Fish farms — sustainable food or environmental catastrophe?

We have a fishy problem and no clear solution

Raymond Fung
ArcTern Ventures


A big challenge we, as society, face is: how do we sustainably feed our growing population? Recently, beef was center stage, taking heat for poor land use and significant GHG emissions. One solution that emerged was meatless alternatives. Impossible Foods, among others, has been gaining traction. Will we replace all the beef we consume? Probably not, but it’s a good start.

Some argue the only long-term solution is a fully vegan diet, and while many of us agree with that in principle, relying on the whole world going vegan seems a bit…naive!

What about other sources of protein — like fish? Is that a sustainable option? Many people love fish — salmon is especially popular because it tastes great and is healthy. It also happens to be one of the most resource efficient sources of animal protein. But, can we keep consuming all the fish we want and maintain a livable planet? Or do we love our fish too much? We’ve certainly done a good job eating our (increasingly polluted) oceans bone clean. Wild fish stocks across the globe are crashing.

Maybe fish farms can replace wild catch. Should they? At ArcTern Ventures, our recent investment in Aquabyte takes a position on what we believe is the best way to address a complex problem.

A healthy love affair?

Fish farmers do not have the tools to enable sustainability

We are concerned about groups calling for a total ban on fish farming. Yes, there are sustainability concerns with fish farming. But, there are also nuances to the problem, which need to be considered.

The key is, many fish farmers care about sustainability. For some, it’s in their DNA (e.g., Norwegians). For others, it’s good for business. Happy fish = healthier fish = higher yield. Farmers want AND are willing to do more. So why is this not enough to make fish farming sustainable?

Because the farmers do not have the tools to enable them to do more. It is hard to solve a problem you can’t measure.

This is why Aquabyte is exciting. Bryton Shang and team have designed a product that improves fish farming sustainability. They combined off-the-shelf cameras and best-in-class AI to individually track fish health, particularly, sea lice. It is the tool farmers that have desperately needed and had to make do without. The tool is ready today. It is a “right now” solution — a solution to keep fish pens while increasing overall sustainability. Without fish pens, we miss out on a resource-efficient food source, one which we enjoy eating.

Aquabyte’s AI-powered camera is submersed within an open net pen and individually identifies fish and sea lice (blue square), providing farmers with crucial real-time data
Aquabyte solved a significant technical challenge (e.g., accounting for water visibility and swell, identifying moving fish and lice, etc.) to accurately count small sea lice (0.5–2 cm long)

Below, we will share our perspective on the different aspects of the sustainability challenge. Additionally, when combining a great tool with the right mindset and partnership, we can solve the sustainability problem.

Is fish farming sustainable today? Maybe not, but it could be

Today, 70% of our salmon is farmed. Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau wants to ban open net fish farming and pledged to transition all fish farms to land-based systems. The US recently gave a very different signal, opening US waters to those same open-water farms. Who’s right? To most folks on the west coast of Canada, it’s Trudeau. We at ArcTern respectfully disagree.

However, the fish farm critics certainly have good arguments. For example:

  • In Dec 2019, 20,000 Atlantic salmon escaped at a British Columbia (BC) farm — an invasive species
  • Fish restricted to net farms are ideal breeding grounds for sea lice and disease. Vulnerable juvenile salmon can be infected when migrating past the farms
  • Antibiotics usage has an environmental impact

The list goes on. For good reason, fish farming has lost its social credibility in BC.

But let’s not forget, BC has a luxury the rest of the world doesn’t have: lots of ocean in which to catch wild fish and not a lot of people. So, if we ban fish farms, how can other less fortunate global citizens enjoy salmon too?

Net fishing — there are concerns with overfishing (sometimes near extinction) and bycatch

Is fish farming needed? Yes, because we need to feed a global population. People want tasty and familiar foods. What BC citizens get to eat from the wild ocean, others want too. You could argue we should “rip the band aid” with a fish farming ban to force a transition to alternatives. But those alternatives have downsides too.

Typical salmon fish farm

Are land-based fish farms the silver bullet?

It would be great to believe Trudeau’s election promise and say: “Let’s wait for land-based fish farms to save the planet!”. But our analysis indicates this is a non-starter. Due to the volume, it is challenging to replace all net farms with land-based farms. In 2019, globally, society consumed 2.6 million tonnes of salmon. While the transition has begun, it would require tens of billions of investment dollars to complete.

As with most early innovation, there are still operational and technological challenges to be resolved. High fish mortality has occurred, despite ideal growing conditions. As a result, the business model is unproven, and most importantly, the environmental impact is still unclear.

In fairness, land-based fish farms do eliminate lice and disease. But let’s understand why — these systems recreate ideal ocean conditions! As a result, they’re expensive and require tremendous amounts of energy and clean water. Of the at-scale facilities, many benefit from cheap electricity (often dirty sources) AND disease-free ocean/aquifers for water inputs and discharge. While land-based fish farms would address one environmental problem, there may be other forms of impact.

At best, land-based systems are part of a long-term solution. We need something better and faster. After extensive evaluation, we decided the best solution is to immediately improve the sustainability of open-net fish farms. It is a two-piece solution. It requires the right mindset and the right tools.

The right mindset exists and works — the Norwegians have done a phenomenal job at improving the sustainability of fish farms while balancing economic and environmental impact.

The tools have been a key missing piece. A good start is Aquabyte.

Norwegians are doing the “impossible” — making ocean fish farms sustainable

How did the Norwegians tackle the environmental challenges? They had it easier right? Must be all the oil wealth — they can afford to be sustainable!

It’s not that simple. The Norwegian government, universities and fish farmers worked together collaboratively to implement practical solutions to protect the environment and fishery livelihoods.

As a team, they have improved fish farming sustainability. Examples include:

  • Virtually eliminated all usage of antibiotics in fish farming
  • Implemented mandatory sea lice counting and reporting
  • Introduced BarentsWatch, a public online platform providing sustainability transparency for the public and all fish farmers (anyone can view the sea lice count at every Norwegian fish farm)

These are big jumps. Credit to the Norwegians for achieving real progress. When there is a real conviction to protect the environment, there is a way.

How were they able to achieve this? A big part of it is working together on one collective goal — the commitment to protect the environment for future generations. The culture is also pragmatic. Norwegians know you cannot ban fish farming — it’s critical to their culture and economy. As a result, they take responsibility for it.

Norwegians continue to push ahead. They understand they need to continue to improve. This is not the final solution because there are still challenges. All the stakeholders recognize this and want to improve on it.

Despite best efforts with manual sea lice counting, it has big drawbacks. At best, it is reactionary and a crude tool. It is often too late. Farmers cannot learn faster on how to best take care of their fish and minimize environmental impact. This is in no way the fish farmers’ fault — they do not have the right tools.

Aquabyte is the right tool to address the challenges.

Aquabyte’s AI-powered camera is an immediate sustainability solution

Aquabyte installs an AI-powered camera inside the fish pen, providing 24/7, real-time and accurate lice counting. The camera tells the farmer if there are issues, as they occur.

With Aquabyte, farmers have a real time, accurate, pen-by-pen count of lice (pictured, for a farm site)

The story in the picture above:

  • Initially, Pen 1/2/3 have tolerable sea lice, while P4/P5 have little/no sea lice
  • With time, sea lice increases in P4/5
  • Over 4–5 weeks, all pens at the farm site have significantly higher sea lice
  • The farm site treats the sea lice, but remains above the acceptable threshold

Farmers rarely have the real-time and accurate data to track the story above. They only know it anecdotally and after piecing together the damage after it has occurred. This is not an uncommon story. It is tough to manage sea lice effectively — you can’t solve a problem you can’t measure. Increases or decreases (via treatment) in sea lice are hard to track. So, duh, of course fish farming has had a significant environmental impact.

Now, for the first time, farmers have real-time accurate data on lice AND can take better actions to manage the environmental impact and fish health.

Aquabyte and farmers have compared results between manual and live camera counting. Farmers are transitioning from manually counting 10 fish per week to camera counting 10X fish per day, enabling new insight into lice growth. In the picture, note the difference in manual (green) vs. camera (orange), especially infestation spikes and post-treatment

In Canada, the government has left their regulations as they were decades ago, which are frankly too lax. Now, we are managing decades of incurred environmental damage and a corresponding lack of social license.

Now with better data, the government can better facilitate work on improved treatment and sustainability between universities, farmers, and the environment. Aquabyte is the enabling tool.

With better data, farmers can use more environmentally friendly treatments, such as sucker fish to prey on lice (pictured)

In the future, Aquabyte can further improve sustainability of fish farms by:

  • Accurately determining fish biomass, which provides a better understanding of the sustainable Maximum Allowable Biomass threshold for each farm site, tailored to the local environment. Scotland utilizes this approach. Their environmental survey include but limited to factors such as current patterns, fjord depth, and flow rate. Robust biomass data can also further improve the approach
  • Ensuring sustainable feeding (no excessive or wasted feed)
  • Enabling fish farmers to participate in sustainability certifications and offering traceability. Aquabyte rigorously and continuously captures data on fish health and welfare, which is required to meet certification requirements

Aquabyte by itself is helpful but needs to be integrated with the right mindset. Norway’s progressive approach combined with emerging tech like Aquabyte is a sustainability gamechanger. We hope other countries can follow Norway’s lead.

We can have our salmon and eat it too

ArcTern Ventures is on a mission to make the world more sustainable. We enact on this through strategic investments driving step change. In this case, we believe Aquabyte can help strike a better a balance between feeding a growing population that loves fish and quickly creating a more sustainable fish source.

“We’re excited to have ArcTern Ventures, a global clean tech and sustainability investor, join us in supporting Aquabyte. Sustainability has always been important to both Costanoa and Aquabyte. ArcTern will help ensure Aquabyte delivers equally on business impact for farmers and environmental impact for our future.” — Greg Sands, Managing Partner at Costanoa Ventures

“We welcome ArcTern Ventures to the Aquabyte family — it’s important to have a global clean tech investor with strong ties to Norway and Canada support Aquabyte as they continue to expand globally into all aquaculture, while keeping an eye on the sustainability mission.” — Greg Papadopoulos, Venture Partner at NEA

There is an alternative to a fish farm ban. It will not be easy. We will need strong collaboration between farmers, the government and Aquabyte, to find a better solution with less trade-offs. Will it work? Only time will tell, but we think it is worth a shot. 🐟