A Swedish land-based fish farming startup wants to create synergies between the recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) sector and the country’s massive pulp and paper industry.

While Sweden’s investments into fish farming have been small to date, it has long been a major exporter of paper and pulp, and Harnosand-based Big Akwa thinks it can create an industrial symbiosis by merging aspects of the two industries, founders Hugo Wikstrom and Elena Petukhovskaya told IntraFish.

The startup has partnered with SEK 15.4 billion ($1.8 billion/€1.5 billion) pulp and paper giant Svenska Cellulosa to determine how low-grade waste heat from paper mills could be used to help heat water for Akwa’s rainbow trout growout tanks, and in turn use nitrogen and phosphorous-rich fish waste to grow bacteria paper mills require for production.

Currently the two companies are examining how well fish farming nutrients could be integrated into mill operations.

“The combination is a perfect match as the pulp and paper industry reduces its cost of chemicals while the fish farm spends less on energy,” Petukhovskaya said. After feed, energy is land-based fish farms most significant cost.

There are also additional savings by having the two industries in proximity and sharing transport and logistic operations, Wikstrom and Petukhovskaya added.

This first of the Akwa-Svenska Cellulosa trials is scheduled to be finalized later this year or by early 2022, Wikstrom and Petukhovskaya said.

The pair are talking to several municipalities with relevant paper mills, and by the end of the year they expect to be close to identifying a site for construction.

Construction is scheduled to start in 2023, and €23 million ($27 million) will be required to finance the build, Wikstrom and Petukhovskaya estimate.

The two are in talks with potential investors and strategic partners, including European and Nordic investment banks, food tech funds and seafood distributors. Any formal investments are unlikely to be signed prior to its first phase being approved, they said. The company is also mulling the option of issuing green bonds.

Big Akwa could seek a listing in Sweden for future fundraising, Wikstrom and Petukhovskaya said. Both founders have experience at listed companies, and the stock exchange is a logical place for a company such as Big Akwa, they said.

Big Akwa aims to make its first harvest by the end of 2024, and expects to reach its full 3,000 metric-ton capacity within three years after the first installation.

The company chose to focus on rainbow trout, since it can reach the market within a year if it is sold at one kilo, giving the company a faster path to cash flow.

Rainbow trout is already popular in Sweden, with several established domestic producers. Additionally, Swedish consumers rate sustainability high among their factors in purchasing choices, and an eco-friendly, local choice has strong potential, they said.

As the operation ramps up, the pair sees scope for expanding into warmwater species such as tilapia, pangasius or shrimp.

Green barriers to blue investments

Sweden has not been at the forefront of aquaculture investments to date, with only a few small commercial operations in the country.

Sweden's strict environmental regulations keep getting stricter, which makes it difficult to get a fish farming license, and the licenses that are issued are often short-term, Wikstrom and Petukhovskaya said. Naturally, this makes it hard for aquaculture companies to attract investment.

The country is less wealthy than a few decades ago and the sentiment towards aquaculture has slowly started to change, partly due to the country’s high dependency on food imports in agriculture – including seafood.

The Swedish aquaculture industry produces around 11,000 metric tons annually, translating to about one kilo per person in a country that consumes between 27-34 kilos of seafood per person. The EU average hovers around 22 kilos per capita.

Even though the currently planned farm could triple Sweden’s fish production in the next five years, the gap between production and consumption is still huge.

Other RAS projects in Sweden include the 10,000 metric-ton Premium Svensk Lax (or Premium Swedish Salmon) outside Saffle, a 4,000 metric-ton Arctic char farming project, Cold Lake and Quality Salmon, which is slowly making way for a potential 100,000 metric-ton facility, scheduled for production in 2027.