Land-based aquaculture can sound like a mirage — shrimp farms in the desert, salmon swimming "upstream" in an alpine village tank, tilapia swishing over the plains. And for a long time, ample production of sea delicacies in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) has been more dream than reality. Yet the technology and its innovators steadily have gained momentum and finally may be hitting their tipping point.
The allure of fish grown on land is easy to understand: Like all aquaculture, it reduces demand for wild fish, but unlike with sea-based pens, closed-loop RAS farms (PDF) run no risk of fish escaping to dilute the native gene pool, spread diseases or discharge waste and antibiotics into the wild. RAS farmers have near-full control over growing conditions, so they can optimize for growth and quality. And with its amenability to unlikely locations, RAS can sit near major consumer markets, providing fresh local seafood even when the shore is hundreds of miles away.
So why aren’t we eating it already? RAS entrepreneurs face three big challenges: energy; contamination risks; and money. Mimicking a natural system within strictly regulated parameters is an energy-intensive endeavor, and sustainability (not to mention costs) demands locating RAS facilities next to cheap, abundant energy sources. A pathogen let loose in a closed system can be a disaster, so RAS farmers have to be extra scrupulous about avoiding contamination.
Money may be the biggest hurdle: RAS operations need high volumes and relatively long ramp-ups to reach profitability, and the pile of patient capital needed to build and grow large, high-tech facilities can be as elusive as Moby Dick.
At the crest of innovation
That is starting to change as market trends shift the investment case. Surging market demand for seafood and increased efficiencies for farms are putting land-based RAS economics in a more flattering light. And with ocean aquaculture also facing growth curbs — caps on licenses, lack of viable locations, challenging disease outbreaks, worries about microplastics in wild-caught and farmed marine species — the seafood industry is starting to see RAS as a next-wave supply source, and as a needed complement to wild-caught or sea-farmed products. For large-scale operations focused on high-value species, the huge potential upside makes RAS worth the wait and the risk.