Acuinor aims to farm fish in the driest place on earth

Published on
July 20, 2020

The north of Chile is home to the Atacama, the most arid desert on earth known for years of zero-rain conditions and some of the world’s largest copper mines. And if aquaculture firm Acuinor has its way, it will also be known for its farmed fish.

The Atacama Desert region stretches for nearly 1,600 kilometers along the narrow coast of the northern third of Chile, from near the country’s northernmost city of Arica south to the city of La Serena. Average rainfall is just 15 millimeters (0.6 inches) per year – the aridity is extreme due to a constant temperature inversion coming from the cool north-flowing Humboldt ocean current, and the presence of the strong Pacific anticyclone.

The fish farm Acuicola del Norte (“Aquaculture of the North,” Acuinor) is nestled in the middle of the Atacama Desert in the III Region, 20 kilometers from the city of Caldera, on the Pacific coast. It has implemented the Seriola Strategic Technological Program, to develop Seriola lalandi farming. Seriola - better known internationally as yellowtail, amberjack, or hiramasa – is a specialized species, highly sought-after in Asian markets and related cuisine for the quality of its white meat.

The farming program, launched in 2006, has been sponsored by the Chilean economic development agency, Corfo.

“Thanks to all the years of work invested in the knowledge of Seriola lalandi cultivation, Acuinor’s main achievements include establishing a stock of breeders with a genetic improvement plan, production of high-quality larvae and juveniles in a stable, continuous fashion and with high survival rates, on-land fattening for a production of 30 metric tons (MT) per year and two business areas created - export of live juvenile fish and sale of finished product,” Acuinor Commercial Manager Muriel Teixido told SeafoodSource. “Annual exports are around 250,000 juveniles and 16 tons of finished product.”

Acuinor's seriola is bred without the use of antibiotics or vaccines under sustainable aquaculture practices. Acuinor has FishChoice, Friend of the Sea, and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch backing for its fish, Teixido said.

The main markets for the export of live seriola juveniles include the Netherlands, Germany, and Mexico, while shipments have also been made to the United States, Denmark, and Dubai, Teixido added. Meanwhile, finished product is mainly sent to Italy, where “whole fresh seriola is exported to this country weekly and continuously throughout the year.”

Acuinor is now planning to increase its production. It is in the construction and implementation phase of the first on-land fattening center in the Atacama Desert, aiming for a continuous production model with weekly harvests throughout the year. The company is set to launch its recircating aquaculture system (RAS) for fattening the fish in Chile. According to Teixido, the cultivation of seriola from egg to five kilograms can take between 14 to 15 months in the controlled environment of the RAS. The goal is to harvest 1,000 kilograms a week of five-kilogram specimens, reaching a production of 200 MT a year.

The north of Chile is not known for fish production, while the main species farmed in the country is salmon – performed in the cold waters of the distant south.

However, raising seriola requires a much different process than salmon.

“Seriola is a species that lives in warmer waters than salmon, which is the main reason we installed the farm in the north of Chile,” Teixido said.

To date, the company has advanced its on-land reproduction and pre-fattening technologies. In Chile, harvests in RAS systems have only been implemented for freshwater species up to a maximum size of 200 grams. Therefore, the local development of this RAS project has implications on the national level, Teixido said.

“It can serve as a reference and be replicated in the rest of the marine fish species with the potential to generate sustainable economic activity in the country,” she said. “It is a unique, pioneering experience in Chile, it is the first marine fish culture in a recirculation system throughout the entire production cycle. In addition, we have closed the complete production cycle of this species in a recirculating water system with a controlled environment."

It is because of the possible economic implications that Corfo has taken interest in this project, according to Fernando Hentzschel, Corfo's manager of technological capabilities. Hentzschel said Corfo's involvement has two aims: the development of the local economy, and to create a blueprint for future similar projects in Chile.

“The production of seriola allows not only to install this new economic activity in the region, but also entail a virtuous chain of local suppliers required for its operation,” he said. “This will be the prelude to the installation of a new industry in the Atacama region and will require a series of local auxiliary services with the consequent production chain and generation of new jobs, which is what Corfo is ultimately pursuing.”

Second, Hentzchel said he is hopeful the project's success will cement Chile’s position as a global leader in aquaculture production.

“The technological developments are on the verge of the transfer phase to the respective producers of this species in onshore recirculation systems,” Hentzschel said. "The development of this species’ cultivation will strengthen Chile's position as an aquaculture powerhouse, diversifying its productive matrix towards other species and generating a positive impact in the central and northern regions of Chile.”

Photo courtesy of Acuinor

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