AquaSur regularly makes a splash in the aquaculture world at its semiannual conferences. It's the most distinguished gathering of its kind in the Southern hemisphere, with major players in the field attending. In October 2016, Aquabotix CEO Durval Tavares traveled to Chile to take part in the AquaSur 2016 conference, which explored the present and future of ROVs in aquaculture and more. Over its four days, the conference accommodated 22,400 visitors representing 42 countries. Attendees included representatives from other ROV companies, food producers, medical companies, and chemical companies. By the end of the conference, there was widespread recognition that robotics was the wave of the future for keeping fish healthy and ensuring the livelihood of those in the aquaculture business.
Puerto Montt, Chile, hosted the event. Chile employs 80,000 people in its aquaculture industry, and is currently looking to expand the industry along the country’s northern coast. To encourage growth and safety in the aquaculture sector, pending legislation will likely encourage the use of ROVs to protect the environment. Using ROVs is a safer way to look underwater, especially inside nets, for problems that could affect the fish and nets. With the potential grown of ROV use in Chile and other countries with aquaculture industries, Aquabotix and its Chilean distributor TekChile, had an interested audience for showcasing various products from the Aquabotix line.
Outside the conference, separate events featured demonstrations of the ROVs from Aquabotix. These demonstrations greatly impressed those who saw substantial benefits over currently offered technology. The main advantages for farm operations of these products included the stability of the Endura and maneuverability. Thruster power was especially intriguing for the operators because it was unlike anything they'd seen. The Endura can be configured specifically for aquaculture with five standard thrusters, side thrusters, and a high output option. These attributes of Aquabotix's ROVs mean that these devices, and other ROVs like them, are predicted to not only be a perfect fit for the future of aquaculture but also a necessity as demand increases for fish and other water-grown products. Operators can use the extra thrusting power so the vehicle can be used in high currents compared to their current products.
The conference was a good time to illustrate the innovations represented by products such as the AquaLens Connect. Attendees at the conference discussed ways to reduce waste and cost, and underwater monitoring with the AquaLens Connect is a clear solution to these issues. The future of aquaculture will rely more on remote monitoring of nets and facilities as the industry expands. With remote monitoring, several sites can be watched at once, from a single screen, reducing the necessity for needing multiple people to watch several locations at once. The AquaLens Connect allows up to 32 cameras to be connected in a network for simultaneous viewing, and because the cameras are not static, a wider field of view is available to each camera. With pan and tilt of 120 degrees in each direction, a single camera can show a wide range of underwater space. When coupled with the unique abilities of an ROV, such as Endura's fish plow that removes dead fish, these devices make operations more profitable and safer for the employees and the fish.
The future of aquaculture is now, and ROVs and underwater cameras are on the forefront of the technology farm operators need to progress. By keeping up with the changing industry, and participating in exciting events like AquaSur 2016, Aquabotix will help our customers stay on the forefront of the evolving technical landscape.
Aquaculture and fisheries are a major source of the world’s protein production, and while fisheries are stagnating somewhat due to overconsumption, aquaculture production is growing at tremendous rates. As aquaculture facilities fill in the most desirable coastal locations, it is a certainty that future growth will take place in deeper water, where use of human labor will be more expensive and much more dangerous. One major job that will require significant automation in order to be economically practical is monitoring the aquaculture facility.
Aquaculture facilities require careful monitoring of a number of important parameters. The environment itself needs to be monitored for water quality, temperature, current, and so forth. Operators also need to be able to inspect hardware such as nets and cages, to count fish in particular enclosures, to locate dead fish, to check nutrient levels, to measure fish stress levels, and more. All of this information gathering is often done by human labor at onshore or shallow-water facilities, but that is impractical when the aquaculture facility is far offshore. Operators can’t hire from the local community when the local community is underwater – they have to use automated remote monitoring technology. Even in facilities where human labor is available, the cost and liability requirements of human workers will make automated remote monitoring a useful adjunct.
A number of different types of remote sensor can be used to monitor aquaculture operations, but one of the most generally useful instruments is also one of the simplest: a video camera. High-definition video cameras can capture a wide range of data both above the water and beneath the surface. Advances in robot vision, that is, the ability of computers to understand and utilize video feeds, mean that a huge number of video camera feeds can be interpreted by computerized systems. The aquaculture base can monitor types and numbers of fish in an area, examine nets and gates for damage, scan the bottom underneath fixed pens to check contamination levels, and even assess the weather pattern. AquaLens Connect, the underwater camera system from Aquabotix, has been built to withstand and excel in these challenging conditions. It features a full 1080p HD video with live view, push button recording, pan and tilt.
Aquaculture requires a great deal of management and assessment to be effective and profitable. Feed levels have to be continually adjusted to prevent excessive buildup of nutrients in the wastewater, fish populations have to be counted and their health checked, incursions from predators have to be seen to be mitigated, and physical infrastructure, always susceptible to storm damage, has to be kept in trim through regular inspection and maintenance. All of these tasks require that the aquaculture operator be aware of the condition of the facility. Stationary video cameras, as well as ROV-based roving cameras, provide a cost-effective means of achieving this goal.
Global warming has the potential to have major impacts on aquaculture. Over the past century, global warming (both human-caused and deriving from natural cycles) has increased the average global air temperature by around 1 degree Fahrenheit, 0.6 degrees Celsius. The world’s oceans, which have a vastly greater thermal mass than the atmosphere, have changed by only 0.18 degrees Fahrenheit (0.1 degree Celsius), with nearly all of that warming occurring in the surface layers. Even this relatively small change is enough to have major impacts on human food production in the ocean.
One significant impact from global warming is likely to be the reduction in the growth rate of krill. Krill are a family of tiny crustacean species that live in all of the world’s oceans and are the foundation of the aquatic food chain. Krill feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton, and are in turn consumed by fish and other aquatic animals in enormous quantities. Krill are fished commercially and used as a feedstock for aquaculture operations. As ocean temperatures rise, the reproductive rate of krill has been shown to decline significantly. This will make food stocks for aquaculture more expensive.
A major fraction of aquaculture is conducted in areas immediately offshore and in riparian (river) environments. Rising ocean temperatures may disrupt these operations by altering the sea level, changing coastlines and impacting river systems. Rising ocean temperatures alter the sea level in two ways – first, by causing increased melt rates at the polar ice caps, and also because of the fact that warmer water expands and takes up a larger volume. Even very small increases in temperature can have measurable impact on sea level. In riparian aquaculture, increased incursions of salt water can reduce yield or make operations untenable. Changes in water salinity also has enormous impacts on the presence and prevalence of species, which can throw aquaculture operations into chaos.
Further offshore, higher ocean temperatures are likely to cause stronger and more frequent storms. This is problematic for deep-water aquaculture operations, requiring a more robust infrastructure and increasing costs from storm damage. Warmer temperatures can also cause instability in marine ecosystems, as invasive species enter areas that were formerly too cold for them. This can cause issues for aquaculture operations that were predicated on a particular local ecosystem. Inshore operations are not immune to this change; many aquaculture operations rely on the monsoon season and it is expected that changing water temperatures will tend to disrupt this major weather pattern.
A significant portion of global aquaculture comes from the cultivation of mollusks. Mollusks as a group tend to be very temperature sensitive, and as waters warm, mollusk-growing operations will need to move to colder waters in order to maintain yield. When that is not possible, that portion of the aquaculture system could cease to function.
One major, albeit indirect, disruption could come from changing availability of freshwater inshore. Ecologists anticipate that global warming will cause reductions in the availability of freshwater, particularly in Africa and Asia, and as a result of this water stress, water for aquaculture development may simply not be available.
Unfortunately, it seems likely that future water temperature increases will have an increasing impact on the development of new aquaculture projects. Currently, the majority of world aquaculture is in the tropics, and although those areas are still growing strongly, new development is likely to center around the temperate zones of our planet. Increases in ocean temperature is expected to be significantly higher in the colder northern and southern waters than in the equatorial zone. That means that new aquaculture projects, for example off the eastern seaboard of the United States, are likely to be severely impacted by water temperature changes.
Fish farming in the ocean and off the coasts has become an enormous business. Declining wild fisheries and an insatiable (and growing) global appetite for fish have created tremendous opportunities for the development of oceanic aquaculture. Local cultures have conducted aquaculture (generally in lakes and river systems, rather than the ocean) for thousands of years, but modern aquaculture has become a globally important food source. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about half of the world’s food fish come from aquaculture, and the sector continues to grow at an astonishing rate – five to six percent annual increases in production are the norm. Total aquaculture production is over 80 million tons per year of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic plants.
There are two basic types of oceanic fish farming. Coastal farming involves shallow-water farms located on the coast, along rivers, or in lakes. Open ocean farming involves deep-water farms that are not tied to a specific coastal location. There are important differences in these two approaches to oceanic aquaculture.
Coastal fish farming is the predominant form of oceanic aquaculture today. In a coastal aquaculture facility, pens or fish cages are deployed along the coastline, often in a protected bay or inlet. Most crustacean and mollusk farming is done inshore, using racks on which the food animals are grown. Depending on the species being farmed, the nutrients for the farmed food animals might come from the water itself, from the provision of forage fish, or from the addition of nutrients into the water in soluble form.
There are advantages to farming fish along the coast. Because the facility is located near the shore, storms are attenuated by the proximity of the landmass, and both workers and shipping infrastructure are close at hand. Operators can bring in supplies and export product from the convenience of local railheads and ports. Because the water is generally shallow at the coastline, it is also possible for operators to use ranch-style techniques, building habitats on the sea bottom for desirable fish such as abalone, and then simply catching the fish in the normal fashion without needing to closely manage the population.
Coastal farms have a number of significant disadvantages as well. Coastal areas are subject to intense competition from other uses such as recreational activities, fisheries, ports, and renewable energy development. Fixed-site aquaculture also has fairly severe environmental impacts on the delicate coastal ecosystem. Fish farms produce large quantities of waste and excess nutrients, which settle onto a fixed location on the sea bottom. This can utterly disrupt or even extinguish the local benthic ecosystem, causing repercussions to fisheries and tourism. Disease among the fish stocks is also a major problem, and because coastal fish farms can be close to one another, a disease which decimates one population can spread to other operations, even crossing species barriers.
Offshore fish farming, or deep-ocean aquaculture, cuts the ties to the shore, although not to the sea bottom. Generally, an offshore facility is tethered to the bottom and anchored to buoys, so that cages can move up and down in the water column but are still at a fixed location in the ocean. An offshore aquaculture can be sited almost anywhere, and does not have to compete with pleasure boating or fishing fleets. In addition, the much greater area (and stronger currents) available for dispersal of waste products and excess nutrients means that the environmental impact is significantly reduced or eliminated. Disease transmission is less problematic, and experimental offshore aquaculture operations have found that parasitic infestations are much more easily managed in the relative isolation of an offshore facility. Offshore locations are also more able to coexist with other uses of the same area of the ocean; since the cages can be moved deeper into the water than is possible in a coastal area, other uses such as boating can be accommodated.
Offshore aquaculture has its own set of problems, however. The expense of building cages that can withstand the storms and currents of the open ocean is considerable. Because the environmental conditions are more rigorous in the open sea, fish escapes are more likely to occur, which has ramifications both in terms of cost and in the potential for the introduction of invasive species to ecologically vulnerable areas of ocean. In addition, the laws and regulatory environments that apply close to shore (within the three-mile limit, for example) become more complex further out to sea; for this reason, off-shore aquaculture in the United States has primarily developed only in areas of the ocean that are unambiguously under Federal jurisdiction so that operators can have a predictable legal environment in which to do business.
Despite the potential issues and problems that arise in both coastal and offshore aquaculture, it is a certainty that these areas of economic activity will continue to grow and expand. Fish are a vital part of the global food infrastructure and aquaculture is rapidly becoming the dominant way in which this sector produces its output.
Thank you to Aquaculture North America for the coverage of the HydroView pro 7M/AQ in the Jan/Feb 2016 edition. The HydroView Pro 7M/AQ is configured specifically to address the needs of aquaculture applications and includes options most requested by fish farm operators.
To learn more about Aquaculture North America, visit their website at www.aquaculturenorthamerica.com.