Like any commercial venture, there are many facets to make it a successful enterprise. When it comes to fish farming, an essential ingredient are various industrial gases, which have many applications in aquaculture – from hatching the eggs through to when the final product is shipped for sale.
Air Liquide is a gas specialist that has a lot of information and experience when it comes to fish farming. Its Tasmanian sales representative, Grant Stingel, works closely with the industry, not only as a supplier of gases, but also giving advice on how much, what type and how often a certain gas needs to be applied to the various production processes.
The most prolific gas used in fish farming is oxygen. There are two main reasons it’s needed. The most obvious is to sustain the life of the fish as they hatch and are grown. The other is a little more interesting.
“During the production of farmed fish, one of the high cost inputs is the food,” said Stingel. “It can cost up to $2,000 a tonne or more depending on the species and feed type.
Maintaining a stable level of oxygen in the tank increases the fishes’ metabolism, which in turn increases the conversion of food into fish mass. So the Feed Conversion Rate (FCR) reduces, meaning lower feed costs per kilogram of fish.
“And if you’re talking tonnes of fish, you’re talking tonnes of food per day. In the larger aquaculture systems, maintaining stable oxygen levels in the tanks will increase production. If you can increase the growth of the fish each day by adding oxygen, this reduces the time the fish are in the water, which in turn increases efficiencies within the whole production cycle.
“Typically, modern land-based aquaculture farms use what is called a Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS). This is essentially a water treatment plant to circulate and reuse the water. This plant uses pumps to push water through a series of filters to help purify the water before going back into the fish tanks,” said Stingel. “Oxygen is also used in this process to produce ozone to sterilise the water.
“In the inlet water to each of the ponds or tanks, the oxygen level is elevated by injecting oxygen, typically using a pressurised oxygen dissolver, to 120 to 140 per cent of normal saturation, depending on the biomass. This ensures that the respiration demands from the fish are taken care of and a stable growing environment is achieved.”
There are other applications where oxygen is necessary. Just before the fish are harvested, whether in ponds or sea cages, higher doses of oxygen are needed due to the fish being crowded into a small amount of water within the harvest area. This ensures that the fish are not as stressed before processing, giving a better end product.
Also, in some farms, oxygen is used to supersaturate baths of water to treat the fish for pest and disease, such as sea lice.
With all the oxygen being used, what are the costs involved? Not as much as you would think, said Stingel.
“Oxygen is typically only about one or two per cent of the cost of your production but it’s very important,” he said. “It is an essential element to the fish farming process. In some cases, oxygen can be seen as just a commodity, but oxygen used efficiently can also add benefits to your production."
“Oxygen supply to fish farms is essential so we have engineering support available,” he said. “As far as technical support, we can calculate how much oxygen you will need for the quantity of fish in each system. Based on the calculated oxygen required, we also offer advice on the oxygen dissolving system best suited for the application. Measuring the efficiency of your existing oxygenation system is also something Air Liquide can offer.”
Other gases are also used once the fish have been processed. Oxygen goes from being the hero to the enemy once the fish are ready to be sent to Australian supermarkets or exported.
“After harvest, we use other industrial gases for packaging fish products,” said Stingel.
“Some aquaculture companies use Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP). This is a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide injected and sealed inside the trays often seen on the shelf at your local supermarket.”
The carbon dioxide inhibits bacterial growth, which will increase shelf life for the end product.
The nitrogen is to displace the oxygen and also maintain the package integrity so that it looks good on the supermarket shelf.
Another industrial gas used in the processing phase is liquid nitrogen, which is used to snap freeze the fish products by sending it through a freezing tunnel, which sprays the gas onto the product. This achieves a better quality product when thawed. This is because when a product is snap frozen, the cell structure of the food is maintained, meaning when thawed, the fish not only looks good, but tastes fresh.
“Even when it comes to the presentation of the food we can help. For example, dry ice produced from liquid carbon dioxide is used to add a bit of theatre at serving counters in restaurants or markets,” said Stingel. “As the dry ice thaws, vapour is formed, giving off a nice smoke effect. Dry ice is also good for keeping the product cold and fresh.”
In almost every stage in the production of fish in aquaculture systems there is potential to use an industrial gas of some type whether it is oxygen, nitrogen, argon or CO₂. But the use of the various gases doesn’t stop there. Air Liquide can also provide gases for other, practical uses.
“The other application for industrial gases is for maintaining plant and equipment,” said Stingel. “With quite a lot of machinery involved in the process, you will also need oxygen and acetylene for heating and cutting, argon gas mixtures for welding, and LPG for heating and maybe also powering forklifts.”