Farming the sea

Norwegians have long been seafaring folk, with their livelihoods and well being reliant on the ocean’s bounty. More than 1,000 years ago, Norsemen set out on the North Atlantic, exploring and briefly colonizing Iceland, Greenland and North America, with at least five expeditions to North America between 985 and 1011. Those expeditions were only possible because of Norwegian fish, caught from their spawning grounds off the Lofoten Islands, where literally millions of cod come dependably each winter. Norwegian fish fed the Vikings, brought wealth in the Middle Ages to the Hanseatic League, and in the centuries afterwards, provided a good livelihood for thousands of Norwegian fishermen.

These days, Norway’s economic well-being is first and foremost dependent on a different North Sea product, petroleum. And the fisherman’s world has changed as well. While fishing remains important to Norway’s economy and culture, it is aquaculture, particularly the farming of Atlantic salmon and trout, that provides the fisheries industry its real economic powerhouse, with Norway ranking among the top ten aquaculture nations on the planet.

A Record-Breaking Year
In 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, Norwegian fish farmers sold a record NOK 17 billion worth of farmed fish, up 26% from 2005 and the highest value ever recorded. In contrast, Norwegian fishermen in the same year sold NOK 12 billion worth of wild fish. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that aquaculture worldwide continues to grow more rapidly than all other animal food-producing sectors, at an average rate of 8.8% per year since 1970, compared with only 1.2% for capture fisheries and 2.8% for terrestrial farmed meat production.
 
“Aquaculture is a significant industry in Norway, but it is also the most rapidly growing source of animal production in the world,” says Trond Storebakken, Director of the Aquaculture Protein Centre, a collaborative of the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science (NVH), the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB) and the former AKVAFORSK, the Institute of Aquaculture Research, which is now part of a new industry-oriented research group that includes the Norwegian Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture Research, Matforsk and Norconserv. “Seafood is the highest quality food, and world demand is increasing at a tremendous rate, while wild catch is declining ... sustainable development in fish farming worldwide can make a significant contribution to world food production.” 
 
There’s no question that Norway’s deep, clean fjords and abundant wild fish stocks provided the country the foundation for its leading position in the aquaculture world today. But the real secret behind Norway’s success has been the country’s focused investments in aquaculture research and development. From 2000 to 2005, for example, the Research Council of Norway (RCN) invested NOK 460 million in aquaculture research, an amount more than matched by industry expenditures.
 
Beginning in the early 1970s, Norway was a pioneer in salmon farming. Since those early days, researchers have explored every aspect of fish cultivation, from improving genetic stocks, to developing new types of feed and feeding technology, to learning more about fish behaviour, health and well-being. They’re also working on developing and expanding the aquaculture market for cod, halibut, and a range of other marine species, along with tropical freshwater fish, such as tilipia, for farming in developing countries.
 
Norway has pioneered nearly every aspect of salmon farming, from genetic research to development of ocean-based fish cages.
© Marine Harvest

Feeding Fish, Feeding the World
One of the big challenges facing modern-day aquaculture is fish feed itself. In an ideal world, salmon, trout and other carnivorous fish need fish fats and proteins to grow and thrive, but the ability of the marine catch to feed both people and serve as a basis for fish feed is limited. If current trends continue, “we are going to need 80 million tonnes of fish feed by 2025,” says Storebakken, the APC’s director. Aquaculture researchers across the globe are scrambling to find ways to produce healthy fish feed using alternative protein sources. The importance of this problem is one reason the APC was recognized in 2002 as one of Norway’s first Centres of Excellence, a designation awarded by the Research Council.
 

It’s possible to boost the amount of plant proteins in fish feed, but that has to be done carefully, Storebakken says. “Carnivorous fish have not been good about eating their vegetables over evolutionary time,” he jokes. APC scientists are looking at the complex reactions that different species of fish may have to plants used as a component for fish feed.
 
Another avenue being explored at the APC and at the Institute for Marine Research (IMR) in Bergen is the use of plankton or krill as a basis for fish feed and food for humans. While it’s estimated that just one or two percent of the plankton in the seas would be sufficient for the global aquaculture industry’s feed ingredients needs, Norwegian researchers are also studying plankton populations to make sure that using plankton for feed won’t disturb marine ecosystems. This research is being conducted at the IMR, and is funded by a Research Council programme called HAVKYST – Oceans and Coastal Areas, which focuses on marine ecosystem research and has a budget of roughly NOK 81 million for 2008.
 
At the APC, researchers are working jointly with Krill Seaproducts AS of Ålesund to evaluate the use of Antarctic krill in fish feed. The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries recently granted three Norwegian companies the right to harvest 400,000 tonnes of krill annually, as approved by CCAMLR, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. Storebakken says one of the challenges of using krill for fish feed is that the shells contain high levels of fluoride.
 
Good nutrition is also critical for healthy fish growth, as researchers at Nofima’s Akvaforsk Sunndalsøra branch can attest. Led by Grete Bæverfjord, researchers at the Sunndalsøra facility are studying skeletal malformations in farmed salmon and cod, as one of numerous projects funded under the RCN’s HAVBRUK, one of the council’s major research programmes extending from 2006-2015. HAVBRUK had an annual budget of approximately NOK 116 million in 2007; in 2008, 25 new research projects funded at NOK 29 million were added to the programme’s roster.
 
Bæverfjord’s research cooperative involves scientists from other branches of Nofima, as well as NIFES, the Norwegian Institute for Nutrition and Fisheries Research, IMR, the University of Bergen, and the company Marine Harvest. The researchers are also working with aquaculture scientists in Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Portugal. “There’s less attention paid to skeletal deformations in other countries, but these researchers have different approaches that are important to consider in our analyses,” Bæverfjord says in the RCN’s Forskning magazine.
 
Land-based facilities are used to produce juvenile fish for aquaculture.
© Marine Harvest

A Place to Study Fish
Top-notch research needs top-notch research facilities, which helps explain the successes achieved by Norwegian aquaculture researchers over the decades. At the University of Life Science in Ås, for example, NOK 4 million has been invested in expanding the university’s fish laboratory, where researchers can work on physiology, behaviour, feed and broodstock, along with the possibility of using radioactive tracers in various ways. NTNU SeaLab in Trondheim also offers specialized facilities for farming juveniles and the study of live feed, along with chemistry and processing laboratories.
 
A multifaceted consortium funded by the Research Council, called CREATE, the Centre for Research-based Innovation in Aquaculture Technology, is being hosted by SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture. CREATE is a specially designated Centre for Research-based Innovation, with a budget of NOK 160 million over eight years and a range of partners, including NTNU, the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, the Nofima group, AKVA group, Helgeland Plast, Egersund Net and Erling Haug.
 
CREATE has an ambitious 10-part research agenda: the reduction of escapes and nutrient pollution; fish welfare; monitoring and control of water quality; sea loads; reduction and control of fouling; handling net cages; feeding systems; sorting and handling live fish; control and optimizing of production; and traceability. “For the most part we’re focusing on those aspects of aquaculture that take place in the sea,” says Arne Fredheim, research centre director.
 
Halibut farming has proved to be more challenging than salmon farming,
but companies like Marine Harvest have worked to try to make
the endeavour profitable.
© Marine Harvest

In the Genes
From the very first days of Norwegian aquaculture, researchers have used conventional breeding techniques to improve fish stocks. Now, Norwegian farmed salmon are among the most efficient converters of feed on the planet, and selective breeding has contributed to this. Selective breeding research continues at Nofima and a number of private companies have breeding programmes, such as Marine Breed for Atlantic cod, and Salmobreed and Aqua Gen for Atlantic salmon.
These days, however, researchers work on using molecular genetics tools for the genetic improvement of stocks. Anna Sonesson, a Nofima senior researcher, says high density molecular genetic information from the whole genome can be used to select for traits such as disease resistance that are particularly difficult to select for by using conventional breeding. “We are working with Aqua Gen to develop and implement these techniques in their breeding programme for Atlantic salmon,” she says.
 
A five-year-long NOK 65 million marine genomics resource, competence and service platform called GenoFisk was established by the RCN in 2006. Norwegian researchers have already been busily working with an international collaborative to sequence the salmon and cod genomes, and GenoFisk will help coordinate that work, along with sponsoring the study of specific functional genes in farmed fish. Researchers at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science are also exploring disease-related genes in Atlantic salmon, while scientists at the Norwegian College of Fishery Science in Tromsø are looking at the salmon’s first line immune defences against viruses.
 
Norwegian-based companies such as Akvaforsk Genetics Center AS, GenoMar and AquaGen are also using genetic tools to improve aquaculture fish stocks. AquaGen works with developing broodstock for salmon and rainbow trout, whereas GenoMar in Oslo has commercialized a tilipia broodstock and is now working on GenTrack, a patented DNA fingerprinting technique. Akvaforsk Genetics Center AS works with a range of species, including salmon, trout and cod, but also sea bass, sea bream, halibut and carp.
 
Beyond Salmon: Cod and Halibut
In 1866, the legendary Norwegian marine biologist G.O. Sars was the first to artificially hatch cod, followed by the establishment in 1882 of a Norwegian cod hatchery by G.M. Dannevig. The hatchery produced 35.5 million cod fry in 1886, and a whopping 327 million fry in 1896, which were released to the ocean an unsuccessful attempt to increase cod populations. In spite of this early start, however, salmon, not cod, has dominated Norway’s aquaculture landscape.
 
Targeted research and development efforts, along with willing entrepreneurs, have led to explosive growth in the cod farming industry, with production increasing from just 946 tonnes in 2003 to more than 10 000 tonnes in 2006. In 2002, the Norwegian Cod Breeding Programme was established in Tromsø, in an effort that expands on earlier efforts at the former AKVAFORSK, now Nofima, and at the IMR in Bergen. In late 2007, researchers at the Tromsø Cod Breeding Programme announced they had established 190 cod “families” with which to work. Private companies are also busily breeding cod; one such firm is Marine Breed AS, a subsidiary of the Akvaforsk Genetics Center AS.
 
Researchers are hoping similar success can be had with halibut farming, which has proved challenging to develop on a commercial basis. Researchers at the IMR recently made a major breakthrough in their studies of juvenile halibut development when they found that periods of dark and times without access to feed helped improve two key halibut development milestones. Roughly 1,500 tonnes of halibut were farmed in Norway in 2006, half of which was sold for export.
 
At Bodø University College’s Department of Fisheries and Natural Sciences, researchers are looking at ways to produce all female stocks of halibut. The studies could lead to more profitable halibut farming, because female halibut are larger than males, says Oddvar Ottesen, a researcher at the university college. He says it’s important for aquaculture to improve its ability to help feed the world in the future. “Aquaculture products will be increasingly important as a food resource globally, and for the food supply of the globe,” he says.

AQUACULTURE
Aquaculture is one of the Research Council of Norway’s large-scale programmes. The programme finances projects that form a basis for a value-added aquaculture industry based
on market focus and sustainable production.
For more information on
the Aquaculture programme, visit www.rcn.no/havbruk.


Every aspect of Norway’s aquaculture industry has been carefully developed to provide optimal conditions for fish health, welfare and growth.
© Marine Harvest/Steinar Johansen

 

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