Øyvind J Hansen has been involved in farming cod since Nofima first spawned them in captivity in 2003 and believes that the fifth captive-grown generation is showing considerable promise.
“At least the biology indicates that we are now ready to take a step further and increase the volume of farmed cod,” he says.
Since 2003 Nofima has worked on a national breeding programme for cod, in Kraknes just outside Tromsø, and Hansen took over the lead role from senior researcher Atle Mortensen at the start of the year.
“I have been part of the programme’s development since production started in 2003. During this time, I have been responsible for the individual departments of live feed, broodstock, the hatchery and first-feeding. I feel confident in the role,” says Hansen.
The first few years consisted mostly of practical work. However, the cod breeding programme has also produced several scientific articles during the years.
“Several of the articles on topics such as egg quality, broodstock nutrition and the development of first-feed have been written in collaboration with industry partners,” says Hansen.
The Norwegian authorities decided to establish a national breeding programme for cod in 2002. The aim was to breed farmed cod that have better growth characteristics than wild cod and that possess higher resistance to fish diseases.
There was great faith and high expectations regarding cod farming during the first years of business. At its peak, there were 15 cod hatcheries around the country. The harvest volume of farmed cod was 19,000 tonnes per year at its height. However, this positive development stopped abruptly in 2008 and commercial cod farming in Norway ended in 2014.
However, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries decided that work on the breeding of cod should be continued – much to Hansen’s satisfaction.
“I believe that such long-term commitments increase the speed of innovation and the likelihood of implementing new knowledge for industrial actors. This commitment has now produced a cod that is better suited for farming. Domesticating (turning into livestock) new species of fish takes time. Experience from other species shows that it takes up to 20 years to establish commercial farming of new species,” he says.
Today, the national breeding station for cod is the largest and longest-running breeding programme for marine fish in the world. The first-feeding facility has 296 tubs, each of which can contain 10,000 cod fry. The researchers have eliminated many types diseases and illnesses through the breeding work carried out. Deformities in cod grown in captivity have been reduced and the mortality rate after moving the cod to the sea is around 16 percent – better than farmed salmon. However, there is still some way to go before one can be satisfied.
They started with “Generation 0”. Today, the fifth generation of farmed cod is swimming around the sea facility in Røsneshamn on Ringvassøy, just outside Kvaløy. The cod are held here until they are sexually mature. After 21 months in the sea, the farmed fish are around three kilos in weight and are ready to be slaughtered. This takes place at a time when there is a high demand on the market.
Each generation’s best individuals are transported back to the land facility at Kraknes to become the source of new generations.
Nofima has breeding stock from 600 families. Breeding stock from around 200 families are used for each generation.
“At first, we started a new generation every year. We have now reduced this somewhat and have produced five generations over 15 years,” says Hansen.
The improvements that have been made over these 15 years, both in breeding and in production, allow cod farmers to have a far better starting point regarding their production than they had before. It provides increased production predictability and increased opportunities to achieve profitability within marine-based farming.
“And the price of farmed cod is on the rise. Today, those who choose to start farming cod commercially can do so with a completely different breeding stock compared to those who started in 2003. The fish have improved in all measurable parameters, and the fish from 2017 and 2018 have been well-received on the market,” says Hansen.
However, he does not see a cod farming Klondike occurring straight away. Despite very good breeding results, both in relation to illness and survival, there are no more than three or four actors who have been willing to invest in commercial cod farming again – and these are small pilot operations.
“But it looks like we’re about to take a step further. It is also important that the industry takes one step at a time. It takes time to learn how to farm a new species. It takes time to build the market. It doesn’t move fast, but it is heading in the right direction. It will be interesting to see the how it develops,” says Hansen.
Unlike its wild cousins, the farmed cod is not fussy about food. In parallel with breeding research, the development of feed for marine species has also been ongoing.
“In collaboration with the feed manufacturer Troms Fiskeindustri, we have made considerable progress in the development of first-feed for marine species. Testing takes place at our facilities and exports are sent to several countries in Europe,” explains the researcher.
Nofima’s breeding research is nowhere near finished. The National breeding programme for cod will continue but it is planned that commercial actors will take over the production and delivery of fry to cod farmers.
“We are able to deliver eggs from selected stock. It is the first phase that is difficult. When the fry is around 1 to 2 grams, it becomes a little cod that can be fed further in growth facilities,” says Hansen.
Other marine finfish
Lumpfish breeding has already come a long way at Nofima’s breeding station. In the future, cod and lumpfish may be joined by several different marine species.
“Marine farming is currently undergoing a diversification process in Norway. It is important for both the export industry and the world’s demand for food from the sea,” Hansen argues.
“If the Centre for Marine Aquaculture is to work efficiently with several species, increased water capacity will provide better utilization of facility areas,” he concludes.