What’s Wrong with Norway’s Approach to Offshore Aquaculture?
If you needed to develop a new improved tent for mountaineers to use on the upper reaches of Himalayan summits, would you give the job to a company specialised in armoured bunkers?
John Fitzgerald, CEO, Impact-9
The bunkers would hold-up no doubt, but no mountaineer is going to help you pour concrete on the summit of K2. In 2016, the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries embarked upon an unprecedented initiative to invoke innovation in Norway’s aquaculture industry. They had diagnosed a threat to continued growth in Norway’s burgeoning €6 billion salmon production sector, due to over-production at sensitive inshore fjord sites. Consumers, environmentalists and regulators were all sounding the alarm and sea lice were impacting production. The regulatory initiative awarded limited but free production licences to projects that could “solve the environmental and acreage problem” in a competitive process. It is a testament to the foresight and pro-active governance expected of the Nordic country.
However, the national initiative was a huge inferred state-subsidy, delivered in a political environment that was also asking questions about the future of offshore petroleum industries. Knowledge transfer from Norway’s offshore oil and gas sector to aquaculture is a good thing, right? Actually, protecting incumbent economic interests is pretty much the opposite of innovation. Dusting off design rules such as “Petroleum and Natural Gas Industries – Requirements for offshore structures”, engineers in companies like Kongsberg, Aker and NSK all got to work, perhaps with predictable results.
(images courtesy Instagram users @afhildw @mariagaa @Henrik_hareide)
These are immensely impressive feats of engineering, but they are also a 6 to 8-fold increase in the capital cost over conventional farm infrastructure. Operational performance is yet to be proven, but the dependence on large port infrastructure and offshore service vessels of the indigenous Norwegian offshore sector misses the mark when one considers the global offshore fish farming opportunity. There are competitors out there and outside the fjords Norway’s ocean begins to look a lot like everybody else’s.
What got fish farming to where it is today?
Plastic. The plastic net collar is the highly evolved net pen structure selected among many predecessor solutions that met evolutionary dead ends. It is immensely good at what it does. Flexible rings are formed from High Density Polyethelne (HDPE) pipes that are easy to manufacture and maintain at remote sites. They can be configured in flexible ways with reliable outcomes. They have low corrosion and endure long life with a limited maintenance burden.
But what is the characteristic above all else that has led to its success? Structural Flexibility. When the waves arrive, it flexes to alleviate stress. Plastic solutions have out-performed their steel cousins in fish farming applications over decades of industrial effort. Like fibreglass tent poles, they yield to the elements, shedding extreme loads. Yet, they still provide enough resistance to provide a secure enclosure in extreme conditions. They have been deployed in increasingly challenging locations like the Faroe Islands, Ireland and also for Tuna farming in Japan.
However, in the worst storms, plastic poles will still eventually yield and snap, especially where mooring lines are attached and “snatch” loads occur. Operating at the surface in highly exposed conditions also asks questions of operational safety, especially where human interactions and diving are concerned. The rings don’t make for comfortable or safe work platforms in more exposed inshore locations and are certainly not safe to board in far offshore conditions. The plastic structures also do not answer the need to host equipment and machinery for ancillary operations or to store the hundreds of tonnes of feed required to service a modern fish farm.
While feed can be transferred by boat, recent trends are for ever larger rigid steel “feed barges” that are permanently moored adjacent to plastic fish pens. On-site feed storage is probably a pre-requisite for going further offshore. It is these steel feed barges that are the limiting factor to offshore viability, especially in shallower exposed waters where mooring systems are seriously tested. Such barges are coupled via precarious umbilicals to the separately moored flexible fish pens. This makes a poor marriage for going further offshore.
Given the nature of the offshore challenge, the incremental evolution of existing hardware is equally doomed to fail. The incrementally innovative proposals from aquaculture actors such as Atlantic Subsea Engineering take the industry some of the way there – but a hesitancy by clinging to existing product lines is apparent. Projects like Atlantis will help the route offshore, but fail to address the real problem head on. You are either in the Fjord, or you are not: there is little in between. This is a step change that needs a step change response. Innovation, novelty and the associated risks need to be grasped.
A way forward?
So with a number of damp squibs and a handful of armoured Taj Mahals in the Norwegian pipeline, what can the rest of us do to show the true competitive potential of offshore aquaculture? Better solutions emerge when innovation is fully detached from incumbent interests: be they commercial or political. Questions are phrased differently:
Can we completely get rid of divers? Can we remove the need for particular vessels? How do I minimise the need for port infrastructure? Can I do this better in the Gulf of Mexico, Canada, Ireland, Scotland…….? What other offshore operations can I make redundant? How can I integrate treatment operations? How can I avoid the need for treatment in the first place? Who else has solved these specific technical problems before?
Viewing the world in this way is the domain of the start-up. Impact-9 has assembled a team of experts around this approach. Born out of efforts to convert wave energy to electricity, the team has plenty of experience of structures that must interact with waves. It was in the marine renewables sector that single point connections were used to eliminate divers and large vessels from installation operations. It was here also where elastic tendons and vertically loaded anchors were introduced to control spatial footprints and eliminate snatch loads from large waves in shallow water conditions.
“When we looked at this problem from first principles, we realised quickly that despite all the noise in the sector, nobody else had such an unencumbered, tangential approach. I felt there was no real competition in that respect. It speaks to the advantages of innovating in small companies at arms length from those interests with which they may conflict” - John Fitzgerald, Founder of Impact-9.
Where tents once had fibre glass poles, they now have inflatable beams. This is a precise analogy to Impact9’s approach, where inflatable beams are being considered for net collar structures, among other innovations. Keeping within the economic constraints of the problem you are solving is not optional – not unless you have sustained state-support for out-of-market costs. Competition is the thing that says “innovate” instead of “do what you did last time”.
It is this approach that makes Impact9 believe that it is on track to be the leading technology in bringing aquaculture offshore.
Developing an offshore structure for fish containment with features such as:
Submergence: for protection against parasites and wave loads
Safety: a better working platform for larger waves positioned directly over the containment
Storage of feed and equipment integrated over the containment volume
Single point connect / disconnect for diverless connections and reduced offshore operations.
Spatial footprint: keeping a tight spatial footprint to maximise use of ocean real estate.
Shallow water & exposed sites: Accessing a new continent of global opportunity.
Learn more about Impact-9’s approach to offshore aquaculture on www.impact-9.com