SmarterAquaculture is an Enterprise Ireland funded Commercialisation Fund project which seeks to leverage TSSGs knowledge and expertise in smart aquaculture technologies. The one-year project runs from August 2018 – August 2019. SmarterAquaculture uses environmental factor forecast information and aquaculture data and analyses it to predict and inform decision-making to optimise costs, minimise waste & maximise return. As part of the effort, the SmarterAquaculture team has engaged with Kieran Fegan at Vara and Brendan Chambers of Chamco to conduct feasibility analysis scoping the local Irish market and getting direct feedback and engagement with producers. This industry insight interview with Brendan summarises the market situation.
Bio: Brendan Chambers
A food scientist by trade, Brendan has extensive experience in the Irish Food Industry whose roles included Chief Chemist at Carbery Milk Products, Head of R&D at the Irish Dairy board and Research and Marketing Development Manager at the Express Dairy Group. Brendan went on to found Carrokeel Seafoods with operations in Dublin, Limerick, Mayo, UK & France which was subsequently sold to Carr & Sons. Brendan serves in a number of national strategic advisory roles.
Could you briefly describe the Irish Aquaculture sector today?
Irish Aquaculture output is on the increase with 2017 increases of 7% in volume terms and 24% in value terms vs the previous year. While the aquaculture sector is critical to ensuring sustainable global food supply as the world population grows, the Irish Aquaculture sector, given its resources, does not necessarily compare favourably with some of its international counterparts. For example, in the case of salmon, the Faroe Islands, produces 7 times the Irish output and its population is less than that of Co Carlow. Protractive licensing issuances by the Department of Food, Agriculture and the Marine have been cited as hampering the performance of the sector, for example, securing a license is a complex process that can, in many cases, take 7 to 10 years. Key Irish aquaculture seafood species include salmon, trout, oysters and rope – cultured mussels. In the region of 250 business employ over 1,000 staff.
What are the biggest challenges faced by Irish Aquaculture producers?
The Aquaculture sector is a tough one to operate in with many challenges including;
- Plankton infestations can materialise and grow very quickly and with very little notice. Many plankton blooms produce toxic compounds that have extremely harmful effects on fish, shellfish.. Other harmful effects include mechanical gill irritation and reduction in dissolved O2 in water resulting in a reduction of fish immune systems and reduced feeding.
- Disease prevention is a massive issue particularly in offshore sites. Pancreatic cancer is problematic for the salmon industry and is difficult to prevent. High water temperatures and low oxygen levels are two factors that can negatively impact fish health by reducing their immune capability. Cataracts are another issue affecting stock and can be caused by lack of essential nutrients in feed.
- Sea Lice: Globally, this is a massive and ever increasing problem with over $1bn being spent annually in efforts to reduce infestations on salmon crops. Many different treatments, chemical and mechanical, have been trialled though none are 100% effective and many have their own negative side effects and through specie mutations have decreasing efficacies.
- Predicting weights/ Managing weight: In the case of trout especially, ensuring that a particular harvest is timed to deliver fish to the market on schedule, that are of the ordered size / weight is key to profitability. If a specimen is too large, this is wasted product as buyers will only pay for the agreed size / weight. If specimens are too small then orders may remain unfulfilled and commercial opportunities are missed. Regular sampling is used to monitor stock throughout its lifecycle but this is only indicative and there is a complex range of factors that can impact weight at harvest.
- Water quality: In addition to optimal water temperature, light and salinity early detection of pollutants is important for the aquaculture industry. Relative low frequency of public water sampling can be a concern especially in the spread of pathogenic microbes to the fish stock.
Who are its biggest players?
MOWI, originally named Marine Harvest, is a very large global Aquaculture producer, headquartered in Norway but with several sites in Ireland as well as operations in Scotland, Chile, Iceland and Canada. Its main product in Ireland is farmed salmon, where it operates many sites. MOWI is involved in many stages of the value chain including breeding, feed manufacturing, processing and sales. Other leading aquaculture players in Ireland include indigenous company Goatsbridge Trout farm which has several sites in Ireland as well as The Irish Salmon Producers Group (ISPG) and Gallagher Brothers.
What role can technology play in improving the sector’s competitiveness?
Any technology which can improve FCR (food conversion ratios) or assist with detection, identification and prevention of disease and other biological threats will be hugely valuable to aquaculture producers. Margins are tight and the environment is complex so producers are constantly seeking to improve harvests, maximise yield and reduce costs. Predictive technology could be really valuable to help right size harvests and also for early warning of threats.
The Smarter Aquaculture team has gained some valuable insights from the investigations conducted by Brendan and his colleague Kieran Fegan at Vara. Discussions are ongoing with producers and other sector stakeholders regarding technology trials.
Smarter Aquaculture responds to many of the problems highlighted throughout this work. Cost management is a critical focus to enable a viable business in this area. Analytics that can optimise feeding times and environments will help reduce waste and drive improved Food Conversion Ratios. Furthermore, the technology can improve operational efficiency. For example, currently producers have little foresight around likely O2 levels and water temperature both key variables that will determine how efficiently a fish will feed. Measurements are taken periodically and manually. Production decisions are then made in real time. Smarter Aquaculture can anticipate environmental conditions, thereby enabling proactive remediation (e.g. oxygenation) and advanced decision-making around feeding. Data is key to understanding fish performance, delivering optimal harvests that are right for market and managing costs and operations in the most efficient way.