Od­dGeir Oddsen

Why work­ing with Mother Na­ture makes busi­ness sense

Fish Farmer - - Contents -

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)

Above: Poly­chaete

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