Farming the world's waters is widely regarded as essential to humankind's future ability to feed itself. Only through intensive aquaculture production can we provide the volume of protein that our exponentially increasing population will soon need. So finding - and creating - fish stocks that thrive in captivity could be a matter of survival. And research will likely be the key.
The overriding vision of one Norwegian aquaculture research institution, known as AKVAFORSK, is to help expand profitable fish farming that provides the world with more protein. For over three decades, AKVAFORSK's expertise has been directly contributing to the development of a sustainable, worldwide aquaculture industry. AKVAFORSK is a non-profit organisation, wholly owned by non-commercial protagonists.
Working closely with researchers in Norwegian academical circles, the company has blossomed into one of the world's foremost aquaculture research institutions by specializing in breeding and genetics, nutrition and feeding, product quality and marine species. In this context, the company also does research on fish health, the environment and operational optimization.
Breeding for the Right Genes
One of AKVAFORSK's most high-profile activities has been the ongoing research and implementation of systematic breeding programs for Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout in Norway. After six generations of selection, the growth rate of this improved stock has increased a whopping 84% (14% per generation) compared to the wild fish population. This selective breeding has also significantly improved feed utilization, product quality, disease resistance, and problems with sexual maturity at harvest. All this contributes to the ultimate goal: higher productivity.
Although AKVAFORSK got its start with Atlantic salmon, its research activities have by no means been limited to salmon or Norway. In fact, it has worked with 16 different species in 25 countries to date. As one example, the company participated in a ten-year breeding experiment with tilapia in the Philippines, where six generations of selection actually doubled the stock's growth rate. Other selection programs have involved tilapia in Vietnam, carp in India, shrimp in Brazil, Colombia and the USA (Hawaii), and several salmonid species as well as Atlantic halibut and turbot in Chile, Iceland and Norway.
Refined Classical Breeding
It is important to note here that selective breeding has nothing to do with genetic manipulation. The commercial Norwegian aquaculture industry has never used genetically modified fish; the effects of genetic modifications with current methodology are still too unpredictable. Furthermore, gene manipulation is less productive in populations already genetically improved by traditional selection methods, so AKVAFORSK does not prioritize research on genetic modification.
Modern selective breeding, on the other hand, is an advanced refinement of the classical breeding methods used by scientists to improve harvests as early as in the 18th century. Such traditional systematic selection has led to current strains of grain that can yield up to 50 times more food than their ancestral wild varieties. Thanks to selective breeding, today's domesticated pigs grow eight times faster than their wild ancestors. Selective breeding is also the basis for implementing new achievements in the field of molecular genetics.
In our present-day aquaculture industry, it is the application of this sort of sophisticated breeding knowledge that has produced fish with the traits preferred for farming. Back in 1971, scientists collected eggs and milt from 40 strains of salmon in Norway, creating the genetic material base for today's Norwegian farmed salmon. Systematic breeding has subsequently crossed the most disease-resistant strains with those proven most adaptable to life in sea cages. Other traits considered in breeding selection are growth rate, fat content, shape and colour. Considering that farmed salmon (the most extensively bred species so far) is still only eight generations from its original wild stock, the future of breeding in aquaculture is teeming with exciting possibilities.
Many other Norwegian companies are also involved in R&D with new species production and in countries where aquaculture is still in its infancy. Akvaplan-niva, for instance, conducts R&D dealing primarily with the up-scaling and optimisation of production concepts and technologies. The company currently focuses on cod, spotted wolffish, halibut and turbot, always with environmental sustainability in mind. Using its own production farms and pilot hatcheries, Akvaplan-niva can quickly test new technology and management strategies in real settings. It is starting up new programs in intensive production of halibut and cod juveniles, as well as testing innovations in water management technologies and stacked shallow raceway systems. The company also performs a broad range of environmental consultancy such as impact assessments and environmental monitoring.
A Tamer Cod Stock
Not long ago, cannibalism was seen as a major stumbling block in the development of profitable cod farming. Aggressive behaviour between cod fry led to high mortality, and grading during fry production seemed the only recourse. But AKVAFORSK tackled this challenge by designing automatic feeders and maintaining rigid control of feeding regimes. The result: proper feed availability dramatically reduces aggression and cannibalism, even without grading the fish.
Now, funded by the Research Council of Norway, AKVAFORSK is developing a stock of cod that are tamer and, hence, better suited to the marine farming environment. AKVAFORSK believes that profitable cod farming in the future must rely on intensive systems, and this kind of breakthrough is exactly what the cod industry needs in order to go large-scale. Researchers are predicting that within three years, farmed cod will be a regular item at home and at restaurants.
Better Feeds, Smarter Feeding
Over the past 30 years, diligent scientists have managed to vastly improve feed utilization in Norway, saving money and pollution in the process. Through a combination of optimal feeding regimens and high-energy feed, the feed conversion ratio of Atlantic salmon feed has dropped from 3.5 kg to just 1.2 kg of feed per kg of growth. Researchers have long known, however, that feeds would eventually need to undergo a transformation with regard to their protein source.
That day is fast approaching. Carnivorous fish (such as salmon, halibut, cod, and turbot), although they do utilize protein very efficiently, need a great amount of it in their diet. Feeding them fish taken from the open sea seems counterproductive to the goal of increasing the world's supply of food. Indeed, the fact that wild fish are a very limited resource is driving the cost of fish meal and fish oil ever higher. Feed now constitutes over half the cost of raising salmon, a factor that soon could severely restrict the enormous potential of farming this and other species. Finding alternative protein sources to use as feedstuffs would greatly lower the production costs of many fish species, not to mention ensure a sustainable supply.
To this end, the Research Council of Norway has just established a Center of Excellence called the Aquaculture Protein Center, a collection of eminent researchers hand-picked from the Agricultural University of Norway, the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, and AKVAFORSK. The Center is tasked with investigating alternative protein sources such as soybeans, canola, and single-celled proteins (e.g. algae and bacteria) to be used in feed. The ideal fish feed is plentiful, cheap and nutritious. It stimulates fishes' immune systems for disease resistance and harbours no harmful side effects to the fish or the environment. A tall order, but the future of aquaculture for many species may depend upon finding sustainable feed solutions.
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