With per capita fish consumption having doubled in the past six decades, aquaculture is becoming increasingly important when it comes to combatting food insecurity. Recent innovations seek to improve sustainability and productivity while assuaging quality concerns. Venture capitalists invested $39bn in food tech start-ups in 2021, double the amount seen in 2020. While over half of this amount went to digital grocers and online marketplaces, a number of companies developing innovative aquaculture technologies stand to benefit from investor interest.

One such company, Vertical Oceans, collected $3.5m in a seed round last year from US-based venture capital (VC) fund Khosla Ventures, in what might be the first time a major Silicon Valley VC fund has invested in an aquaculture start-up. Vertical Oceans is currently raising shrimp in tanks the size of school buses in a proof-of-concept facility in Singapore. The modular tanks could conceivably be stacked in urban settings and recirculate water, producing minimal waste and addressing both supply chain and contamination concerns.

Similarly, a number of companies farming Atlantic salmon have taken the drastic step of moving inland to become more sustainable. From its land-based facility near Miami, Atlantic Sapphire hopes to eventually produce 20% of the salmon consumed in the US. Powered by renewable energy and sourcing water from the same aquifer that provides Miami’s drinking water, the company has cut emissions by shipping fish to distributors by road.

Global Aquaculture Activity

Aquaculture provided 56% of aquatic food for human consumption worldwide in 2020. Asia accounted for over 90% of global aquaculture production in 2020, thanks in part to China, which was the region’s top producer.

Key aquaculture products in Asia include seaweed and oysters, as well as freshwater carp. Known as low-trophic, these species mostly consume plankton, making them cheaper and more environmentally friendly to farm than carnivorous, or high-trophic, fish species. Shrimp farming, which is worth an estimated $45bn globally, is responsible for 30% of the deforestation of mangroves in South-east Asia, according to a 2020 report from Planet Tracker. The lack of mangroves, which act as a vital carbon sink, and the flow of waste, chemicals and antibiotics from farms increases the environmental risks associated with conventional shrimp aquaculture.

The Americas account for approximately 3% of global aquaculture production, with demand primarily focused on whiteleg shrimp and Atlantic salmon. These high-trophic species pose environmental risks when farmed at industrial scale because they produce more hazardous waste and are primarily fed small fish or fish by-products from capture fisheries.

As of February 2022 Egypt was the leader in Africa in aquaculture, as well as sixth in the world in terms of production. While the continent is only responsible for around 2% of global output, the sector in sub-Saharan Africa has grown by 11% per year since 2000, nearly double the global rate of 6%.

In cooperation with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Oman is pursuing a long-term national strategy to develop its aquaculture industry, both for large-scale fish farms and more artisanal producers. The sultanate’s investments in infrastructure, new projects and research capabilities have paid off, with its aquaculture output increasing to 1700 tonnes in 2022, up 500% from 282 tonnes in 2014. Output from commercial fishing surpassed 1300 tonnes in 2022, while integrated freshwater fish farms increased their production from 5 tonnes in 2014 to 353 tonnes in 2022.

Addressing Sustainability

Because of the threats that climate change, overfishing and ocean acidification pose to wild fisheries, many governments have outlined blue economy strategies to protect their marine resources and drive their economic recoveries following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Aquaculture is set to play a key role in many of these strategies, with the expansion of this industry providing for economic growth, poverty reduction and increased food security, while also contributing to UN Sustainable Developmental Goal 14: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.

Disease Prevention

In emerging markets, government support remains essential to expanding aquaculture activity to meet demand. Shifting subsidies from sea fishing to aquaculture could help encourage sustainable growth while discouraging overfishing. In Norway, water leases are more expensive than land leases, encouraging salmon aquaculture enterprises to move to inland facilities.

Disease prevention efforts have focused on strains of fish that been genetically improved to be more resistant to illnesses, such as farmed tilapia, which are responsible for the 18-58% jump in productivity witnessed in farms in Bangladesh and China. Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia have all begun breeding programmes to develop local fish strains that can withstand outbreaks.

Increased urbanisation and the expansion of the global middle class have driven demand for hightrophic species such as salmon and shrimp, although they produce more waste and are fed “trash fish” from capture fisheries, which puts further stress on wild fish stocks. Some farms are testing to see if salmon raised on a diet of insects still produce omega-3 fatty acids, while Atlantic Sapphire aims to remove fish from its feed by 2025.

New Projects

In smaller-scale enterprises, both green water pond and nutritious pond models utilise food waste or underused ingredients to increase the carbon content of ponds, thereby increasing productivity, whereas companies like Vertical Oceans that operate recirculating tanks use macroalgae to help filter water. Modular tanks such as the ones employed by Vertical Oceans could shorten supply routes and reduce the emissions associated with the transport of aquaculture products. Farms could conceivably be built close to or within city limits, providing a sustainable food source that can support rapidly growing urban populations.

US-based aquaculture company Forever Oceans has constructed floating cages that allow for kanpachi, a type of yellowtail fish, to be farmed further out in the ocean, preventing the potentially toxic accumulation of waste that can affect shallow-water fish farms. Although the logistics of managing such an enterprise far from the coast creates additional challenges, the company is planning to expand its yellowtail production by building farms off the coasts of Brazil and Indonesia, in addition to the existing location off the coast of Panama.