshore farms, these systems require much more strict government regulations and protocols in place to ensure companies are not endangering the local ecosystems with their operations. Because of this, offshore aquaculture systems also have the highest potential for future growth.
Land-based systems can be ponds, tanks and raceways, and irrigated or flow-through or single-pass systems.
Ponds are the oldest type of fish farming, consisting of semi or fully-enclosed bodies of water that typically farm tilapia and shrimp. Discharged wastewater should be treated and filtered, or used as fertilizer, or it can impose the risk of polluting the surrounding environment, such as the devasting habitat damage to the mangroves caused by shrimp ponds.
Reduce the effects of invasive species by using ROVs for structural inspections
Flow through, or raceway systems are long units stocked with fish, with feeding stations attached to them. Flowing water is diverted from natural streams or wells and fed into the raceway. The water is collected at the end and treated in side pools or disposed of.
Closed, or recirculation systems consist of a set of fully controlled interconnected tanks, with one holding fish and another responsible for water treatment, controlling the salinity, temperature, oxygen, and pollutants. The tanks are connected by pipes, with clean water being constantly pumped in and wastewater pumped out, filtered and purified, then recirculated back into the tanks.
Because these systems are fully controlled and indoors, there is no chance of contact with wild fish stocks or escape from the captive fish, making them one of the most environmentally safe systems in aquaculture.
Multi-trophic systems are more complex, attempting to emulate the ecological systems that exist in natural habitats, where different trophic levels are mixed together to create a complementary system that provides the different nutritional needs of each species within the system.
For example, nutrients fed to finfish would generate high-quality organic and inorganic waste that shellfish and marine plants need, and in turn, the shellfish and plants reduce the risk of algal blooms by creating a natural filtration system to clean the water.
Advancements in technology and robotics have allowed fish farmers to implement more rigorous and consistent monitoring systems, which can dramatically improve fish health and produce overall safer operations of fish farms.
The main concern with aquaculture is the threat of pollution to our environment, and the best way to overcome this challenge is through diligent and consistent monitoring of:
Water quality monitoring is vital for maintaining the health, survival, and growth of fish and marine life. Factors such as water temperature, suspended solids, and dissolved gasses are crucial for the success of fish farms.
Temperature can affect growth, feeding, and reproduction. Suspended solids can be anything from plankton, fish wastes, uneaten feed, or clay particles, and can negatively affect water quality. Fish waste, for example, contains large amounts of nitrogen which can irritate the fish’s gills. Dissolved gasses such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen can also be critical for fish health. Low levels of dissolved oxygen, for example, is responsible for more fish kills, either directly or indirectly, than all other challenges combined.
Ensuring net integrity can not only help maintain fish health by minimizing the growth of organisms, such as algae, by keeping the nets clean, but a well-maintained net also ensures fish are not escaping, and wild fish and animals are being kept out.
Consistent net inspections allow farmers to monitor the regular wear and tear on lines, nets and mooring, and holes from potential pest incursions. With ROVs, farmers can make quick net inspections part of their daily routine, keeping assets in optimal condition with much less cost and time investment than having to hire divers.
Getting eyes underwater has always been a challenge for fish farmers, but with the use of ROVs, they can now closely monitor fish behaviour to improve feeding practices, check for parasites before they spread, and clear out morts using ROVs with equipped mort pushers.
“You can check virtually every cage within the same day [and] keep on top of fish health,” said Kana Upton, biologist at Aqua-Cage Fisheries in Parry Sound. “I can check bottoms for morts frequently throughout the day, and for holes in the nets, [which] can prevent fish loss. That’s a huge benefit for the environment and for us – it’s a win-win.”
The future of aquaculture is all about embracing technology and using the tools available to us to help the industry innovate and grow. Underwater robotics has proven to be an incredible benefit to fish farming, allowing farmers to get closer and have a better understanding of fish behaviours and what’s happening underwater.
Traditionally, divers would need to be hired and deployed to do inspections underwater, clear out morts, and take samples. This process is very time-consuming, costly, and inefficient. Even when dive inspections are scheduled, farmers face many challenges, including dependency on weather, visibility underwater, and other inherent risks that come with sending human divers underwater. The cost of only a couple of scheduled dives is comparable to purchasing a single ROV, which can be deployed daily for years, with very little to no maintenance, and virtually removes the inefficiency of having to wait for scheduled divers.
Using ROVs not only removes the risk of endangering human life but also offers a host of available options to help overcome many challenges fish farmers face. Bright LED lights help to see in darker waters, and when the water is too murky to see through, modular add-ons such as multibeam imaging sonar can be leveraged. Video can be used for data recording, creating a documented history of information which can help with feed monitoring and optimizing maintenance routines. ROVs can be used in nearly any weather or water conditions, making it possible to implement inspections into the daily routine, which can drastically improve efficiency and the overall health of the farm.
Deep Trekker’s very first customer was an aquaculture farm in Norway, and since then has sold more than 500 ROVs all over the world in aquaculture alone. That history with the industry has allowed Deep Trekker to improve and evolve the robots and modular tools available, based on direct feedback from farmers, making them indispensable assets in the industry.
Deep Trekker ROVs can be used to:
Using Deep Trekker ROVs reduces risk of injury by performing tasks that are dangerous for humans, and eliminating the need for divers. This also improves efficiency since divers are not needed to inspect and repair underwater infrastructure or check for fish health, feed levels, and water quality.
Improved data collection and increased precision are also benefits of using Deep Trekker ROVs. They can be equipped with a range of sensors to collect data on water quality, temperature, salinity, and other environmental factors. This data can be used to monitor and optimize the health and growth of fish, as well as to detect and respond to any potential issues. They can also be precisely controlled to perform tasks with a high degree of accuracy, which is useful for feeding and other tasks that require a high degree of accuracy.
The potential for growth and improvement within the industry is highly dependent on our adoption of new technologies, as well as embracing ethical practices and strictly adhering to regulations. ROVs have become an indispensable asset to the industry, and can help mitigate many of the environmental concerns with aquaculture farming systems. With an ethical and responsible approach, the potential for growth and prosperity is undeniable.
As always, our team of industry professionals is here to answer any questions you may have about how submersible robots can aid in your next project. When you’re ready to get a vehicle of your own, reach out to get your own customized quote.
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