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The Promising Future of Offshore Fish Farming

It’s estimated that by 2050, global population growth will require 60% more sustainably produced food. At the same time, the impacts of climate change will be felt across all agricultural sectors.

In this context, aquaculture – also called fish farming – could rise as one of the most efficient forms of food production on the planet. Already, it’s one of the fastest-growing food production sectors, and its further expansion could help ease pressure on wild fish stocks.

Scaling up around the world

In the near future, we could see several large-scale fish farms supported by automation and smart technology appearing offshore around the world. Spurred on by economic objectives, several countries, including Norway, USA, Canada, Chile and Scotland, are developing offshore aquaculture projects.  

Norway produces nearly 50% of global Atlantic salmon, and its government is taking further steps to develop offshore farming along its coastline. The USA plans to strengthen its domestic seafood market by establishing open-pen fish farms up to three miles offshore, notably in Alaska.

Meanwhile, China is already the world’s largest aquaculture industry. Its Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has announced its aim to increase the scale of offshore aquaculture to 600,000 metric tons in the next five years, up from 400,000 in 2023.

Fish farms move further offshore

Growing demand for fish production is driving the creation of new fish farm designs in deep waters. Offshore aquaculture is likely to emerge as a much larger part of world’s seafood industry in the coming years.

In some coastal areas, pollution and warming waters compromise their suitability for fish farm development. This pushes developers to seek sites further offshore, creating larger installations – supported by automation and smart technology – in deeper water. These areas tend to provide more favorable temperatures and oxygen levels for many species, leading to better quality fish.

These farms can also have environmental benefits. For one, in such a large body of water, nutrients from the farm are more easily dispersed. For another, the relatively low number of parasites in the offshore environment can reduce or even eliminate the need for pesticides and medications.

Assessing the impact of open seas

While offshore fish farming has some environmental benefits – with a negligible impact of nitrogen pollution from fish waste – it also has its own environmental concerns. The main issues affecting the industry are pollution, disease and fish escape.

Their main operational risks are inherent to the very dynamic open-water environment, from wind exposure and strong waves. Should a structure collapse or the anchoring break, tens of thousands of fish could escape, causing disruption throughout the ecosystem and seriously impacting the genetics of wild fish populations.

Fish farms need to be able to maintain operations in exposed locations all year round. Their operations must be robust, secure and predictable. Ensuring this means conducting careful analyses of the frequency and severity of structural fatigue from the open sea at the design stage. This is true of both large and small-scale projects, which can face operational risks from less developed industry, and fragmented and immature technology.

Now, operators are also looking into remote operations monitoring, decision support and autonomous systems to maintain production under all conditions with no personnel onboard. Beyond mitigating structural and stability risks, using smart technologies also helps assess reliability and security.

The regulation gap

Despite its size, there is relatively little regulation of the fish farming industry and most of it primarily concerns coastal aquaculture. National regulation only exists in a handful of countries, notably Scotland and Norway. The International Standards Organization (ISO) has also developed its own standard (ISO 16488:2015) relating to general requirements, environmental conditions and guidance on design analysis. 

Safety and reliability are essential for development in offshore fish farming. A set of regulations are therefore needed to help establish offshore farms globally and safeguard sustainable growth. 

Supporting innovation through classification

As part of a leading classification society, we at Bureau Veritas are keen to play an integral supporting role in developing technology, engineering and regulations for fish farms. We have amassed extensive experience in both the offshore and fishing industries. We leverage our knowledge of floating installations and offshore structures to support the offshore fish farming industry in achieving high standards of safety and performance.

Our dedicated NR 387 Rules for the classification of fish farms include requirements that cover: 

  • Floating structures
  • Equipment
  • Stability criteria
  • Machinery
  • Electrical power
  • Safety equipment

We study structural loads to assess a design’s ability to withstand extreme conditions in offshore locations. Our knowledge of fatigue-sensitive areas provides a valuable understanding of the potential stresses and fatigue cracking that could cause damage to the structure.

We also support clients with our experience in yarn and net systems. We are a member of the European association Eurocord, dedicated to the development of bio-based yarns for the manufacture of ropes and nets, as well as other R&D areas.

Future-proof fish farms

Having contributed significantly to the offshore energy industry, from Approvals in Principle to classification and certification, Bureau Veritas is well-placed to contribute to the future of offshore fish farming. Beyond structural and stability concerns, our Rules also tackle cyber security risk mitigation, and help asset owners integrate digital and smart functions that can transform their operations.

As the global population grows, we must consider how to meet its needs in an environmentally safe way. By supporting viable options such as offshore fish farming to scale up sustainably, we can help secure a vital protein source for people around the world.