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Innovation in the Norwegian aquaculture industry

Innovation in the Norwegian aquaculture industry

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The escalating intricacy of the aquaculture sector is a subject of noteworthy concern, with a notable emphasis on the observation that the majority of innovations are initiated by suppliers rather than the aquaculture producers themselves.

The world aquaculture sector has experienced significant growth in recent decades, with a global production increase from 2.6 million metric tons in 1970 to 87.5 million metric tons in 2020. This growth has occurred both at the extensive margin, with production expanding to new countries and species, and at the intensive margin, with the adoption of new knowledge and technologies resulting in more intensive production practices.

The main drivers of this growth are innovations, including the transfer and adoption of knowledge from agriculture, which have led to increased productivity and reduced production costs.

Research has examined the phenomenon of productivity increase and technical inefficiency across different species in the field of aquaculture. A growing body of literature has emerged that focuses on the identification of innovators and adopters of new technologies within this domain.

Innovation in the Norwegian aquaculture industry

However, there has been a lack of efforts to conduct a comprehensive assessment of significant advancements in aquaculture across many species over an extended period. The significance of this matter lies in the necessity of ongoing advancements for ensuring the sustained and environmentally responsible expansion of aquaculture production and the promotion of heightened seafood consumption.

This research aims to elucidate the innovation processes related to important technologies in salmon aquaculture by presenting a comprehensive assessment of the primary innovations in Norwegian aquaculture since 1970.

Salmon is considered one of the most successful species in aquaculture in terms of its growth in production, with its growth rate surpassing the overall growth rate of aquaculture and holding the second highest value globally, following shrimp.

The Norwegian salmon industry serves as a significant contributor not only to salmon aquaculture but also to the broader field of aquaculture worldwide due to the transfer and application of knowledge and technology from the salmon industry to other species.

The Norwegian salmon aquaculture industry

The aquaculture industry of Norwegian salmon begins with the spawning of salmon in rivers and lakes across the northern Atlantic region during the late fall season. The salmon species spends its initial developmental phase within freshwater habitats, undergoes a physiological transformation called smoltification, and migrates towards the ocean during periods of increased water flow in the spring.

The industry’s focus has shifted towards global markets, resulting in the exportation of over 95% of its production to more than 100 countries.

The aquaculture industry in Norway has experienced significant growth since 1985, with an average annual growth rate of 12.5% from 1985 to 2020. However, this growth rate fell to 4.1% from 2010 to 2020 due to increased output levels.

The price and cost development can be attributed to factors such as productivity and demand growth. Until 2000, the growth in productivity surpassed the growth in demand due to a significant decline in prices, which persuaded a larger number of consumers to purchase salmon (Figure 1).

Innovation in the Norwegian aquaculture industry

After 2000, there was a sustained growth in production, accompanied by a stabilization of both price and unit cost, suggesting the development of a more mature industry. However, there are evidence of significant price fluctuations, indicative of typical commodity price cycles.

A third phase commenced around 2010, characterized by limited access to new production sites due to environmental considerations, resulting in higher prices as production expansion is indirectly constrained not only in Norway but also in other salmon-producing nations facing similar challenges.

Innovations across the value chain in the Norwegian aquaculture industry

The Norwegian aquaculture industry has often experienced advantageous outcomes in terms of innovation and technology adoption through interactive learning processes, involving various actors such as aquaculture firms, suppliers engaged in breeding, feed production, vaccination, technical equipment provision, and research institutions.

The distinctive feature of salmon farming is the grow-out phase, which takes place after the fish are transferred to saltwater. The initial implementation of salmon pens in Norway can be traced back to 1970, when Ove and Sivert Grøntvedt deployed the first successful pen off the island of Hitra.

The progressive modifications in the prevailing technology used for salmon production since the establishment of the industry include the introduction of feeding barges, more advanced tools for fish feeding and monitoring pen activity, and integrated steel platforms.

Innovation in the Norwegian aquaculture industry

In the early 2000s, big plastic rings started being employed as floaters, but this trend is currently undergoing changes due to the emergence of offshore buildings.

Aquaculture faces numerous challenges, including increased production costs and environmental externalities. Small-scale agricultural establishments often operate in areas with substandard water quality and inadequate oxygenation, leading to relocation of farms to more exposed regions.

In recent times, the need to mitigate salmon lice has led to the relocation of farms to offshore locations.

Farming technology

Sea pens are closely associated with key concerns in the aquaculture industry, as they can result in environmental externalities. Salmon escapes are a significant threat to wild fish populations, and efforts to prevent escape incidents have gained momentum in the 2000s.

The Norwegian Aquaculture Escapes Commission (AEC) implemented the Norwegian technical standard NS9415 in 2004, leading to design standards for feed barges, floaters, net cages, and mooring systems.

“To tackle these issues, advancements in fish farm technology are being made in various directions, such as offshore farming, semi-enclosed sea pens, and land-based recycling aquaculture systems (RAS). For example, SalMar introduced the Ocean Farm 1 concept in 2017, which is equipped with 20,000 sensors to facilitate monitoring and feeding processes with a maximum capacity of 1.5 million Atlantic salmon.”

The growth of the aquaculture sector has led to significant changes in the industrial structure through organizational innovations. Specialized equipment such as fishnets and technology and service providers have emerged, with companies like Akva Group, Scale AQ, and Fiizk playing a significant role in advancing farming technology and production methods through collaborative efforts with fish farmers and researchers.

A growing proportion of the production process is being conducted on land, driven by enhancing production within existing licenses and circumventing the need for licenses altogether. This shift also affords greater control over the production process.

Juvenile production

Juvenile salmon generation involves hatching eggs to yield initial fingerlings or fry, which are nurtured and developed into smolt. The process of juvenile salmon generation entails hatching eggs to yield initial fingerlings or fry, which are subsequently housed within enclosures situated in freshwater lakes.

Over time, the efficiency of equipment in juvenile production has improved, resulting in increased speed and capacity to handle larger volumes. The use of artificial light has also been introduced to expedite the smoltification process, allowing for year-round production of smolts. This has led to reduced physical strain on employees and improved care in fish handling.

The size of smolts has remained consistent, ranging from 80 to 100 g, with breeding efforts prioritizing sea pens over land-based smolt production due to higher capital requirements. However, challenges associated with acquiring additional licenses have affected smolt output, leading companies to strategically shift production to land to optimize license utilization and mitigate salmon lice effects.

Smolt producers have also made significant contributions to the salmon industry by using innovative practices during the smolt production stage, resulting in decreased costs during the grow-out phase. The rise in production expenses is a conscious choice to produce larger smolts.

Fish health

The health of fish is a significant concern in the salmon industry, as it is susceptible to diseases due to the dense concentration of biomass within a confined space. In the mid-1980s, the sector faced elevated mortality rates caused by infectious bacterial and viral infections such as cold water vibriosis, furunculosis, infectious salmon anaemia (ISA), and pancreatic necrosis (IPN).

The use of antibiotics in the industry has led to environmental pollution issues at the local level. Fish-veterinary medicine emerged, contributing to the advancement of hygienic and handling practices. Oil-based vaccines were introduced in the late 1980s, leading to a significant reduction in antibiotic consumption in the early 1990s.

Pacific salmon lice infections have also been a significant challenge in the aquaculture sector. Strategies such as chemical treatments, feed additives, and cleaner fish have been employed to combat these issues. However, effective prevention measures still pose a challenge.

Innovation in the Norwegian aquaculture industry

In 2017, a novel vaccine targeting IPN was introduced, while a DNA-based vaccine designed to provide immunization against ISA received initial approval for implementation in Norway. The sector is currently exploring alternative options like dip vaccines and nanoparticles to foster innovation.

In conclusion, advancements in fish health have facilitated the maintenance of robust and high-quality fish populations while ensuring economic viability. However, the significance of diseases as the primary obstacle to the advancement of aquaculture on a global scale remains uncertain.

Breeding and genetics

Systematic breeding programs aim to selectively enhance specific features within a population, increasing the organism’s productivity for a particular goal. This technique has been crucial in terrestrial agriculture as it facilitates accelerated growth and enhanced size of both animals and plants while enabling them to effectively acclimate to certain environmental conditions.

The development of a systematic breeding program for salmon was a significant milestone in the field of aquatic species, dating back to the early 1970s. Professor Harald Skjervold is recognized as a trailblazer in salmon breeding, applying principles and methodologies derived from cattle breeding.

“In 1971, AKVAFORSK, a publicly supported organization, initiated a systematic breeding program by procuring fertilized eggs from 40 Norwegian rivers to acquire a diverse genetic foundation. Four generations, each with a four-year growth cycle, were established to supply breeding stock to the agricultural sector.”

The primary objective of the breeding program initially focused on enhancing fish growth, which has proven highly successful in promoting accelerated growth.

Over time, both publicly funded and private breeding companies have made significant advancements in fish and shellfish breeding systems on a global scale. Private companies have increasingly taken the lead in these programs, resulting in various benefits such as enhanced growth rates, reduced production time, delayed sexual maturation in salmon, improved feed utilization, decreased mortality rates, and enhanced fillet quality.


The fish-feed segment has witnessed crucial innovations, with the initial feeds consisting of around 80% fishmeal and fish oil, combined with wheat to form a cohesive mixture and astaxanthin to achieve desired coloration of salmon flesh. One of the initial environmental challenges faced by the industry was the issue of uneaten feed sinking through the cages and accumulating nutrients beneath them.

By altering the physical makeup of the pellets, the industry successfully developed a type of feed that sinks at a slower rate, resulting in a substantial reduction in pollution levels and an improvement in the feed conversion ratio.

“The salmon aquaculture industry has faced both economic and environmental concerns due to its reliance on marine materials. The use of fishmeal in aquafeed has led to increased costs and increased fishing pressure, while environmental concerns have been raised about the potential consequences of increased demand for fishmeal.”

However, advancements in nutritional knowledge have allowed for the substitution of marine ingredients with plant-based alternatives, making up only 25% of the average salmon feed.

Nutritional research has led to the development of pre-rigor filleting techniques, which involve slaughtering and filleting fish before they reach a stiffness condition, significantly decreasing the time required for the fish to reach the market. Just-in-time logistic chains have also been developed to transport fish more efficiently.

To ensure animal welfare, anesthesia is necessary for salmon before euthanasia, which can cause stress in the fish. In 2010, CO2 was prohibited due to concerns about fish wellbeing. Alternative methods of anesthesia, such as electrical currents and physical impact, have emerged, and the salmon harvesting and processing industry has seen a shift towards automation and robotics.

Primary fish processing

The size of harvested plants has increased, leading to a greater spatial separation between entities involved. This has resulted in the emergence of a distinct sector known as well-boats, which specialize in transportation of farmed salmon from the aquaculture facility to the processing facility.

Recently, vessels equipped with on-board slaughtering facilities have been introduced to expedite the process and minimize land-based capital investments.

Currently, well boats are used for lice treatment near the cage, equipped with compartments or containers that facilitate the circulation of fresh seawater. The evolution of well boats and associated technologies has closely paralleled the growth and progress of the Norwegian aquaculture industry.

In conclusion, the salmon aquaculture industry has faced challenges in terms of cost, sustainability, and animal welfare. Advancements in nutritional knowledge, the use of prerigor filleting techniques, and the use of well boats have contributed to the industry’s growth and success.

Discussion and conclusions

The Norwegian salmon industry has experienced a dynamic process of innovations that have enhanced productivity and increased control with the production process. This has been largely conducted by new supplier industries, where specialized suppliers identified the growing industry as a market, leading to innovations providing better inputs at lower costs.

Today, there are specialized suppliers for a wide range of equipment, sensors, control systems, and services such as veterinary tests, net cleaning, and research.

The size of everything in salmon aquaculture has increased, suggesting that innovations are important for creating and allowing economies of scale to be exploited. Innovations have generally been scale-biased or scale-increasing, and through the value chain from smolt production via sea transportation and grow-out farming to private processing, the optimal economic scale has increased.

Public incentives and the regulatory system are facilitating these innovations. Innovations in open and closed production systems allow for several new value chain configurations, which can reduce firms’ internal production costs and external costs of environmental emissions, diseases, and salmon lice (Figure 3).

Innovation in the Norwegian aquaculture industry

As of now, no-one knows what production concepts will be used in salmon farming in the future, but it is highly interesting that the basic production technology, open sea pens, is being challenged, and all new concepts increase the control with the production process and the potential for further innovation.

The innovation system that has helped create the salmon industry has been rapidly growing, consisting of aquaculture companies, suppliers, research institutes, and universities. In 2015, the total funding for the salmon industry was US$ 211.24 million.

Innovations in the supply chain are equally important for the competitiveness of any industry, including logistics, product development, and perceptions of the species.

This is a summarized version developed by the editorial team of Aquaculture Magazine based on the review article titled “INNOVATION IN THE NORWEGIAN AQUACULTURE INDUSTRY” developed by: AFEWERKI, S.- SINTEF Ocean, Norway, ASCHE, F.-University of Florida, USA, and University of Stavanger, Norway, MISUND, B.- University of Stavanger Business School, Norway, THORVALDSEN, T.- SINTEF Ocean, Norway, and TVETERAS, R.- University of Stavanger Business School, Stavanger, Norway.
The original article was published, including tables and figures, on MARCH, 2023, through REVIEWS IN AQUACULTURE.
The full version can be accessed online through this link: 10.1111/raq.12755

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