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2020 - An aquaculture odyssey

Free-range farmed fish. Sea cages that sail off to the south and deliver their fish by themselves. Large autonomous fish farms that float unmoored in the sea. This could be the aquaculture of the future.

The sky is granite-grey. The rain blows across the surface of the sea in wild gusts and the waves become higher and higher by the minute. We are in the middle of the Atlantic, and all that can be seen is ocean, more ocean and yet more ocean. Then, on the crest of a wave, a flashing orange light pops into view. A ship, possibly. What else could be out here on the open sea? The orange flashes intoino view again, just as a violent flash of lightning illuminates the surface. The sight that appearsappears is like something from a James Bond film. The orange light is mounted, not on the mast of a merchant ship, but on the roof of a sort of floating base. Four long arms reach out from the colossus, and six hemispheres hang from each arm. As the next flash of lighting tears the sky, an aircraft lands on one of the outstretched arms. Out of the plane climbs, not James Bond, but an inspector, who has come to check what triggered the alarm that this surface-based base station transmitted a short while ago.

The vision

“We are thinking of a fish farm that runs itself”, Lader says.

We are back ashore in 2005. At SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture, research scientist Pål Lader lets his imagination run wild with the many possibilities that technology can offer the aquaculture industry. On his computer screen flickers a presentation video of the project “Surface-based base station”, one possible technology that Lader can envision becoming a reality in a couple of decades.

“It is only our imagination that sets the limits on the development of open-sea fish farming. We could ... and ... and perhaps even....”. The enthusiastic scientist describes possibility after possibility; here is a look at just a few of his ideas.

Go to sea!

“As its name suggests, a surface-based base station would float on the surface, without any sort of mooring. Unlike current systems, which are set out in the arms of fjords and similar calm waters, this system would be located several miles off the coast, in open waters”, Lader says.”.

Lader and his colleagues are thinking along the lines of what is being discussed internationally. The spring 2004 issue of the magazine “Wired” included an article entitled “The Bluewater Revolution”, which discussed how the oceans will have to be exploited for fish farming. In the autumn of the same year, a conference was organised in Ireland on the subject of “Farming the Deep Blue", attracting participants from the USA, Canada, New Zealand and several European countries, including Norway.

“There are not all that many fjords around the world, which is why we need to think differently. Where is there plenty of room? In the open sea. Moving fish farms to the open sea would bring a number of advantages. In the first place, it would take pressure a off the coastal zone, which is often a conflict area because of the lack of space. Secondly, fish farms at sea would produce less pollution, both because of the feeding situation and because they would be further from other ecosystems. Furthermore, the greater distances between the sea cages that such an approach would allow would reduce the danger of infections, and the ready availability of clean water and the natural surroundings would improve product quality. I expect that fish from ocean fish farms will acquire a reputation for quality and environmentally responsible production that will make them more attractive than their cousins from coastal farms”, says Lader enthusiastically.

Maritime grazers

Sea cages, or the netting cages in which captive farmed fish spend their lives, also offer good prospects for the future, according to SINTEF’s marine scientists.

“The fish should be able to graze, just like sheep in the mountains. The sea cages should be autonomous and locate themselves wherever it is best for the fish at any given time. If food is available a few kilometres to the east, the sea cages would move there, so that their occupants can eat. If the waves are high, the cages they would move deeper under the sea. Fish can actually become seasick, and they do not appreciate being in sea cages that are being flung up and down by ten metre high waves. If a vessel approaches, the sea cage will submerge in order to avoid a collision”, says Lader. However, the sea cages will never be completely independent. They will be able to attach themselves to one of the stations along the four arms of the base.

“They might connect themselves to such a control station in order to receive information, or to be inspected. We have not got as far as these kinds of details yet”, explains Lader.


At the centre of this floating wonder is the plant’s oracle, the very brain of the base station. This centre will maintain a complete overview of all the conditions in the vicinity of the system, such as temperature, weather conditions, nutrient availability , oxygen levels, waves and currents.

“The centre will always be able to supply the sea cages with information about their surroundings and locate itself in an optimal position on the basis of the data that it gathers. We also expect that the centre will move landwards if it needs repairs, or that the sea cages or even the whole system will sail to the shore when the fish are ready for processing. Another possibility is that the base would move south towards the countries that would buy its fish when it registers that they are ready for delivery. We just have to exploit the potential of the system and think in new ways”, believes Lader.

“The ultimate step would be that the fish didn’t even realise that they were living in captivity. That’s what we are working towards”,”; says the SINTEF marine scientist.

Smart adaptation

The background of the scientists’ science fiction-like plans is a five-year research project financed by the Research Council of Norway. The underlying technology for this research project is cybernetics, or automatic control. SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture is collaborating with MARINTEK on making more use of the technology that is already in use in other areas of the fish-farming industry.

“This industry is still in the Stone Age where technology is concerned. We are going to try to take a step further and look at the possibilities for fish farming of the future. Today’s systems are primitive, in that they largely consist of a pipe formed into a ring, from which a net is hung. By using cybernetics we can develop more suitable systems. Today we put a lot of effort into building structures capable of withstanding heavy stresses, but in the future we will make use of smart structures that can adapt to their surroundings. A sea cage made up of flexible components could change its shape and location as required by the environment and thus offer the fish better living conditions”.

Nonetheless, Lader emphasises that a surface-based base station is still no more than a vision, with questions that remain to be answered and problems to be solved.

“We have only been working on this project for a year, and we still have a long way to go. We hope to end up with some sort of prototype system by the time that the project is finished, or perhaps a component that can be connected to existing systems to place them under automatic control. We can use parts of the technology to meet partial targets on the way. We cannot take one single large step from today’s systems to sea-going base stations, but within 15 or 20 years, I believe that we will be deploying aquaculture plants that will be very similar to what we are envisioning today”.

Aase Dragland | alfa
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