Fish Farming Innovations

06/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sunil Chacko Medical Doctor, Science, Technology and Finance Specialist; University Professor

Closing the Food and Nutrition Gap

As worries continue about closing the "protein gap," and ways to ameliorate the impact of sharply rising price of food worldwide, the success is striking of Japan's Kindai Research in nutrition through fish farming & culture in the sea.

At a time when other countries are still attempting to get loans to purchase longer-range or faster ships, oblivious to increasing fuel prices, and implementing other old-fashioned approaches on fishing in acknowledged over-fished waters, the approach Kindai has taken is special.

The Kindai, a private university in Japan, through government grants and in collaboration with an affiliated commercial entity, completely cultured near-extinct bluefin tuna -- a first for the world. In the past, bluefin tuna farming was done by catching small tuna from the ocean and then rearing them in sea cages. However, this breakthrough in aquaculture is a process that implements tuna's lifecycle of hatching, growth, spawning and hatching completely in a farming facility. As a highly migratory large species that swims powerfully, bluefin tuna's complete cultivation is difficult, scientifically and operationally. Director Hidemi Kumai and Professor Yoshifumi Sawada have led the way to these dramatic successes with a series of novel intellectual properties, with a World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) patent for preventing the occurrence of abnormal behavior such as cannibalism, fright behavior and collision death due to their high-speed swimming during rearing, storage and transportation. These attrition factors are mitigated and prevented mainly by controlling their visual stimuli (among other innovations).

Recently, Kindai and its commercial arm shipped 1,500 small tuna fish, the third generation of the artificially hatched bluefin tuna Thunnus orientalis, which had been artificially incubated and raised at the University's Ohshima Research Station in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan.

Rather than maintaining the tuna over the entire lifespan that is several years, Kindai hedges its risks and costs by selling and shipping the juvenile tuna to grow in the sea facilities of other entities. In transporting the small tuna by ship, the survival rate of 98% was recorded -- critical for economic viability, and in the new facilities only about 10% attrition has occurred. It provides technical assistance in operation of large sea cages where the tuna swim, advice on feeding -- tuna are very particular about what and how they eat.

This is the result of the culmination of aquaculture expertise in its 50 years of research and development that has had multiple milestone successes in culturing and farming other valuable species of fish, some that were not previously amenable to fish farming, including red sea bream, yellowtail, amberjack, grouper, striped jack and the list goes on. And further innovative efforts are underway on trout, sweetfish, sturgeon and mackerel.

Research Issues for the Future

The model developed appears to be replicable and possible to scale-up, but would still need to be implemented operationally in multiple sites, differing climatic conditions, and for larger populations to determine the extent of capital and recurrent costs requirements and technical factors.

Further, at this time, smaller fish are being fed to larger fish in farming operations, but potentially can be replaced by a modified vegetarian diet. Fish are very finicky and will not eat the average mashed tuber, green vegetable or insipid grain. Hence, it is an area highly pertinent for research to develop inexpensive and more plentiful vegetarian-based diets. Agricultural scientists, fish farmers and regular plants cultivators would need to work together on this.

Stable Supply and Food Safety, Quality and Traceability

Humankind has a never-ending voracious appetite. Imagine the situation in which there are no cattle ranches or chicken farms, and had there only been wild-caught chicken, cattle, pigs, etc. ... those animals would have become extinct from the face of the earth. Even if a few survived, most people would not have been able to afford them. This is more or less what is happening to many fish species today. Fish stock has been depleted worldwide, and species like bluefin tuna are near-extinct due to over fishing.

In addition, stark concern about mercury in wild-caught tuna exists. However, farmed tuna has significantly lower mercury level, and there is even the real possibility to lower further, paving the way for mothers and children to consume this tuna with confidence.

Complete culture or cultivation of bluefin tuna, thus, allows for ensuring predictable supply, quality and safety. Indeed, each tuna from this Wakayama aquaculture station in Japan carries a "graduation certificate" with an embedded electrical chip containing records of birth, residential history, type of feed etc. as the certificate of authenticity. From the public health point of view, this is also essential to combat any disease outbreak if it were to occur.

Social Justification for Fish Farming

On the success of bluefin tuna aquaculture, the Japanese government may have significant return on investment -- nutritionally, socially, and commercially -- since it has been far-sighted on this research, funding it through the 21st Century Centers of Excellence Program of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It potentially has diplomatic significance as well. Frankly, the world's prominent environmental groups are angry at the Japanese fishing industry about the current vicious cycle -- bluefin tuna being almost extinct thus a shortage created worldwide, and that commands top dollar at the Tokyo fish market, and consequently even more aggressive smuggling and violation of the tuna catching quota among fishermen all over the world. There even is risk of calls for sushi-boycotts. Instead, this method will alter this cycle, restore the fish stock over time, promote food safety, generate jobs in coastal rural areas, and protect the food chain, especially that of protein supply.

Tuna provides high-quality proteins and is low in saturated fat and rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, essential for proper nutrition for child growth and organ development, unlike many grains that only have lower-quality protein.

Further, for the consideration of freshwater shortage in many agricultural regions of the world today, farming in the sea can be preferable to farming on land. Compared to cattle ranching, fish farming in the sea does not deplete the ever-declining fresh water supply worldwide. With an estimated 900 liters of fresh water needed to produce every hamburger (cattle feeding on fresh grass, irrigation for lettuce, tomato, wheat for the bun), many regions are fast losing the capacity to produce food simply because of arid conditions.

The imminent extinction of widely eaten fish species, like bluefin tuna, threatens the delicate balance of the food chain. In the time of sharply rising food price and fuel cost worldwide, such threat is detrimental to the stable protein supply at all levels. The global nutrition gap, already severe, could even get worse. To secure stable protein supply for the future to feed the seven billion people on the planet, aquaculture is vital within the food chain to maintain protein security. Sustainable fish farms in the sea will be essential.