USA: Americans consume more than four billion pounds of seafood each year, but chances are the fish on your plate was not reeled in from a rushing river or the open sea. More than likely your main course spent at least part of its life in some type of tank, cage, or pond.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 90 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported from overseas, and about half of those imports are produced by aquaculture: the breeding, raising, and harvesting of animals in ponds, rivers, lakes, and oceans. With traditional fisheries reaching their upper limits and worldwide demand for fish and shellfish on the rise, aquaculture is key to future seafood supply.
Compared to the rest of the world, commercial aquaculture production in the United States is small scale, says Ed Aneshansley, of Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems (Pentair AES), a leading company in aquaculture system design and product manufacturing. But the aquaculture industry here is growing, developing alongside an urban farming model where raising produce and fish close to niche markets in larger cities means fresher products. Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are an attractive option for urban farms because of their minimal space and water requirements.
However, they also are some of the most complex aquaculture systems to design and operate, notes Aneshansley, Engineering Manager for Pentair AES. Yet RAS development is fragmented across the aquaculture industry.
“No one in the United States or abroad has consolidated all of these industry resources -- from design, equipment, and system delivery -- and put them all under one roof,” Aneshansley says.
Pentair AES is redefining RAS development by providing customers with an all-inclusive, collaborative approach for everything from site selection and system design services to equipment purchase, installation supervision, and follow-up support. The company’s manufacturing background sets it apart from competitors, says KC Hosler, Project Delivery Manager at Pentair AES.
“One of the benefits of our approach to recirculating aquaculture systems is that we are also the equipment manufacturer, so we can provide better support,” he explains. “Our designs integrate the equipment very well, and we also control the supply chain for that equipment so we can meet aggressive timelines for their delivery.”
That’s been the experience for Urban Organics, a company that is developing a commercial-scale aquaponics farm in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Aquaponics” is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, a method of growing plants in mineral nutrient solutions and water instead of soil The waste produced by fish in an RAS supplies nutrients for the plants in a hydroponics system, which in turn purifies the water that is recirculated back to the aquaculture system.
“Pentair has been central to our process,” says Eric Pederson, CEO of Urban Organics Pentair Group, a collaboration between the two companies established to accelerate the development of commercial aquaponics. “They’ve helped us by providing design, equipment procurement, and services for both the aquaculture and hydroponics parts of the system.”
Urban Organics set up shop in a vacant brewery on the east side of St. Paul last year. The first commercial harvest is scheduled for the early months of 2017, and the company expects the farm will bear half a million pounds of leafy greens, culinary herbs, and other organic produce each year. The aquaculture portion of the facility is slated to raise 275,000 pounds of Arctic Char annually, with the first harvest expected in late 2017. “We’ll be able to supply local grocery stores and restaurants and other food retailers with locally produced, 100% traceable and -- in the case of the produce -- organically certified food items,” Pedersen explains. “This improves the quality, consistency, and environmental sustainability of the food production.” But marrying a land-based RAS to an indoor hydroponics system and moving them into a fixer-upper created some unique challenges.
“It’s not as though we were able to go and say, ‘We want that,’ and point to some other facility that’s already been designed and built,” Pedersen says. “In many ways we really had to start from a blank piece of paper and come up with a system that met the criteria that we had developed based on the market realities in the St. Paul area.” This type of customer collaboration is essential to Pentair AES’ design philosophy and project delivery strategy, Hosler says. The company’s process consists of three stages: design, supply, and support services. The design stage begins by assessing a potential customer’s level of
knowledge about aquaculture, and then determining where they are in the development of their project, explains Marc Turano, global sales manager for Pentair AES.
For those with just an idea and a dream, Pentair AES will guide them to an outside consulting firm to assist with a feasibility study and make recommendations on areas that need additional research before they move ahead, Turano says.
For customers with more of a plan -- such as an existing site, permits, an idea of what they want to produce, as well as how much and how often -- Pentair AES works with them to develop a budget and scope for what it will take to build an RAS and grow the product at the desired rate and scale.
Customers must also do their due diligence. “We want to make sure they have a solid business plan, understand the market associated with aquaculture, have an idea of the potential cost and their potential revenue,” Aneshansley says. “It’s very much a partnership that starts in the early phases,” adds Turano. “We want to thoroughly engage them in a collaborative design process.”
The result is a set of construction specifications that detail a system’s components, how they relate and work with one another, and any additional integration and coordination information, such as how the system will fit inside a specific building.
When a project is ready to begin construction, it enters the supply phase. Pentair AES provides customers with specialty equipment and assists with logistics. “Again, one of the benefits we provide is that we manufacture a lot of that equipment ourselves,” Hosler says, “That helps keep the customer on target with schedule, budget, and quality.”
For the few specialty products Pentair AES does not manufacture, the company has solid relationships with industry partners. “We can manage the flow of that product to the customer as a single point of contact,” Hosler explains.
Once a project enters the support phase of construction, Pentair AES provides a suite of engineering and technical services to make sure a customer’s RAS is built, installed, and running properly. At certain milestones Pentair AES engineers are on site to ensure the company’s quality expectations are being met. The engineers will oversee things like hydrostatic testing of the plumbing, and check that the quality of a concrete pour is suitable.
“We’re there on behalf of the customer to help ensure that the project is executed with quality,” Hosler says. To help the customer feel comfortable taking the reins of their new system, Pentair AES trains the operators and maintenance staff on all aspects of operating the facility. “These support services are really part of our design expertise,” Hosler says. “Our engineers are involved early in the process in designing and developing specifications, and they’re involved throughout to make sure that that project is executed successfully.”
Pederson, of the Urban Organics project, concurs. “Pentair AES has been a fantastic partner in helping us to work through the many challenges we’ve encountered creating a unique and new facility,” he says.
Along with bringing higher quality food to St. Paul, Urban Organics wants to spur economic activity and job growth. The demand is there, Pedersen says, noting that he receives regular inquiries from the community asking when products will be available. The company has already hired staff in anticipation of the facility’s 2017 launch, and expects to continue hiring throughout the year as production capacity increases. The company is also developing an expansion strategy that would target other markets across the country.
“Our plan is to use existing buildings in urban areas where we can come in and retrofit the building and create jobs on the construction side, and then also create permanent jobs in the aquaculture and aquaponics side of our business,” Pedersen explains.
The future facilities will each face their own technical and design challenges, depending on their various locations and market demands. But Pedersen is confident in Pentair AES’ process and delivery strategy as expansion moves forward. “Pentair has been incredibly supportive in terms of providing hands on training and consulting, not only in the construction and services of the facility, but also with developing business plans and go-to- market strategies,” he says. “I expect they will continue to be heavily involved as we launch the business and refine it down the road.”
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RAS and Aquaculture Worldwide Aquaculture is big business abroad, but the major players use recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) differently than the United States. Instead of the urban farm model, aquaculture powerhouses like Chile and Norway use RAS to support fish farming in offshore sea cages anchored in natural waterways. Fry and fingerlings that start out in RAS are typically larger and more disease resistant when placed into sea cages. And bigger, healthier fish mean more product goes to market. Sea cage aquaculture is not popular in the United States, largely due to the lack of rural coastline necessary for such large-scale operations.