Cermaq begins stocking iFarm, initiating groundbreaking five-year project
The first smolt have been placed into Cermaq’s revolutionary iFarm project, a state-of-the-art approach to commercial salmon farming that relies heavily on technological innovation its approach to nutrition, animal health and welfare, and harvesting.
Oslo, Norway-based Cermaq, which is owned by the Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi, has invested NOK 580 million (USD 64.7 million, EUR 58.3 million) in the iFarm concept, including the implementation of custom artificial intelligence and machine learning processes designed by Fornebu, Norway-based BioSort and bespoke cage design by Trondheim, Norway-based ScaleAQ.
In December 2019, Cermaq was awarded four development licenses for its iFarm project, which gave the company permits to operate the trial and to grow an additional 3,000 metric tons of salmon in its other operative farms to offset the costs of the project. The company has been preparing its Martnesvika site in Steigen, Nordland County, in northern Norway, since January. Cermaq has given the iFarm project a five-year timeline to prove its “individualized approach” to salmon farming can actually work. If all goes to plan, Cermaq will be able to use image recognition to identify individual salmon, allowing the company to track each fish’s growth and medical treatment while minimizing the need for human handling.
“This is a very exciting and important phase in the project; now we will see how the fish behave in the actual iFarm environment, and whether our modelling and predicted outcomes for behavior are accurate,” Cermaq iFarm Project Manager Karl Fredrik Ottem said in a press release. “We have a very close and good partnership with both BioSort and ScaleAQ, and so far, we are on schedule. For us at Cermaq, especially those of us working within the project team, it is incredibly exciting that we now have come to the milestone where fish has been transferred and we are all looking forward to the exiting trial ahead once the sensors have been installed.”
Both the technology and the hardware being used in the project is novel for marine aquaculture, according to Cermaq. BioSort’s technology can measure weight and weight development; identify wounds and illness earlier than any other method currently in commercial use; find and count sea lice on the whole fish, including early stages of lice; sort out fish for individualized treatment; compile a detailed health and treatment record for each fish; and generate custom reports that can result knowledge-based management decisions.
For Cermaq Chief Operating Officer Knut Ellekjær, the iFarm holds massive potential for dealing with the scourge of sea lice, which costs the salmon aquaculture millions of dollars annually and which negatively affect the well-being of the fish during their lives, he told SeafoodSource at the project launch in 2017, when he was serving as general manager of Cermaq Norway.
“We know that sea lice are very unevenly distributed amongst the fish, and this system enables us to avoid mass lice treatments,” Ellekjær said. “Similarly, we can sort salmon on the basis of weight and remove only those fish ready for harvest, without stressing the others.”
The hardware being used in the project is equally innovative. There are currently two slightly different iterations of the iFarm design, each designed to hold 150,000 fish and both using ScaleAQ’s Midgard System, including a floating collar, winch and Midgard net, designed through several years of trials at farms operated by Cermaq rivals Lerøy, Mowi, and Salmar. In addition, ScaleAQ has created a net cover, roof, and tube system that will force the fish inside to swim lower in the pen, where sea lice are less prevalent. When the salmon rise to the surface to fill their swim bladders, they are guided through a portal into a chamber where a sensor scans the fish, recognizes it based on its specific fish markings and structure, records the data it collects, and if necessary, sorts it for treatment or harvesting.
The equipment for the pens was delivered early this summer and installed on site, according to Cermaq. A prototype of the sensor itself will not be in place until November, allowing the fish to become used to their new environment over the coming eight weeks, according to Ottem.
“Until then, we will spend time observing the fish's behavior in the cage, how they move and how they eat, so that we can make any adjustments before we install the sensor. In addition, this time will allow us to develop and implement good operating practices as this is a new farm installation and we know we will need to adapt our practices,” Ottem said.
The learning will continue after the sensor is put in place and the system is tested at full capacity. A second stocking of fish is planned for 2021, with subsequent rounds of farming to continue through 2025, each with the goal of optimizing the iFarm’s design and processes. While still years away from knowing whether the iFarm concept will work as hoped, Cermaq has said that if the development of iFarm is successful, it will be possible to use it on both existing and new aquaculture sites along the coast.
“Cermaq recognizes that we are in the very early stages of the project and that it is a very complex system which will require sophisticated interaction between farming equipment, machine vision, and fish behavior in full scale. Here, advanced underwater technology will be developed, and it will work in close interaction with the fish,” the company said. “Cermaq’s strategy is to strengthen fish farming in coastal areas in order to utilize the natural advantages for production of sustainable food in the ocean. The future of Norwegian farming depends on the success of achieving the combination of sustainable and cost-effective production.”
For Ottem, who has already spent years intensely focused on the project, the pioneering technology would “represent a leap forward for our ability to secure fish welfare, and for performance and overall farming practices,” if it works as expected.
“What we are trying to achieve with iFarm is to develop a technology that, in the long-term, can lead to better fish health and welfare and help strengthen the competitiveness of coastal farming,” Ottem said. “We have high expectations that the health and welfare of the salmon can be improved with iFarm, if we succeed.”
Photo courtesy of Cermaq