Why working with Mother Nature makes business sense
Aquaculture pioneer OddGeir Oddsen’s business card gives an address in England and his current venture takes him to Wales, the Netherlands, Thailand, Belize and beyond. His base, though, is in his native Norway, 10 miles south of Stavanger. He has certainly covered a lot of ground professionally, having spent his entire working life (apart from three years out, in agriculture) in some aspect of fish farming or feed manufacturing.
He could have become a research scientist but the lure of a regular salary, not to mention a company car and a girlfriend who didn’t want him to go to Oslo to study, ensured he followed a career in industry.
With a father who was general manager of Skretting, the choice of industry was almost inevitable. OddGeir had worked in the Skretting feed mill as a college kid and it was to Skretting he returned after completing a masters degree in molecular biology from the University of Bergen.
‘I got the funds to do a PhD but I had to wait from June until November for them to release the money,’ he says. ‘Because I knew so much about feed manufacturing and had been working for Skretting during all my holidays at university I got a job for a few months. Then they persuaded me to stay instead of doing the PhD.’
He says while it would be nice to do research just for the sake of learning more, he knows from friends that much time is spent chasing grants and he has no regrets about the direction he has taken.
For more than 30 years he has been at the forefront of aquaculture development, in Norway and Scotland. Although he has held senior roles as a farmer – including CEO of Pan Fish Scotland, formerly Lighthouse Caledonia- and also headed the salmon breeding company Salmobreed - he has gravitated back to where he started: the feed business.
His latest venture is Prochaete Innovations, focused on producing marine worms (polychaetes) as an alternative feed ingredient to fishmeal. A natural part of the diet of fish and shrimp, they provide a valuable protein source, have a good fatty acid profile, and contain factors which are important for the maturation process in many farmed species.
‘Polychaetes are one of the natural flavour enhancers found in the marine environment,’ says OddGeir. ‘We believe it makes sound business sense to work with Mother Nature rather than deplete marine resources.’
His involvement goes back to 2013 when he set up Prochaete with Thai shrimp exporter Seafresh, taking over a company in Wales that had been farming polychaetes (Nereis virens) for angling bait initially and had begun to develop pelleted aqua feed.
Now Prochaete works with two farms, in Wales and the Netherlands, which farm marine worms in biosecure ponds. The focus is on shrimp and OddGeir said the launch of a complete range of shrimp feed, from larvae, to grow-out to maturation, under the ProChaete brand is imminent.
Rearing worms in Europe where there is no shrimp farming and therefore no shrimp disease is important, said OddGeir, who has found the contrast between salmon farming in the West and shrimp production, in Asia particularly, ‘an eye opener’.
‘The salmon industry is a western culture,
If you think that salmon farming has been a boom and bust cycle over the years, shrimp has been worse”
we are trained differently and use a more scientific approach.’
He said he is ‘a bit humbled by people who’ve put in time and effort to solve their issues’ in places such as Thailand, where there is a bigger distance between the scientific community and the farmers.
‘With these small backyard farmers in Asia, families who have one or maybe two small ponds, and live on them or beside them, there is a lack of standards and traceability.’
For Seafresh to be able to process 25,000 tonnes of shrimp they will buy from 1,000 farmers but only 25 of these are approved by large retailers like Tesco. The 25 accept the programme we are running with them and are a lot more scientific, and understand what we want. But the company doesn’t buy from the other farmers because Tesco would never accept it.
‘When Thailand had 600,000 tonnes of shrimp, there were 25,000 farmers. If you look at Scotland, which is doing 180,000 tonnes of salmon with five farmers, there is a big difference about how you apply science.’
There is little chance of a Scottish style consolidation in this part of Asia, though, with the lack of technology.
‘Governments have to legislate on what are acceptable farming practices. There are a lot of poor people in shrimp producing countries and it’s hard for governments to impose restrictions - it’s also food for the people, for their survival.’
He said the number of people in the shrimp industry is still increasing, but it remains a volatile business.
‘If you think that salmon farming has been a boom and bust cycle over the years, I can promise shrimp has been worse.’
The busts are disease driven and principle among these diseases is EMS (early mortality syndrome) which cut production by around 30 per cent when it hit Thailand in 2103.
‘Early Mortality Syndrome arrived in China in 2009/2010 and moved from country to country. The collapse of the Thailand sector – it was about 600,000 tonnes and went down to less than 200,000 tonnes-was a major blow for processors, including us, and for the growers.
‘Now the farmers don’t dare to grow them big any more – as soon as they can harvest them and get the price for them they do that just to make sure they don’t lose any.’
The crisis in Thailand, the world’s largest supplier of shrimp, drove up prices, and countries free of disease, such as Ecuador, have been able to capitalise on that.
‘There has been a global growth in shrimp production after the decline because of EMS, but there has also been a very big shift from
country to country. Some Asian countries have avoided the disease while others have had big problems. Ecuador has had a rapid growth in the output of shrimp. The question is, is that a sustainable growth?’
Sustainability is paramount to Prochaete, said OddGeir. In the past he has talked about the ‘mismatch between global supply of fishmeal and the ever increasing demand for aquaculture feeds’.
‘As the world’s population increases, the need to grow seafood increases. It’s become a matter of urgency to find new ways to feed farmed seafood without further depleting the world’s oceans. That’s been the guiding principle behind how we’ve built our company.’
Seafresh customers include Wegmans and Whole Foods in the US, and M&S, Sainsbury’s and Tesco in the UK.
‘We take shrimp to M&S from Honduras, shrimp to Sainsbury’s from Belize, and also from Belize to the US, and we take shrimp from Thailand to Tesco. All these are driven by sustainability – they have their own subtle differences but as a general approach, sustainability is important and feed and the fisheries involved are a big part of it.
‘In Thailand there have been issues around human trafficking and trash fisheries. So the worm part is connected to that idea, how can we increase our sustainability and reduce our footprint in nature.
‘We also know that worms are a very important ingredient in the maturation process of shrimp – if you go into a hatchery with broodstock they will use worms, either frozen or fresh. They spawn a lot better, produce more eggs and more robust offspring.
‘They are using 5,000-6,000 tonnes of worms in this industry and most of these are wild, so in many places there is now a problem with quantities. So consistency of supply is reduced.
‘We’re also seeing that the worms are a vehicle for disease transmission – you don’t have to be that smart to see that it’s a dangerous thing to do to take worms on the beach and put them into the hatchery. If you have a disease you’re moving it around – it’s a recipe for disaster.
‘The salmon industry has been a lot better in the control of the movement of biological materials. Now the shrimp industry is more sceptical about wild worms and fresh worms but even frozen worms are a carrier of pathogens. So what we’re providing is a feed where the worms are treated prior to being put in the feed.’
As part of the process, extruded feeds are heated to over 90 deg C for a specified period, which effectively kills bacteria. The challenge for Prochaete is to find a way to upscale production. Up until now, most of the worms were bought from the farm in Wales but it’s a small facility and OddGeir said they are moving more into the Netherlands.
‘They were producing two kilos per square metre per year in the Netherlands (less in Wales) – this is not enough. In Central America they pay between $30 and $40 per kilo for wet worms. You can’t replace fishmeal with worms at that price.
‘You need to drive down the price so what we’re looking at now is to intensify the production of worms. We’re talking about 800 kilos per square metre. Some people say it’s impossible,’ he admitted, but industrial engineer Andrea Semiao, of Edinburgh University, is trying to solve that problem, working on the design of the reactor where worms are produced.
He said they have been talking to Skretting and EWOS about the product but ‘need to have more volume’.
While the majority of production is going to the shrimp market, there is also potential in finfish. Prochaete was involved in a recent wrasse breeding project at Machrihanish with Marine Harvest and the University of Stirling.
‘Wrasse is a peculiar fish and I think the conclusion was there was no conclusion!’ said OddGeir. ‘They tested a lot of different types of feed and one of the problems with the feed we supplied was that it was a feed that wasn’t made for the fish. They wanted to test something with worms in it but it didn’t grow that well.’
But one of Norway’ big producers of lumpsuckers is a near neighbour of Oddgeir’s and he continues to be in discussions with them.
‘And we’re working with fishmeal replacement in Europe and in South America for finfish – salmon in Santiago, and sea bass and bream in Greece. They become attracted to the feed if it has worms in it, even in small proportions.
‘What we also see is that it gives improvements in the gut, which is one reason the guys in the Mediterranean are using it. It enhances the gut pathology of the bass and bream and they can then increase the use of soya.’
Marine worms are not OddGeir’s sole preoccupation these days. He has been trying to get his template for land based salmon production, FishFrom, up and running on Scotland’s west coast since obtaining planning permission in 2013.
‘Everything was ready to go but the only thing missing was a lot of money! People think there is too much risk involved, too many unknowns. We’re talking about £22-25 million for one project, which is 3,000 tonnes gutted weight. The technology is there, the biology is there, so I think the risk is not that high.’
He and his partner, Andrew Roberston, have been talking to new investors since May, however, and remain optimistic.
With his main focus on worms, does he ever miss the salmon industry?
‘The FishFrom project is salmon enough for me,’ he laughs. ‘And with all the issues they have in the industry, I don’t feel the short-term need to work with salmon again.’
You need to drive down the price so what we’re looking at now is to intensify the production
Opposite page below: OddGeir Oddsen, then CEO at Lighthouse Caledonia, with David Taylor. top: Marine worm (polychaete)