This article by Michael Helmstetter, Ph.D., was first published May 29, 2019 at Forbes.
Aquaculture is one of the fastest growing forms of food production in the world and the fastest growing sector in the livestock industry.
In a $140 billion market, startups in seafood and aquaculture technology raised$193 million in 2016, which marked a 271% increase from the two years prior combined. The latest group of innovations in agtech could very well come from the water, as something we could call “aquatech.”
Yet there are many areas in this industry that are in dire need of innovation. Today, I will focus on my top 5: disease prevention, vaccine delivery, fish meal replacement, sustainability solutions (including closed-loop farming) and supply chain management.
Tremendous opportunity exists right now for those interested in investing in the solutions to these issues. Let's take a look at the five key areas mentioned, and how several forward-thinking companies are meeting them head on.
Disease prevention is a critical aspect of aquaculture. Changing ocean temperatures and water quality make animals and plants more stressed and susceptible to disease, yet innovation is lacking in prevention compared to land-based agriculture. Terrestrial food animal farmers can easily deploy dozens of vaccines and preventative solutions, while aquaculture has less choice and significant delivery challenges (more on this below). Vaccines are still administered by hand, and there simply aren’t good preventive measures for many infestations.
Sea lice infestation, for example, is common and devastating in farmed salmon. While migratory salmon shed sea lice when they reach freshwater, farmed salmon are contained in saltwater, and the parasites proliferate resulting in physical damage and subsequent exposure to bacterial pathogens. Historical and existing scaled solutions have undesirable consequences. For example, hydrogen peroxide stresses the salmon. Adding a lice-killing benzoate to feed leaves toxic waste in the environment and lice are becoming resistant requiring higher doses. Freshwater or heated water “dips” created added stress. There are few emerging opportunities for sustainable innovation for the massive problem of sea lice that are being tested. These include using the “cleaner fish” Ballan wrasse to graze on sea lice in aquaculture pens, physical barriers or “skirts,” and feed supplements to boost natural defenses to infection. Clearly, this is an area desperate for effective, scalable and effective innovation.
Farmers also need ways to prevent devastating viruses like white spot syndrome virus (WSSV), a virus that has a significant negative impact on aquacultured shrimp. Probiotics, for instance, can help enhance shrimp health and improve immunity. RNA interference (RNAi) is being evaluated by several established and emerging companies. However, much research and work still remains to be done in the field of marine viruses, and the more that can be discovered about how to combat these viruses, the more these solutions will become accessible.
Oral delivery of vaccines
Another promising innovation in tackling disease prevention is the oral delivery of vaccines as an alternative to labor-intensive hand injection, where each animal is individually administered a vaccine. Some progress has been made through the introduction of mechanical injection systems but handling stress remains an issue. Oral delivery would be a boon in terms of efficiency and ease of use, and is suitable for all ages and sizes of fish (manual injection treatment is not). It reduces handling and damage to fish, can be used repetitively as the fish mature, is could prove to be less costly while yielding lower mortality rates.
Research into oral delivery methods is opening the door for improvements – the ability to administer to all sizes and ages of fish in particular. Microencapsulation, where tiny particles or droplets are surrounded by a coating to create small capsules, and bioencapsulation, where medicines are incorporated into living host organisms and then fed to fish, are two examples of better delivery systems. In this realm, there is opportunity to develop groundbreaking vaccinesformulated specifically for oral delivery systems, such as subunit and nucleic acid vaccines.
For example, ViAqua Therapeutics is one noteworthy group working in microencapsulation techniques. It has developed an encapsulated RNAi particle in feed for the efficient oral administration and delivery of viral disease treatment. ViAqua has developed ways to bypass barriers in the digestive system to deliver RNA treatment more effectively. This is just one of many innovations set to disrupt the aquaculture vaccine space.
Most feeds rely heavily on fish meal and fish oil made from recycled fish parts. Rich in nutrients, these feed supplements result in large, healthy land and marine animals (use split about evenly between land and aquatic-based food animals) — but overfishing is putting supplies at risk. At the rate aquaculture is growing, traditional fish meal supplies aren't likely to keep up with demand.
Plant-based solutions — soybean protein concentrates, by example — are in development. Algae feed is another interesting and developing option, since it is already a natural part of the food chain for fish. Currently, high-quality algae feed is expensive, but it promotes good health and boasts nutritional properties. There are a number of companies working on improving algae feed and increasing accessibility, including Cargill, Knipbio, and MicroSynbiotiX. And another company, Calysta, is creating alternative proteins for feed using an innovative procedure that ferments natural gas with naturally occuring bacteria.
Another interesting fish meal replacement option is insect-based feed, particularly crickets, mealworms and black soldier fly larvae. Companies such asYnsect, AgriProtein, Hexafly and nextProtein are looking to refine insect-based fish meal and scale up production to control cost.
Facing threats of overfishing, ocean warming and toxic wastes, aquaculture farmers are looking to increase economic, environmental and social sustainability. Incorporating water quality control, conservation, the efficient use of fish meal, and responsible sourcing behaviors are all part of that equation.
Land-based closed-loop farming, also known as recirculating aquaculture systems, combines fish farming with other aquaculture farming techniques. This polyculture approach to raising animals, plants and fish simultaneously creates self-sufficient ecosystems. For example, ponds employed to raise fish can act as natural irrigation sources for crops and provide sediment for nutrient-rich fertilizer.
The benefits of closed-loop farming includes less pollution generation, less consumption of natural resources and the decreased spread of disease and invasive species. For instance, nitrogen waste from fish can be used to produce high-quality vegetables, herbs and plants, and additional products to foster significant profitability.Recirculating Farms Coalition advocates the Better Fish Farming project, and companies like Atlantic Sapphire are pioneering new, recirculating "Bluehouses" for salmon farming.
Blockchain is a digital record of transactions that is publicly accessible and incorruptible by any single entity. Blockchain first made its name in digital currency transaction processing, but there are signs it could be used to exchange information about a fish’s origin, history, harvest, processing and delivery, producing a transparent and verifiable origin of each singular aquaculture product.
Is blockchain sophisticated enough to handle 27 million tons of fish production? Companies like Fishcoin are pushing the envelope with blockchain to address the fragmentation of the seafood supply chain. If blockchain becomes pervasive, it could change the entire infrastructure of the fishery supply chain, adding the transparency and accountability necessary for sustainable practices.
The need for aquatech in aquaculture has sparked investment opportunities in companies geared toward solving some of the industry's biggest problems. Venture capitalists and other types of investors are diving into the opportunity. Look for aquaculture venture funds like Aqua-Spark and aquaculture accelerators like Hatch Blue to continue mounting support for innovation and for groups like InnovaSea and SeaFarming Systems to reshape the industry through sustainable fish farming techniques and groundbreaking, economical tank designs.
A revolution in fish farming truly is on the horizon, and it's time to be part of that change.