Farmed halibut

The demise in June of a major halibut-farming venture in the Shetland Islands leaves just two players in the region, yet both remain optimistic about the future of this species. Scotland is expected to produce around 200 metric tons of halibut this year.

Halibut farming in Norway has fared rather better, with three large companies in production and several smaller operators growing halibut in a cage or two alongside salmon.

Marine Harvest is the largest producer, with Aga Halibut and Nordic Seafarms also making their mark on the industry. A Marine Harvest spokesperson said the company’s goal is to harvest 1,000 metric tons of halibut annually by 2013, although current production is around half that figure.

In Iceland, Fiskey is the only juvenile producer, and managing director Arnar Jónsson explained that his production varies between 400,000 and 700,000 fish per year, the vast majority of which is exported to Norway and Scotland. There is also a small grow-out unit in Iceland.

All the companies agree that the industry still faces major challenges, not the least of which is the 3:1 ratio of male to female juveniles. Females grow to a marketable 4 to 5 kilograms in four to five years, while male fish consume the same amount of feed but only grow to half the size.

“Male growth slows considerably when they mature at around three years and 3 kilograms, making them a more expensive proposition to grow,” explained Alastair Barge, managing director of Otter Ferry Seafish in Scotland.

Otter Ferry operates a hatchery on the mainland and a tank growing unit on the Isle of Gigha, selling market size fish to high-end restaurants in the United Kingdom and through CleanFish in the United States. Alastair’s fish are fed on an organic diet, although cannot be sold as certified fish as there are currently no accredited organic standards for halibut.

"Research is ongoing into the male-female ratio problem and into issues related to first feeding of juveniles, and we are confident of eventual success," he explained.

Stuart Cannon, managing director of Kames Fish Farming in Argyll, Scotland, recently began importing juveniles from Canada, where hatchery techniques are advanced in terms of producing more female fish.

"Scotian Halibut now produces neo-males, which are phenotypic males with female genotype, and these result in a far higher proportion of female offspring," he said.

Production of all female fish remains the Holy Grail among Europe's halibut aquaculture industry, but the timeframe is a major drawback.

"Each time we produce a batch of neo-males we have to wait several years to see if our experiments have worked and the improvement in male-female ratio has been achieved," said Arnar Jónsson.

Halibut is currently achieving a farm-gate price of around GBP 8 per kilogram (USD 13.04, EUR 9.34) in the United Kingdom and CAD 8.50 (USD 7.45, EUR 5.33) in Canada, but this does not leave much room for margins. According to Cannon, each juvenile costs him GBP 7.50 (USD 12.22, EUR 8.74) to put in the water, and then needs an additional four years' worth of feed before it reaches marketable size.

"When you add the inevitable mortalities into the picture, the economics look pretty difficult unless one can scale up production," he said.  

Marine Harvest has developed strong branding for its "Sterling White Halibut" and has Norway's only dedicated processing unit for this species. It is exported to Europe and Asia, and to the United States in the winter. The popularity of Norwegian halibut has increased considerably since being recognized at the prestigious Bocuse d'Or competition in 2007.

Halibut farming is still a relatively young industry, with the first juveniles reared in Europe in the mid-1980s.  Considerable problems have since been addressed in terms of nutrition, pigmentation, metamorphosis and habitat, and the public does not view farmed halibut in the suspicious terms it reserves for farmed salmon.

It cannot be long before European hatcheries emulate the success of their Canadian counterparts in improving the sex ratio, and when they do, the industry seems set to take off. Recent research shows European demand for halibut at around 3,000 metric tons per year, leaving plenty of room for growth.

Richard Slaski of the British Marine Finfish Association cited finance as another major hurdle to halibut aquaculture's success.

"Banks don't like fish that take four to five years to grow and still fail to embrace aquaculture wholeheartedly, so our plea to them is to have confidence in the future, because we do," he said.

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