environment Sep 22, 2023

Raising fish on land: environmentally friendly aquaculture in Fukushima

Inland fish farming project provides a new solution to overfishing, food scarcity, and pollution

By Sage Farrer

Sustainability and aquaculture

J-STORIES – Japan is among the countries worldwide that are developing new approaches to inland aquaculture, which has been touted as a solution to the global problems of overfishing, ocean pollution and food security. 
Recently, the globe’s first-ever sockeye salmon farm was opened in Fukushima Pref., spearheading the industrialization of the seafood industry here with a different approach to aquaculture.
The revolutionary method employed at the plant ensures that, unlike other widely used aquaculture methods, no water is wasted. Known as the recirculating aquaculture system (RAS), it was developed by NTT East, an arm of a major telecommunications company, Okayama Science University, and a local Fukushima company, the supermarket chain Ichii. Compared to other forms of fish farming, the RAS is believed to be a more sustainable option.
The three organizations were brought together due to common concerns about the rapidly declining stocks of marine resources, which has been brought about by overfishing. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices lead to the loss of between 11 million and 26 million tons of fish each year, while 35.4 percent of global fish stocks are being harvested at unsustainable levels. For Japan, an island nation that consumes 10 percent of the global catch, this is an especially pressing issue.
With this in mind, NTT East began to look into developing an aquaculture technology that could not only provide a solution to food security issues, but would also be less harmful to the environment. 
Young sockeye salmon being reared  inside tanks at the RAS plant in Fukushima Prefecture.     Source: NTT East
Young sockeye salmon being reared inside tanks at the RAS plant in Fukushima Prefecture.     Source: NTT East
There are different methods of fish farming, the best-known of which are ocean-based. In terms of those conducted on land, the “free flow" method - where seawater or groundwater is pumped into tanks on land and the resulting wastewater drained away - is perhaps the most typical. The downside of both methods, however, is that they are polluting. 
With the RAS system, the same water is continually filtered and reused. “It’s very environmentally friendly,” says Tetsumi Ochi, a representative of NTT East. 

Technological breakthroughs and commercialization — from farm to table

This means RAS plants can be built practically anywhere that has running water, inland or not — theoretically even in a desert. 
The fact that RASs are completely disconnected from the ocean also means that the temperature in the plants can be closely regulated, which greatly diminishes the chance of the fish being exposed to parasites or diseases. It was this minutely controllable nature that allowed for the first-ever commercial farming of sockeye salmon, a species that is notoriously difficult to farm due to its high sensitivity to temperature changes, stress and disease. 
Farmed sockeye salmon grow faster to reach a size of about 50 cm and 1.2 kg.     NTT East
Farmed sockeye salmon grow faster to reach a size of about 50 cm and 1.2 kg.     NTT East
Interestingly, farmed salmon has been shown to mature faster than their wild-caught counterparts, reaching up to 1.2 kg in 18 months, which reach maturity in four years in the wild.  
This growth spurt was given a helping hand by a simple adaptation. Toshimasa Yamamoto, a researcher at  Okayama Science University, developed “ideal environment water,” an artificial saltwater with approximately one-third the salt concentration of seawater. Since saltwater fish spend most of their energy on adjusting the concentration of salt in their bodies, the farmed fish are able to repurpose that energy for physical growth. The accelerated growth compensates in the long term for the heavy production cost of RASs due to the advanced technology required, one of the largest barriers to maintaining such plants.
The RAS-farmed salmon was sold at supermarket Ichii in Fukushima for a three-day trial period this July. It appeared in various forms, from large filets to sushi, and even sandwiches. 
Filets of farmed sockeye salmon were among the variety of products that appeared on Fukushima Ichi shelves in July. Due to the prevalence of parasites and disease in wild salmon, salmon is only safe to eat uncooked when produced via aquaculture.     Source: NTT East
Filets of farmed sockeye salmon were among the variety of products that appeared on Fukushima Ichi shelves in July. Due to the prevalence of parasites and disease in wild salmon, salmon is only safe to eat uncooked when produced via aquaculture.     Source: NTT East
Varieties on sale including sushi.     Source: NTT East 
Varieties on sale including sushi.     Source: NTT East 
 Farmed salmon have a higher concentration of amino acids than their wild-caught counterparts.     Source: NTT East
 Farmed salmon have a higher concentration of amino acids than their wild-caught counterparts.     Source: NTT East

 Social and economic impact - and future considerations

The project’s successful outcome is highlighted by the benefits of this type of aquaculture beyond just environmental sustainability and production efficiency. Given that the temperature-controlled RAS plants do not face the seasonal constraints of some other onland farming methods, they can operate year-round, creating employment opportunities. In the case of the Fukushima project, which is staffed by local residents, there have even been discussions with the local government about repurposing abandoned school buildings to create new aquaculture plants.
“I think that historically, fishing hasn’t been considered a stable profession, and still isn’t,” NTT East’s Ochi said. “The current situation is that the aging population in Japan is causing even more people to leave the fishing industry.”  
But this new project is paving the way for greater stability in the fishing industry. “I believe that primary industries (including agriculture and fishing) are incredibly important, so we want to make them industries where workers can feel the promise (of such a project),” he said.
Naoki Shibutani, president and CEO of NTT East Japan (left), Nobuhiro Ito, president and CEO of Fukushima City’s Ichii supermarket chain (center), and Hiroyuki Hirano, president of Okayama University of Science, hold sockeye salmon, sushi and sashimi.     Source: NTT East
Naoki Shibutani, president and CEO of NTT East Japan (left), Nobuhiro Ito, president and CEO of Fukushima City’s Ichii supermarket chain (center), and Hiroyuki Hirano, president of Okayama University of Science, hold sockeye salmon, sushi and sashimi.     Source: NTT East
The project has a particular resonance for Fukushima, whose primary industries  were rocked by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, but also by the nuclear disaster that ensued, which continue to have ramifications for the prefecture even today.
“Part of the reason why we did this project with sockeye salmon was because of its scarcity, as nobody has farmed it before,” Ochi explained. “This way there is a large possibility that it can be branded as a local specialty, and help develop industry growth in the region, and as a result, create jobs.”
Furthermore, Ochi added, the plant has been thoroughly proofed against natural disasters, to the extent that it will not be damaged even in the event of an earthquake or typhoon, which are both common occurrences in Japan.
However, this kind of aquaculture technology doesn’t come without its drawbacks. The plants are very expensive both to build and to run, doubling the price of farmed sockeye ( ¥980 per 100 grams) over the national average (¥503 per 100 grams). Additionally, the plant in Fukushima is currently monitored remotely, with data collected from water quality sensors sent to to the cloud, and then to specialists in Okayama. This could result in a delayed response to any issues that arise.
Photo shows one of the aquaculture tanks inside the Fukushima facility. By filtering and recycling the water used, waste is avoided.     Source: NTT East
Photo shows one of the aquaculture tanks inside the Fukushima facility. By filtering and recycling the water used, waste is avoided.     Source: NTT East
In order to overcome these issues, increasing the yield of the aquaculture process is one of NTT East’s most pressing future goals. 

The future of farm fishing: genetic modification and mass-production

Improved aquaculture technology isn't the only improvement NTT intends to apply to the aquaculture process. NTT recently established a new company, NTT Green & Food, which focuses on using gene editing technology to improve fish breeds: for instance, by shortening their growth time, increasing the percentage of edible flesh (by up to 160 percent with some species), and so on.
The technology and innovations employed in this particular project, in conjunction with the emergence of RASs across the globe, already suggest a massive shift in the status quo of the fishing industry. Already over half of the fish consumed globally is farmed. There will likely come a time in the near future when fish becomes another industrial food product that’s genetically modified and farmed for maximum yield, comparable to crops and poultry. 
Farmed sockeye salmon being sold at Supermarket Ichii (Fukushima) for a three-day trial period, July 21st~23rd.     Source: NTT East
Farmed sockeye salmon being sold at Supermarket Ichii (Fukushima) for a three-day trial period, July 21st~23rd.     Source: NTT East
As a whole, NTT East sees sustainable aquaculture as a necessary next step. “When it comes to countries with growing populations,” Ochi said, “The demand for fish is also increasing. If we are going to continue coexisting and preserve fish for the future, with regards to the fish that we consume, we must start producing it for ourselves as a protein source.”
Writing by Sage Farrer 
Editing by Desiderio Luna and Robert Gilhooly
Top page photo by NTT East
For inquiries about this article, please contact jstories@pacficbridge.jp

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Click here for the Japanese version of the article.

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