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FARM FOCUS: Huon prepares for a future offshore

Technological innovations are allowing Australia's second largest salmon farmer to create a new vision of the future for its farms.

An isolated island state off Australia’s south coast, Tasmania is known for its rugged environment. Such a seascape brings as many, if not more, challenges as it does advantages but this is where Huon Aquaculture produces its 20,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon, adapting to the unique environment with custom-made innovations and science.

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At its farm locations on the edge of the Great Southern Ocean, nutrient levels are high, meaning weed growth is prolific and Huon has to clean its nets frequently and thoroughly.

Water temperatures are also warmer in summer than in other salmon farming regions, and while Australia's salmon farmers do not have sea lice to deal with, they do have amoebic gill disease (AGD), which means the fish have to be bathed in freshwater on a 30 day cycle.

Factfile

Company: Huon Aquaculture

Location: Australia

Species: Atlantic salmon

Production volumes: 20,000 metric tons in 2016

Farm type: 'Fortress' net pens

Pen size: 240 meter pens

Integration: Hatcheries, grow-out, processing

Markets: Australia, Japan

For this purpose and for transporting fish between sites, Huon has Ronja -- a 76 meter well boat with a 3000 cubic meter treatment capacity.

However, this unique environment produces high quality fish, according to Co-Founder Frances Bender, who proudly tells IntraFish of a recent visit by a contingent of smaller scale Norwegian fish farmers who had some very positive observations about Huon’s salmon, including, notably, “these fish are better than ours.”

Huon's feed research facility has compare fish diets and improved fish growth over the years (see graph). The company has also worked with an external company to develop technology using infrared sensors to detect pellets falling through the water column, with the principal of giving fish every opportunity to eat whilst minimising wasted feed and nutrient loading on the seabed.

Open door policy on environmental challenges

The environmental awareness amongst the general public in Australia means Huon and its salmon farming counterparts have to deal with an unprecedented amount of public scepticism and backlash around their practices.

“I think it comes from a lack of understanding about how amazing and robust and scientific [our business]is,” said Bender.

“That is partly the industry’s fault,” she said. “If we don’t manage our environment then we don’t have a business, and we haven’t managed to communicate that.”

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Huon, however, prides itself on its transparency and was, claims Bender, the first company in the world to produce and make publicly available, a ‘sustainability dashboard.’

Detailing data such as ‘wildlife interactions’ – seals removed from cages etc – sea temperature, antibiotic use, freshwater use and employee numbers, Huon encourages questions and comments from consumers and will happily discuss challenges and improvements that need to be made.

“We have always had the approach that we understand as salmon farmers we are using a shared resource,” said Bender.

“We believe in putting information – both good and bad – out there… and our door is always open for questions and discussion.”

A future offshore

A recent news article in the Australian press cited the local Shooters and Fishers party pushing for Tasmania’s salmon farming industry to be brought on land.

But Bender sees this as an unrealistic premise for the salmon industry at the current time. “At this particular point in time, one of the major issues is cost, and the environmental status is not what everyone thinks it is.”

Bender also points to the animal welfare aspect of land-based farms. “The one thing people never consider,” she said. However, the company have started to extend their hatchery period, producing larger smolt with an aim of the fish being in the sea for just 12 months (see graph).

But for Huon, offshore farming is a more realistic solution to close shore challenges than land farming, having shut down its shallowest inshore sites in the Huon River and moved into deeper, higher energy areas. Its Storm Bay site (see map) is its first foray offshore, where exposure to the wild Tasman Sea and waves up to 13 meters high puts Huon’s purpose-built ‘fortress pens’ to the test.

The key to moving offshore, according to Huon's founders -- Frances and her husband Peter -- is to have a centralised monitoring system, reducing the need for Huon staff to work on the pens in rough weather.

To enable this cameras mounted on a winch system will be able to monitor pens and allow for net inspections, mort collection, environmental monitoring, data collection and general site surveillance, allowing manual tasks such as bathing, net cleaning and filling feed barges to be carried out on calm days.

Huon is also adapting other technology to suit its offshore future with plans for a new mega well boat: Ronja Storm. At 117 meters long and with four fish tanks totalling 7,500 cubic meters, there is capacity to bathe an entire 240 meter fortress pen in one go.

"If there’s a way to improve, make changes, we will do it,"said Bender.

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