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The aquaculture innovation programme coordinated by the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) tests new fish farming technologies and develops the monitoring of the environmental impact of fish farms. Jouni Vielma and Markus Kankainen from Luke explain what benefits new technologies have on fish farming.

1. How does the aquaculture innovation programme help reduce the adverse environmental impact of fish farming?

The aquaculture innovation programme aims to reduce risks associated with new technologies and operating methods of recirculating and offshore aquaculture systems by means of research, testing, exchanging information and training new professionals. In addition to Luke, the programme involves nine partners that are developing a new type of fish farming to bring environmental and business objectives together.

The area available for food production, both on land and in sheltered sea and water areas, is decreasing. Finland has prepared a national aquaculture spatial plan, according to which growing fish production areas are mainly located in open sea areas. In Finland, aquaculture may increase significantly without making any compromises over the objectives set for a healthy state of the environment.

“Offshore fish farming is possible with a minimal environmental impact,” says Jouni Vielma, coordinator in the aquaculture innovation programme and principal scientist at Luke. “Large farms are located in open sea areas, adopting new technologies. Environmental impact is monitored using a close-knit sampling network and satellites, for example. Brood fish have been selected for their use of nutrients from feed as effectively as possible. Fish farmed in sea areas are vaccinated, and we are also studying the use of AI. Offshore fish farming comprises low-carbon food production.”

The spatial plan and other research projects have not only identified suitable production areas, but also estimated how high a production volume each area can sustain considering the ecology and other uses of water areas. Large production units can be located in open sea areas so that the environment can sustain their loads.

“Deep and open water areas where the water flow and circulation rate are high are ideal considering the environment. New farms may also be situated taking protection areas, other uses and operational efficiency into consideration,” says Markus Kankainen, research scientist at Luke.

Research is conducted in close cooperation with environmental researchers and authorities to assess how large farms can be located in sea and inland water areas.

An offshore fish tank
An aquaculture facility in the Baltic Sea. Photo: Markus Kankainen, Luke.

2. What benefits does the new submersible cage produce?

As part of the aquaculture innovation programme, a submersible cage was designed and built for fish farming. The models built by the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) and the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) indicate that the impact of fish farming in open sea areas is low.

“A Finnish-Italian team built the new system in Skiftet in the Finnish Archipelago Sea in June and July. The submersible cage is now being tested by a rainbow trout farmer,” Kankainen says. “The innovation programme also focuses on the development of new type of environmental impact monitoring. The first measurements have already been conducted in the area and at the farm, on the basis of which the impact of the farm and other farms located in the same area on water quality is monitored. The data collected will be merged with satellite tracking, for example.”

Fish farming accounts for roughly one per cent of total nutrient loads in the Baltic Sea. However, decreases in even the smallest local loads is important.

“The new technology does not reduce loads as such, but it dilutes them with larger volumes of water. Therefore, the local adverse impact is lower”, Vielma says.

“Waves in the Baltic Sea are shorter and more impactful than in larger oceans, and fish farming structures are hard-pressed in stormy seas,” Kankainen says. “The highest environmental benefits could be achieved if new and large farms were not situated close to sensitive shore areas but were submerged during winter or protected against approaching storms. The farming period would also be longer, and feeding would be more sustainable considering the environment.”

Fish farming calls for new technologies and different logistical solutions in many open areas in the Baltic Sea. In many places, there is no shelter or room for fish farming in coastal areas due to other uses. If fish also need to be kept in open sea areas during winter, the risk of drift and pack ice increases.

“This is why submerging a cage to a depth of a few metres may present a new opportunity to increase fish farming in many open areas in the Baltic Sea”, says Kankainen.

A storm on the Baltic Sea coast.
Aquaculture needs sheltered conditions, which sets requirements for suitable locations. Photo: Jukka Pönni.

3. What are the advantages of recirculating aquaculture systems?

In a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS), water is recirculated by pumping it between fish tanks and water treatment systems. This method saves water, as new water only needs to account for one to two per cent of the volume of recirculated water. Water purification technologies also aim to reduce nutrient loads resulting from fish farming. Because this is a new method, not all parts of it are fully understood, and costs are high.

“In the aquaculture innovation programme, we are developing many different water processing methods related, for example, to gases in water, nitrogen compounds and the microbiological balance of the system. The goal is to make production stable and sufficiently affordable,” Vielma says.

The recirculating technology also has a significant potential in juvenile rearing. Young fish farmed at sea are reared inland. Fish farming in recirculating aquaculture systems has increased rapidly in different countries. For example, all new salmon smolt farms in Norway use RAS technologies.

“Using purification processes, the nutrient loads of juvenile farming can be reduced, and recirculating aquaculture systems can be situated in new locations,” Vielma says. “We believe that in the future new juvenile farms can use recirculating technologies and be situated in coastal areas close to large open sea farms, reducing transportation distances.”

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