The follow interview was conducted by Imke Zimmermann (Press Relations for German Fish International Trade Show, Bremen Germany-February 9-11, 2014, which was then published in the German expert magazine on our topic, FischMagazin, Contact Info for Ms. Zimmermann  zimmermann@messe-bremen.de

 

1.    With a RAS you can earn a small fortune – if you beforehand invest a large one, people say half-jokingly. Indeed we’ve seen lots of projects go bust. You, Prof. Timmons, even pledged a mortgage on your house ((if I understood that correctly from the cv in your book??)) to get the money to co-finance a RAS for Tilapia. Apparently you were optimistic … So please tell us: Which conditions must be fulfilled for a successful project?

In June of 1996, four individuals created Fingerlakes Aquaculture, LLC, including Dr. Michael B. Timmons of Cornell University, who mortgaged his own house to get the initial capitalization.  After a rocky startup, Fingerlakes Aquaculture stayed in business for 12 years and produced over 3,000 tonnes of tilapia. By those statistics, Michael can claim a success.  This success or at least FLA’s longevity at being in business for such a long time can be attributed to several factors:

  • Implemented in a series of stages (university prototype, small 100 tonne farm, followed by larger 500 tonne farm)
  • Large scale operations, economy of scale and market
  • Trained and motivated workforce
  • Improved technology
  • Adequate water
  • Electrical rates below typical market prices ($0.04/kwh)
  • Targeted marketing approach

Probably the most important of these was a phased production program, i.e., a ramp up over time. Many business plans start with some large scale operation, which is usually necessary to show a positive cash flow. Unfortunately, almost always, these operations, if funded, are unsuccessful. It is extremely difficult to achieve large scale success without having first built this capacity incrementally from smaller operations. This incremental increase in size and complexity of operations enables your management team to learn-by-doing wherein the inevitable mistakes will have a less devastating impact on a smaller operation than they would on a large scale operation.

Given a sound technical approach, the ability of the management team to operate the business is the single most important factor in the determination of ultimate success or failure. Simply adding additional like-item systems of a proven and fixed design that is already working well is the best way to increase the size of the operation. If you choose to incorporate untested and unproven designs into your expansion plans, you will undoubtedly face unexpected problems that will compromise your ability to achieve the cost effectiveness that is predicted. On the other hand, once you have a working system and management protocols refined at some reasonable scale, e.g., 200,000 lb (90 ton) per year, then this system or farm can be replicated as many times as necessary to reach the desired production levels and obtain the economies of scale necessary to achieve an economically competitive position.

In addition to be successful these four aspects need to be carefully researched: a) thorough preparation (engineering analysis, fish species management, and market analysis), b) reliable source of stocking fingerlings/eggs, or breeding stock, c) cost effective design and cost competitive prediction of costs of production, and d) superb management staff.  A lack in any of these four aspects will guarantee financial failure and most likely technical failure.  Note there is a difference between producing fish/seafood successfully and doing the same in a profitable manner.

 2.    To pose the question once more in another way: What are from your point of view the three main mistakes people can make when setting up a RAS?

 One: Starting too big, without a successful commercial size prototype

Most business plans start with some large scale operation, which is usually necessary to show a positive cash flow. Unfortunately, almost always, these operations, if funded, are unsuccessful. It is extremely difficult to achieve large scale success without having first built this capacity incrementally from smaller operations. This incremental increase in size and complexity of operations enables your management team to learn-by-doing wherein the inevitable mistakes will have a less devastating impact on a smaller operation than they would on a large scale operation. Given a sound technical approach, the ability of the management team to operate the business is the single most important factor in the determination of ultimate success or failure. Simply adding additional like-item systems of a proven and fixed design that is already working well is the best way to increase the size of the operation. If you choose to incorporate untested and unproven designs into your expansion plans, you will undoubtedly face unexpected problems that will compromise your ability to achieve the cost effectiveness that is predicted on paper.

 Two: Starting without an experienced and will trained management team

Management is the most critical component of any aquaculture venture.  You can overcome just about any challenge if you have a good management team

 Three: Forgetting the basic rule of any start-up, the 2,2,2,2 Rule

  • It will take twice as long
  • Cost twice as much
  • Be twice as hard
  • And you will get 1/2 as much (revenue)

3.    What about the wellbeing of the fishes, crustacean or mussels: Is it in respect to animal welfare ok to raise them in a bounded plant without at least some ingredients of their natural habitats?

 The beauty of RAS is that you can provide the fish/animals any environment needed; the question is always whether this can be done in an economically competitive fashion. Nutritional quality of the fish's diet is of course critical and there can be differences between a fish diet for a RAS animal vs. an outdoor or net pen reared fish.  And remember that this is a commercial venture, which means that it is especially important to maintain the highest possible water quality and living conditions to provide for the maximum growth and feed conversion potential of the species being cultivated.

4.    Denitrification is one of the difficulties in RAS-technology. The aim to simplify this process is one cause ((as far as I understood a german expert!!)) to search for different feed. To what kind of feed belongs the future?

Maintaining a productive water quality environment is the difficulty, not just denitrification. Especially in saltwater systems, denitrification is one of the many unit processes that need to be mastered successfully.  Denitrification in freshwater systems is generally not needed, depending upon the species (salmonids are more sensitive than most species) and the amount of fresh water that can be added to the system on a daily basis.  While in saltwater systems, denitrification of both the production water and effluent discharge may be mandatory with either limited water supply or stringent discharge requirements.

There has been a great deal of research conducted on denitrification in the wastewater treatment industry and to a limited extent in intensive recirculating aquaculture systems.  Because of the recent requirements in the USA for nitrogen removal from the discharge of wastewater treatment plants, several options have been developed over the past 10 years based on the suspended sludge, denitrification process and more recently fixed film bioreactors. These have been included in the sequence of unit processes used to treat the wastewater either by using the digesting sludge (organic solids generated in the fish system) as the organic carbon source or adding an exogenous electron donor such as methanol or even sugar.  Although there still exists a great deal of work to make these denitrification process commercial viable for large scale saltwater aquaculture, their commercial availability is only a short time away in the future if not currently in some situations.

5.    Apart from denitrification: Which are the major problems that are currently not satisfactorily solved – and when will they all be adequately manageable?

Both Dr. Timmons and I have been involved in aquaculture engineering research, system design and education and extension for over 25 years.  Over the years, it has been fascinating to watch as one after another engineering problem have been identified, extensively researched by university, government and commercial research centers, solutions proposed and proto-typed, then commercialized and finally become the  ‘standard technology’.  In the early days, most of the water treatment systems were adapted from the waste water treatment industry.  But over time, these systems were adapted to the unique requirements of aquaculture, so that today, very few of these original system designs and equipment are in use.  Production systems originally utilized raceways, moved to round tanks with better hydraulics, mixing and solids removal and now just might move to a combination of the raceway and round tanks, called mixed-cell raceways.  Solids capture has moved from inefficient settling basins to bead filters and rotating microscreen filters.  There was once a wide diversity of biofilters, which are almost all being replaced with the simple Moving Bed BioReactors.  Design changes even include something as simple as air stones being supplemented or replaced with micro-diffusers with significantly higher transfer efficiency.  Finally, the incredible advances in computers, the internet and cell phones has made monitoring and controlling even large commercial operations reliable, inexpensive and most importantly ‘User-Friendly’.

The last two remaining bottlenecks relate to the increased demand and production of saltwater species and the problems of controlling the build-up of potentially toxic nitrate in the systems and the difficulty of managing the waste product, i.e. 25 to 30% of the feed fed results in this much solid waste.  In freshwater, we have seen an explosion of interest in aquaponics,the integration of aquaculture and hydroponics, where the excess nitrate is used to grow a second crop of leafy greens, herbs, and almost anything green!  Even in saltwater systems, there are options to that produce grains comparable to wheat include Eelgrass (Zostera marina) and Palmer saltgrass (Distichlis palmeri).  Pearl millet (Pennistum typhoides) can produce from 1.6 MT/ha to 6.5 MT/ha as fodder for animals.  Potential biofuel crops include Seashore mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica) and Salicornia spp. Both Salsola, spp. and Salicornia spp havebeen used raw for salads, processed as biofuel seedstock and animal feed.   

Denitrification was discussed above, so the second major hurdle for both freshwater and saltwater systems is going to be effluent waste management.  Although we have come to refer to it as byproduct utilization, since it can easily become a significant revenue source if properly managed.  Over the past several years, the EPA and EU has initiated stringent environmental discharge regulations for aquaculture wastewater, making environmentally sound waste management and disposal increasingly important for all agriculture/aquaculture operations, especially marine recirculating systems whose effluent contains considerable concentrations of salt. Development of practical dewatering technologies for this waste stream are critical to meet new and proposed effluent guidelines and address this problem in an environmentally sound management way.  In addition for marine RAS it is critical that a significant percentage of the effluent by-products be recycled back into the production system to conserve salts and reduce and/or eliminate the environmental impact of salt discharges.  Finally from an economical viewpoint, it is important to utilize the solid waste component of the effluent discharge, since this waste stream should be treated as a potential revenue generating by-product and not as a just a difficult to dispose of waste stream.

One promising new technology for dewatering aquaculture solid waste is geotextile tubes.  Geotextile tubes are porous sealed tubular containers constructed of a woven polyethylene material.  Geotextile tubes can dewater wastes to over 10% solids in less than a week, and can achieve final solids content over 30%. Geotextile tubes have been used successfully in dewatering animal wastes, municipal wastewater sludge, hazardous wastes, industrial by-products, and dredge spoil.  Geotextile tubes are cost effective, site-specific and mobile, require little maintenance, and can be manufactured for both small and large containment volumes. Their disadvantage is that a significant part of the nitrogen waste is converted into nitrogen gas and is lost to the environment.  These lost nutrients are more important to some than others.

6.    RAS is considered to be the most environment-friendly variant of aquaculture as you need less water and there is no nutrient discharge into the environment. So we have to hope that in the end the technology would dominate classic aquaculture. Can this idea actually be a future scenario – or is it totally unrealistic?

In 2009, FAO reported that over half of all fish consumed as a food source worldwide were produced by aquaculture, as compared to only 9% in 1980.  FAO also estimated that as a result of a variety of factors, including overfishing, wild fisheries were incapable of sustaining current production and that worldwide aquaculture production would need to double by 2050 to simply maintain current per capita consumption levels.  Trade deficits, questionable political stability in various producer countries, the recent recalls of tainted imported products and concerns over bioterrorism raise serious questions about the long-term safety of a seafood supply that is dependent on imports and lends strong support to the contention that the many countries needs a strong, domestic aquaculture industry.  As health conscious consumers continue to increase the per capita consumption of seafood and demand cleaner, greener and safer seafood, there are few sustainable choices other than to commit to the development of freshwater and marine aquaculture and encourage the development and acceptance of sustainable practices for this industry.