Time to swim with the current?
Fish farming is still very much in the shadow of traditional farming, but it is an industry with huge potential. Anna Zahedi considers the merits of starting a fish farm.
For the conventional farmer, whether on Grade 1 Lincolnshire fenland of Less Favoured hill-ground on Harris, their main objective will be to break even and, if possible, make a profit.
But rising costs of inputs and sundries, coupled with depressed grain and livestock prices, mean farmers are increasingly looking towards diversifying their income streams by adding photovoltaics with sheep grazing underneath and yurts ready to accommodate eager glampers to the usual livestock and arable mix.
Of all the innovative ways to diversify a farmer's income, aquaculture does not often - at least in the UK - enter into the mix, scaly and slimy or a feeling that running a fish farm is too far removed from 'dry land' farming. We live on an island where the precipitation is considerable and the climate temperate, yet few landowners feel drawn to invest in aquaculture.
For those who do, the choice of marine or terrestrial based farming is usually based on geographical location. In coastal waters, fish, crustacean and mollusc farming can be particularly challenging due to the unpredictable nature of external environmental factors such as stormy weather, predators and high disease burden, not to mention the additional costs of building suitable infrastructure and obtaining the necessary permissions from the Crown Estate and local governments.
Even established players at the top of the aquaculture industry are not immune to these problems and have good reason to be cautious. Large-scale intensive farming raises the stakes: recent algal blooms in Chile have caused the loss of 23 million fish - equating to 100,000 tonnes - with a total cost in lost production estimated at $800 million.
For terrestrial-based aquaculture, mitigating against risk is easier. Greater control of the system allows water quality to be monitored, preventing fluctuations, while predators are of little concern. However once a pathogen is present disease spreads quickly and at worst can lead to the loss of the entire stock.
Many 'traditional' farmers have enthusiastically taken up GPS tractors, touch-screen precision sprayers, cow collars and drones, but most will tell you there is no substitute for walking the fields and regularly checking on livestock. Aquaculture technology is light years ahead and has become such an integral part of the production process that the chance of losing a whole stock is slight.
The entire life cycle of a salmon from egg to harvest can be achieved in a completely closed environment using recirculation techniques, where the water is constantly being filtered, purified and re-oxygenated, to provide optimal conditions for growth while eliminating the need for pesticides. Sensors which respond to cues exhibited by the salmon but not immediately visible to the naked eye, no matter how well trained, tell the system to adjust water temperature or salinity and even mimic the lengthening days to trigger the photochemical transition from parr to smolt.
This technology, deployed to minimise the risk of human error, also plays a fundamental part in traceability for the consumer. A barcode or QR code on fish packagaing will tell you the origin of the fish, the number of the pen it was reared in, when it was harvested and processed and often plenty of other non-mandatory information.
The benefits for the big players who can afford to invest are clear, but what is the case for smaller farmers and landowners trading in their Simmental and silage in favour of salmon?
The risks are high but the rewards great, and the prospects for the smaller-scale farmer are perhaps not so murky.
First, there is a clear, present and growing demand. Red meat consumption is decreasing and fish consumption steadily rising - and almost half the world's population already relies on fish as a primary source of protein.
Second, as overfishing causes wild fish stocks to dwindle and food security becomes more important to governments, sustainable production has a major role to play in feeding the world's ever-growing population. It takes 6.8lb of feed to produce 1lb of body mass in Hereford cattle; for salmon the ratio is almost one-to-one, so input costs can be reduced by choosing a more 'energy-efficient' animal.
The aquaculture industry is based on clean technology, sustainability and novel techniques, such as carbon capture to produce a sustainable supply of fish food, floating pods for salmon production or controlling sea lice using cleaner wrasse, a natural predator.
How can landlowners - particularly those without access to coastal waters, large ponds or empty resevoirs - fit into the picture? At CKD Galbraith we have seen increased demand from aquaculture firms for sites for land-based projects such as recirculation units and research laboratories, and for access to fresh water for flushing techniques used to remove sea lice. Brownfield sites and old commercial business parks fit the bill for many of these projects, with firms often willing to replace and renew infrastructure at little or no cost to the owner.
Now could be the time to think about swimming with the current.