Terrestrial salmon: high-growth, scaleable and environmentally sustainable

With aquaculture being one of the fastest growing food-producing sectors in the world, land-based salmon farming is fast proving to be an attractive investment niche for healthy, affordable protein in the global protein mix. TerraProtein Director Erik Tveteraas highlights the environmentally sustainable advances in land-based aquaculture currently taking place in Denmark.

Successful Danish innovator

It has been said that farming fish on land would be as mad as rearing pigs at sea. But that is exactly what is happening in Hirtshals, a busy seaside town at the top of the Jutland peninsula in northern Denmark. In a country more famous for its intensive pig farming industry, the high-growth company Danish Salmon A/S has succeeded in farming Atlantic salmon completely on-land using state-of-the art technology.

Where similar projects have suffered technical issues or never gotten past the pilot project stage, Danish Salmon’s “farm to fork” production model is producing salmon all the way from eggs through to harvest size – and at commercial scale.

Sustainable technology

A pioneer in using Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) technology, Danish Salmon’s farm offers a sustainable way of producing salmon without the negative environmental impacts associated with conventional salmon farming.

However, this was not always so. While RAS technology has been around for a number of years and has been applied successfully in many aquatic animals, salmon proved a difficult species to master. Firstly, salmon are carnivorous by nature and their lifecycle spans both freshwater and saltwater stages – a natural process – therefore farming salmon on-land presents a unique set of technical challenges which the company has had to overcome step-by-step.

The challenges, however, are far outweighed by salmon’s status as a high-value fish enjoying strong growth in global consumption. More than two million tonnes were harvested last year, with Norway and Chile as the biggest producers of sea-farmed salmon in the world. In contrast Denmark imports most of its salmon with domestic production at very limited scale. Historically, the rugged coastlines and cold climates of Norway and Chile have provided optimal growing conditions for salmon farming, but these conditions have also brought a level of intensity which have brought the industry under increasing scrutiny from regulators and consumers.

Disease and parasite-free production

The biggest threat to the conventional sea-farmed salmon industry comes from pollution and disease pressure. Sea lice infestations in particular have led critics to warn against a ‘chemical arms race in the sea’. In order to prevent and treat against the parasite, producers use a combination of pesticides and antibiotics which is leading to resistant strains of sea lice, exacerbating the problem.  Sea lice are small marine parasites that occur naturally on many different species of wild fish including wild adult salmon. The problem occurs when salmon is intensively farmed in sea pens where sea lice latch on to the skin of salmon causing skin lesions and infections leading to slower growth and higher mortality. So harmful is the threat that Marine Harvest – the biggest salmon producer in the world – recently announced spending cuts in response to the rising costs of treating sea lice and disease.

Danish Salmon has no problems with sea lice. The biggest benefit of land-based salmon farming is that no sea lice can get into the tanks. Microorganisms are also eliminated through a combination of biofilters and UV lighting. This means that Danish Salmon has no use of antibiotics, pesticides or chemicals. The company is producing cleaner, healthier, high-quality fish that have been a hit with Food Service & Premium Retail clients. Consequently, Danish Salmon is now scaling up its Hirtshals farm from 1,000 to 5,000 tonnes harvested salmon per year to keep up with demand.

Geographical advantage and cost competitiveness

Another competitive advantage is the ability to set up RAS salmon farms almost anywhere in the world where the cost of land and power are competitive. By establishing facilities close to consumers in high-growth markets Danish Salmon can drastically reduce transport costs and offer fresh fish and longer shelf life to consumers. A report from 2017 estimates that between 35-50% of the cost of production from Norway to US is comprised of air freight alone which can be eliminated with localised RAS sites, with the added upside of reducing the carbon footprint of production as well. All in all land-based salmon farming is carving out an attractive seafood niche and offers an alternative source of protein for health driven consumers. 

Erik is a director at TerraProtein Equity Partners, based in Edinburgh, UK. Erik has experience from Agritech and Agribusiness transactions with a particular emphasis on aquaculture and applied aquaculture technologies.


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