The Next Generation: Where the Global Seafood Industry is Going

Fellows Fall 1998

By Kristan Hutchison

June 07, 2009

Fall, 1998 -- Fish of the future look pretty tame.

Farmed salmon are just the start. Most other species fished in Alaska are also being grown somewhere else, either experimentally or commercially.

``It seems like you can do almost any species if you've got a few in a cage,'' said John Malloch, a New Brunswick fish farmer experimenting with halibut, cod, haddock and pollock.

As more marine species are farmed, their wild counterparts in Alaska could lose sales and drop in price like the wild salmon did when replaced with farmed.

Even salmon haven't seen the bottom. Salmon prices are expected to decline more as the industry expands, limited only by how much people will buy.

In 50 years salmon will come from floating farms on the open ocean, with helicopter pads, submersible housing and automatic feeding systems, predicts Professor Alfredo Klempau Michaelis at the University of Concepcion in central Chile.

``I imagine a train of cages, very large, very long, anchored very strongly to the seafloor,'' Klempau said, ``and everything on it.''

Halibut in the pen

The next test for Alaska may be halibut, the giant fish many Southeast fishermen count on to pay the bills when salmon won't. Within 20 years farmed halibut could dominate the marketplace the way farmed salmon does now, concluded a recent report for the state.

Halibut are already commercially farmed in Norway and Scotland and Chile is experimenting with the popular whitefish.

In a locked laboratory near the southern tip of Chile, pancake-thin halibut lie still on the bottom of a pool. Green lights make the room appear underwater, 300 feet down where the light barely filters through and halibut thrive. Occasionally one rises slowly, nips the floating pellets on the surface, and then drifts back down.

That's all they do-eat and grow-said government researcher Pablo Gallardo.

That's all halibut need to do. If halibut can grow to 10 pounds in three and a half years then farmers can make a profit, Gallardo said. One of the adult halibut gained 12 pounds in 10 months. The growth rate may increase in the future, as halibut are bred to put on weight faster.

"The halibut is easier to manage than the salmon, "Gallardo said. "It's more passive."

The tricky part is hatching halibut, which requires perfect water and feeding. Within three years Gallardo expects to know whether the fish grow well enough in Chile to be profitable.

"Halibut does great," said Malloch in New Brunswick, where the retired fisherman turned farmer has raised halibut in pens alongside his salmon for two years. "I've got halibut out there that weigh over a hundred pounds."

Halibut is only one of many shell-and fin-fish being developed for farming. Chilean researchers are also working with sturgeon, king crab, lobster, abalone, sea urchins, turbot, flounder, hake, a Japanese flatfish called hirame and four native Chilean fish. Worldwide more than 300 aquatic plants or animals have been farmed, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

New species allow fish farmers such as Malloch to grow several fish and harvest whichever on will bring the best price.

"It would be nice to have so many salmon and so many other species," he said, "so you could diversify and wouldn't have all your eggs in one basket, so to speak."

Fatter fish

While researchers figure out how to grow more species, they are trying to improve the ones they already farm. If selective breeding programs succeed, the salmon of the future will grow faster, not mind crowded pens and be ready to harvest sooner.

At an experimental hatchery in southern Chile scientists are developing a pedigree coho. So far each new generation has been about 7 ounces larger than its parents, a growth rate of about 6 percent. As the fish grow bigger, faster, the farmers can afford to drop prices even lower. Norwegians are working on a similar breeding program with halibut.

"We don't change genes. We're not creating monsters," said Alejandro Alert Buschmann, a researcher for the Institute to Promote Fishing in Coihaique. "What we do is work with scientific data to control breeding".

Faster growing fish will increase the amount of salmon. In Chile alone farmed salmon production could quadruple in the next decade to 654,000 tons, said Rodrigo Infante, general manager of the Association of Chilean Salmon and Trout Farmers. By 2010, farm-raised salmon could provide 84 percent of the world's salmon, 2.3 million metric tons.

Supply's the limit

As Professor Klempau tells his beginning students, it's just a matter of years before farmed fish overtake wild in general.

"This will go up and up and up," Klempau said, pointing to a graph of aquaculture production worldwide. The other line, indicating wild food fish catches, peaked in the mid 1980s and has stayed steady since. Extend both lines 40 years, and the farmed fish crosses over the world catch and continues to rise.

There are limits to the production of seafood, as even Klempau admits. Somewhere off the edge of his graph fish farmers begin to run short on feed, freshwater hatchery sites and even a market.

It takes 10 to 12 acres of ocean to feed 10 square feet of caged salmon, Klempau said. Other species have different requirements, but all must eat.

Considering that there are 89,453 million acres of ocean, the industry still has room to expand. Before salmon farmers run out of feed they will develop alternatives. Already feed producers are experimenting with wheat, soy, slaughterhouse blood, poultry feathers and krill.

The greater challenge will be convincing people to eat all the fish they grow. Salmon production in Chile has increased 30 percent a year, outpacing the market. A survey by the International Salmon Farmers Association concluded the demand for Atlantic salmon will reach 1.75 million to 2.53 million tons by 2010, leaving up to a third of the salmon without a market.

The oversupply of salmon will continue to push prices down. Many salmon buyers expect salmon prices to drop at least 10 percent with three years. Joe McGonigle of the Maine Salmon Farmers Association predicts it will stabilize around $1.50 a pound in the next decade.

That may lead more people to buy salmon, as could marketing efforts, new salmon products, increased awareness of the health benefits of salmon and growth in the world population. The price may end up comparable to that of hamburger or chicken, but is unlikely to ever become cheap enough for the world's poorest and hungriest people.

While the number of farmed fish grow, the wild catches are likely to shrink, predicts economist Gunnar Knapp. Lower fish prices will drive some fishermen to stay at the dock or sell their boats and permits, as some have already.

There may be fewer fish to catch in Alaska anyway, due to changes in the ocean, competition from sports fishermen and reductions in state hatcheries, Knapp predicts.

In the rest of the world, fisheries that are not as tightly regulated as Alaska's might be depleted by fishermen desperate to make money, said Gert van Santen, senior fisheries specialist at The World Bank. To prevent that, he's been looking at Alaska's Individual Fishing Quota program for halibut, which tells each fisherman how much he or she can catch in a season, but not when

``That's an important breakthrough,'' said van Santen, pointing to a 2-inch thick binder labeled Alaska's Fisheries Management on his desk. ``They ought to use it in the rest of the world.''