Norwegian fish farming now represents an annual business of NOK 11.8 billion, and employs about 20,000 people in the direct and indirect production of goods and services. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reported in its 2006 edition of the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture that Norway was the second-largest exporter of fish on the planet, behind China, with Norwegian exports (of farmed and wild fish combined) valued at $4.1 billion in 2004. Norwegian aquaculture companies like Marine Harvest, T. Skretting, EWOS and Helgeland Plast – all of which were founded or diversified decades ago in response to the demands of innovative coastal fish farmers – are now world leaders in the field.
Nimble Industries & Determined Farmers
Norway’s success with aquaculture didn’t happen by accident, and it wasn’t always easy. Instead, through a combined effort of targeted research, government support, nimble industries and determined fish farmers, Norwegian aquaculture has grown to be a successful, efficient and sustainable industry. Researchers and the industry are not only continuing to advance developments for farmed salmon and trout, but are also pioneering the domestication of marine species, such as cod, halibut, and various shellfish.
The country’s expertise – and its exports – comes at a time when scientific evidence increasingly underscores the need to develop sustainable aquaculture to feed the world. In early 2007, a scientific panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting reported that the global demand for seafood has exceeded the ability of fisheries worldwide to supply the public demand for fish. Scientific breakthroughs and new technologies in aquaculture are necessary in order to meet this need, the panel concluded.
Norwegian salmon farming –
and the Norwegian aquaculture industry as a whole – has improved by conceptual and technological leaps and bounds since its early days approximately
35 years ago. The pictures on the following pages showcase some of the progressions that have been made in the industry over time
One of the reasons that fish breeders have had such great success with salmon and rainbow trout is the ease with which eggs from the fish can be harvested. In this photo from the early 1970s, AKVAFORSK workers strip a fish of its eggs.
But why Norway? The partial answer is that when the first experiments with fish farming began, the country already had a strong fisheries industry, which could supply both experienced labour and a source of fish meal for feeding farmed fish. The country’s geography was another reason, because Norway’s protected coastline provides a perfect place to shelter fish farms. “It is a gift from God, the natural resources of our coastline,” said Jan-Eirik Angell Killie, associate professor in the Department of Marine Biotechnology at the Norwegian College of Fishery Science in Tromsø.
The Norwegian government continues to invest heavily in research that pairs industry leaders with the best minds in aquaculture science. In 2006, for example, the Research Council of Norway funded CREATE, the Centre for Research-Based Innovation in Aquaculture Technology, which is a partnership between the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture, the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, AKVAFORSK, AKVASmart, Helgeland Plast, Egersund Net, Erling Haug, and Ørsta Aqua Systems. The consortium has a budget of NOK 160 million over eight years and will work on a variety of issues, from the reduction of escapes and nutrient pollution to fish welfare and the monitoring and control of water quality.
Another effort is called TEKMAR, which is funded by the Research Council and a host of aquaculture and seafood groups. TEKMAR conducts workshops and seminars to bring together experts from throughout the aquaculture industry – from researchers to supplies – as a way to build consortia that can carry out complex research and development projects.
Much of the research today is focused on advanced problems, evidence of the highly developed nature of Norway’s aquaculture industry. A look back at the history of Norwegian aquaculture, however, shows that it was basic developments that propelled the industry into its leading position of today. “There are three main elements in the success of the Norwegian aquaculture industry,” says Jens-Eric Eliassen, at the Norwegian College of Fishery Science in Tromsø. “Those are advancements in feeding, advancements in breeding, and advancements in technology.”
Norway’s inspiration for fish farming came from looking south: beginning in the 1890s, the Danes had begun land farming freshwater rainbow trout in small ponds. When the Danish industry began to expand rapidly after 1950, Norwegian fishermen and farmers looking for a little extra income tried land farming rainbow trout, but without much success. Norway – the land, at least – was simply too cold.
By the mid-1950s, Norwegians had made a conceptual and technological leap: Norway’s land might be cold, but temperatures in the fjords can be remarkably mild and relatively stable. In the mid-1950s in Sykkylven, the Vik brothers carried out the first successful seawater trials with rainbow trout, showing that the relatively sheltered salt water of the fjords was a perfect place to farm fish, as long as the fish could be kept in a cage that was strong enough to endure winds, waves and currents.
Even so, it would take another decade and a half before the next technological leap, when Ove and Sivert Grøntvedt of Hitra in 1969 introduced an octagonal floating cage that was made of wood. The cage’s advantage was that it was strong yet flexible – and it was cheap and easy to work with. Moreover, the cages were far larger than earlier structures, and the fish liked it. Fish growth “was phenomenal,” Sivert Grøntvedt said in an interview at the time. And the price of salmon was high.
By 1973, the production of farmed salmon had already doubled, to nearly 200 tonnes, and aquaculture was attracting the attention of commercial companies, such as T. Skretting of Stavanger, which introduced a six-sided floating cage called the Tess 300 that sold as a complete unit, and which was briefly the best-selling Norwegian cage for export.
Cages a Critical Link
These seemingly simple cages were actually a critical link in the development of aquaculture technology, Killie says. The earliest cages could only tolerate a certain amount of abuse from the waves and currents, so they still needed to be placed in the most sheltered areas of the fjords. That placement in turn accidentally resulted in an environmental headache: when cages full of salmon were anchored for several years in sheltered areas, the areas under the nets could be smothered by uneaten fish food and fish faeces. The limited water circulation didn’t allow for the nutrients from the food and the faeces to be dispersed.
Enter plastics. By the early 1980s, salmon production had grown exponentially, with production numbers doubling every other year. In 1980, for example, fish farmers had reared 8,000 tonnes of fish, representing 90 percent of the world’s market of farmed salmon. By 1985, that number had skyrocketed to 35,000 tonnes. Farmers needed more robust structures so the cages could tolerate rougher conditions in the deeper, more exposed parts of the fjords, where water circulation would disperse nutrients.
Companies like Aqualine, in Trondheim, were started in the early 1980s to sell larger plastic cages for these rougher water conditions; other companies like Helgeland Plast also commercialized their own designs for big plastic cage structures. “The growth of that industry made it possible to move from sheltered waters to the open water,” Killie said.
The move paid off in production: by 1990, Norwegian fish farmers produced a staggering 150,000 tonnes of salmon – a nearly five-fold increase in just five years. As the technology has developed and the industry has expanded, Norwegian companies have responded by providing the equipment and materials needed to bring fish to market. Nor-Mær in Hagavik specializes in steel cages, and Marine Construction makes steel and plastic cages and concrete feed barges. Companies like Sæplast have found their niche making polyethylene fish holding and insulated fish transport containers. The Refa Frøystad Group makes knotless and knotted nets for use in cages and transport.
The demands of handling literally thousands of fish each day have spawned its own specialized industry: the Aas Mek. Verksted shipyard branched into making specialized well boats, to transport fish from farms to centralized processing plants, while Cflow Fish Handling developed the vacuum and flow pumps needed to gently and efficiently move the fish from farms to boat to processing plants.
These days, the research focus is on reducing fish escapes and improving the net structure to reduce the growth of marine organisms on the nets, which periodically must be cleaned off.
Hand feeding was the norm in the earliest days of Norwegian aquaculture. The fish in this picture are enclosed in a Tess 300 cage, which was introduced by T. Skretting of Stavanger in 1973 and was briefly the best selling Norwegian-made cage for export.
The growth of Norway’s aquaculture industry required the development of every facet of production. This picture shows AKVAFORSK’s salmonid fry production hall from 1971. At the time, it was the most modern facility of its kind in the world.
Breeding for Growth
Norwegian aquaculture could not have grown as it has without strong cages and good systems for farming fish. But equally important was the nature of the fish stock itself. Enter Trygve Gjedrem and his colleagues at AKVAFORSK, the Institute of Aquaculture Research, who together in 1971 started the first salmon breeding programme in the world. AKVAFORSK as a research institution was created for this job – and Gjedrem became AKVAFORSK’s first director and one of salmon breeding’s true pioneers.
Over a four-year period, Gjedrem and his colleagues visited 40 of Norway’s best wild salmon streams, 10 streams a year, starting in the south and working their way north, sampling fish from each. “We needed a broad genetic base for our work,” Gjedrem said. “We didn’t want to just concentrate on one strain.”
At first the focus was clear. In the wild, salmon can take years to grow to maturity. Clearly if aquaculture was going to be a viable industry, the first characteristic that breeders needed was fast growth. “We started with the most important trait, body weight at harvest, to get the fastest growing animals,” Gjedrem said.
Salmon Most Efficient
After eight generations of breeding, Norwegian farmed salmon are some of the most efficient converters of feed on the planet “In the 1970s, we used four years to produce a fish of four kilos, but we can now do that in two,” Gjedrem says. The fish now stocking Norway’s salmon and trout farms are twice as efficient in converting the protein and energy in their feed into edible products as poultry or pigs.
Selective breeding and research on salmon genetics continues today at AKVAFORSK Genetics Centre, which was created in 1999, at the Institute for Marine Research in Bergen, and at companies such as Salmobreed in Bergen and Aqua Gen in Trondheim. There’s also an international effort called cGRASP, in which researchers from the United States, Scotland and the Centre for Integrative Genetics at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences are working to understand the genetic makeup of salmon and salmon relatives. The development of the breeding and egg production has had its spinoffs, too: Norwegian companies like BIA Miljø AS of Herdia craft specialized tanks and vessels for hatching eggs and producing fish fry.
Commercial breeders now look for a host of characteristics in their fish. In addition to efficient conversion of feed and rapid growth, breeders are continually in pursuit of improved fat content and pink colour, delayed sexual maturity, and resistance to bacteria and viruses. This last area is where Gjedrem, now retired, has his highest hopes for the industry. “For me the biggest goal is (now) developing disease-resistant fish,” he said.
More Than Just Fish Meal
Breeding the perfect fish was one thing, but just what should that perfect fish eat? In the early days of aquaculture, the answer was easy: fish like capelin, sprats and sand eels, which were already being caught by Norwegian fishermen, were easy enough to feed to young salmon. Farmers simply ground up these fish and mixed them with some kind of binder to keep the mass from immediately dissolving when it was put in seawater.
Salmon thrived on these ‘wet’ feeds, but the feeds had many drawbacks. The main problem was that they would sink quickly, faster than the fish could consume them, so that there was a great deal of wastage. The wasted feed cost money, but it caused problems, too, by over-fertilizing the site. Dry pellets began to be introduced as early as the mid-1970s to overcome these problems, but the biggest breakthrough was in the early 1990s, when the fish food industry introduced extrusion technology, said Malcolm Jobling, Professor of Aquaculture at the Norwegian College of Fishery Science, University of Tromsø.
Using this technology, fish food manufacturers could make a pellet that had little holes in it that could be filled with fats. By adjusting the fat content and the way the pellet was extruded, “you could make feeds that float, that sink, or that sink slowly,” he said. “They could make feeds that were more water stable and more easily digestible.”
The use of pellets opened the door to a whole range of new technologies that helped the industry grow, Jobling said. Pellets could be fed with automatic feeders, so that fish could be offered food whenever they were hungry. Researchers like Jobling studied every aspect of salmonid digestion and behaviour, to figure out everything from how often the fish liked to eat to how big the pellets should be for optimum consumption.
Breeding more efficient fish, combined with better formulated fish foods, now means that farmers can expect to produce one kilo of fish for every kilo of fish food fed, AKVAFORSK’s Gjedrem said, or three to four times less fish food than when fish farming first began in Norway.
In the early days of aquaculture, it was possible to feed fish by hand, but no longer. Companies like Betten Maskinstasjon in Halsa were early pioneers in responding to the need to develop automatic feeders. AKVAsmart, with branch offices in Chile, Canada, the United Kingdom and Turkey, has developed a spectrum of fish feeding products, from barges to fish feeding systems to IT-based integrated technologies such as FishTalk. Arena, which also has a branch office in Chile, provides automated feeding systems for hatcheries, as well as feed barges and environmental monitoring. Orbit AquaCam offers wireless fish cage monitoring systems to enable farmers to improve overall production.
Moving farmed fish is always a challenge. Here net baskets are used to move the fish, but more modern techniques include the use of hoses and pumps.
The future continues to look bright for the Norwegian salmon farming industry, and two other Norwegian farmed breeds will definitively make their marks in the years to come: cod and halibut.
Healthy, Happy, Sustainable
The success of Norwegian fish farmers had a downside: whereas a 1978 textbook on Norwegian salmon and trout farming could report that only two diseases were commonly troublesome in Norway, by the early 1980s, nasty diseases with unpronounceable names had begun to appear in Norway’s growing number of fish farms. As the 1980s advanced, farmers had to treat their fish with an ever-increasing amount of antibiotics. In 1987 the total Norwegian production of salmon and trout topped 50,000 tonnes, but the consumption of antibiotics had reached 50 tonnes. Not any more.
“Today we produce more than 10 times as many fish (than the 1980s) and we use less than a half-tonne of antibiotics,” or 100 times less than used in the 1980s, Killie said. “This is the food production that uses the least amount of antibiotics in the world.”
How did this shift come about? Researchers and industry, such as PHARMAQ, a veterinary company that uniquely focuses on aquaculture, joined hands to develop vaccines against some of aquaculture’s most problematic diseases, particularly cold-water vibriosis and furunculosis. By 1987, a vaccine for cold-water vibriosis virtually rescued the salmon industry. In 1991, a vaccine had been developed for furunculosis that gave lifelong immunity to fish. These days, fish farmers can use numerous vaccines to protect against new viral diseases, and researchers are developing vaccines for the burgeoning cod farming industry, with suppliers like Intervet Norge of Bergen.
Consumers will be able to be certain they’re eating healthy Norwegian salmon with the development of efforts such as TraceFish, a multinational effort funded by the European Union that focused on developing the standards to eventually allow consumers to trace the source of their food from the sea to the supper table, says Leif-Magne Sunde, aquaculture research scientist at SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture. TraceFish, which was coordinated by the Norwegian Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture with cooperation from SINTEF, is the kind of forward-thinking project that helps keep Norway on the leading edge of aquaculture research and development.
Norwegian companies are critical in helping make these and related standards a reality. Aquastructures in Trondheim certifies that new and existing fish farming equipment complies with national and international regulations. Standards Norway develops standards that measure a host of aquaculture-related factors, from the environmental impact of fish farms to salmon fillet quality. “Food security is something that is of enormous interest throughout the world,” Sunde says.
The Future: Cod & Halibut
When Norwegian fish farmers look to the future, they see not only the glistening sides of fat farmed salmon, but the barbeled jaws of cod and the broad flat backs of halibut. While Norwegian researchers have been active in bringing a host of species into commercial production – AKVAFORSK, for example, has worked with 16 species in 25 countries – the two stars on the horizon are clearly cod and halibut.
Both species have been much more challenging to bring into commercial production than salmon, because their eggs are small, and the young are fragile and must be fed live feed. Nevertheless, with the same careful and focussed approach that led to the success of Norwegian salmon farming, researchers and fish farmers are making progress. Roughly 765 tonnes of farmed halibut were sold in 2006, an increase of 35 percent over 2005, with most exports to Great Britain. Cod is already in strong commercial production, with farmed cod sold in 2006 valued at NOK 135 million, or an increase of NOK 45 million over 2005.
But if history has anything to say about the future of these fish, it will be breeding that will be the linchpin in their success. That’s what researchers are hoping at the Norwegian Cod Breeding Programme in Tromsø, where fish from the first-ever generation of selectively bred cod, born in 2003, are now old enough to slaughter and study. In all, more than 30 families were bred, all with different characteristics. “We are now getting detailed information about genetic differences amongst the families. This is information we use when selecting fish for further breeding,” says Atle Mortensen, who leads the Norwegian Cod Breeding Programme.
Researchers at a number of Norwegian research institutions, including AKVAFORSK and the Institute of Marine Research at its Austevoll research station, are working on halibut breeding and rearing techniques to improve the production of the species for aquaculture. From his perspective as one of the founders of modern fish breeding techniques, Trygve Gjedrem recognizes that halibut poses many challenges, but he remains optimistic. “The halibut still has so many secrets,” he said. “It hasn’t taken off yet, but we are working on it.”