Early days, early challenges
It was 17 years ago that we started to harvest our first RAS-grown sturgeon for meat. Today, the sturgeon, caviar and coho salmon grown at Northern Divine have the cleanest taste possible at harvest; however, that is not how it started 17 years ago.
Farmers growing fish such as catfish in ponds have been battling this problem for years, though many others who grow fish in net pens or flow-through systems have, for the most part, not historically encountered this challenge. When RAS came along there were initially no problems with off-flavour since most of the production was for smolts which no one was eating.
As farmers realized the benefits of growing fish in RAS, they started to experiment with growing several species to market size. Unfortunately, in many instances, the market knew there was a problem before the farmer.
One of our first harvests of sturgeon for meat went to a banquet at an aquaculture conference 15 years ago. Various types of seafood were served at different stations throughout the venue. The first sturgeon that came out was delicious; this was the first time that many people had ever tried sturgeon. An hour or so later, they refreshed the platter with meat from the next fish they cut. And oh oh. This one had a slight muddy off-flavour. I didn’t know why it tasted that way, but we quickly realized that we needed to find a fix.
Nature of the problem?
A muddy off-flavour in fish is bad for business, and fish coming out of many RAS have off-flavour. The amount of off-flavour will vary with the system, water quality parameters, species and size of fish, and even individual variations. Wild fish from certain lakes and rivers also have this off-flavour. Consumers don’t want to eat fish with that flavour and they won’t likely buy it a second time. An even bigger problem is that they may stop buying that genre of fish altogether.
What is the cause?
Compounds causing off-flavour in the water also get into the fish. The main compounds are the naturally produced organic chemicals geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol (MIB). These compounds are produced by certain bacteria (cyanobacteria and actinomycete). If you want to read all of the gory details, check out the excellent summary by Davidson et al in Aquaculture Engineering 61 (2014) 27-34 or other published papers from the Freshwater Institute.
By design, recirculating aquaculture systems grow plenty of bacteria. The systems need nitrifying bacteria; thus, biofilters are designed to optimize surface area and living conditions for bacteria. The bacteria which produce geosmin and MIB also live there and the off-flavour causing compounds enter the fish via the gills and then accumulate in the fat. The fattier the fish, the worse it will be. The more geosmin and MIB in your system, the worse it will be.
Solving the problem
There is only one solution and it is very simple - depurate, purge. (But let’s not call it that anymore for the sake of our customers). Let’s call it “conditioning” or “finishing” which sounds a little more delicious and safe. Whatever you call it, it requires taking your fish out of the RAS and putting them either on flow-through water or onto another water source that does not contain off-flavour compounds.
Many methods don’t work. We can’t just kill all the bacteria in a RAS because, as we discussed, we actually need some of those bacteria. There has been research on ozonating the culture water which has not been successful. Nam-Koong et al Aquacultural Engineering 70 (2016) 73–80 demonstrated that treating the water with ultrasound will remove off-flavour compounds from RAS, but the energy required would not be economical.
For now, farmers have to transfer the fish into a “finishing” system. But for how long? That depends on many factors including the level of geosmin and MIB in the culture water, the species, size, and lipid content of the fish, the water temperature, etc. You can read reports that suggest anything from less than one day up to three weeks of conditioning. To finish caviar takes longer . . . way longer. When I attend trade shows where caviar companies have their booths I go from one booth to the next sampling their caviar. “How does it taste?” they ask. “Like mud,” . . . I think. The next booth, “like dirt”. The next booth, “like earth”. Wow. How can you grow a fish for so long and then harvest it with an off-flavour?
Basically, producers have to condition their fish until they can’t taste off-flavours anymore and that will be different at every farm, varying with every variable. And there will also be variability from fish to fish, so don’t limit taste tests to just one fish. Terry Brooks, of Golden Eagle Aquaculture in British Columbia, Canada has the process down to a science. He conditions the fish in two stages where he first reduces the levels of geosmin and MIB in the RAS for a period of time, and then moves them to a new flow-through tank for a very short period of time. By tasting his RAS-grown coho salmon, you could never tell if they were from the wild, from a saltwater net pen, or from his RAS farm in Canada.
“If people get a hint of off-flavour, you’re done,” he says.
So, why is there still a problem?
Some farmers still send off-flavoured fish to market. …Please stop. It’s bad for business. For all of us.
But why does this still happen? There are a number of reasons: some newcomers to the industry have not read the literature; sometimes it takes longer to get rid of off-flavours than the literature indicates; or some farmers have just received bad advice.
How do you know that off-flavour is gone? There is one way and it is very easy: taste it. Taste a few fish. Taste them often. Get good at identifying even the tiniest hint of off-flavour. And then sometimes you have to make the difficult choice to delay harvest. I know that sucks, but ignoring it is probably the main reason that off-flavoured fish still ends up in the market. Delaying means delayed cash flow, change of processing schedule, maybe sending the harvesters or processors home, and telling your customer that they are not getting any fish that day.
If you send the fish anyway, before they have clean flavour, then you are killing your business, and harming the rest of the RAS farmers.
The virus was detected in February after the fish-farm operators reported a concern to veterinarians who then conducted testing, according to a statement issued by the province.
Nova Scotia's Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Keith Colwell, told CBC on Thursday the facilities are located close to each other, but one company suffered an almost complete loss while the other lost only a portion of its stock.
Colwell said it’s highly unusual to have an outbreak of ISAv at a land-based facility. His department will be investigating how the smolts became infected.
Colwell did not name the farms or their location. But an owner of one of Nova Scotia’s land-based fish farms suspected that the outbreak must be at land-based hatcheries that produce smolts for companies that grow them to market size in net pens, not one of the two facilities in the province that raise salmon to market size in land-based operations. “There’s two (land-based) farms in Nova Scotia that are (raising salmon to market size) and we’ve never seen (infectious salmon anemia) or had any problems with that,” the fish farmer, Paul Merlin, told The Chronicle Herald.
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), ISAv outbreaks are most common in susceptible farmed finfish reared in sea water. It added that there's no evidence the virus can be transmitted to humans.
Recirculating aquaculture systems (RASs) are evolving towards even higher levels of water recycling and water efficiency. This was the message presented by Dr. Dallas Weaver from Scientific Hatcheries, Huntington Beach, California, at the Recirculating Aquaculture Conference held last August in Roanoke, Virginia. Weaver and his colleagues Mark Francis and Jimmy Williamson from Aquaneering, Inc. San Diego, California; and Conal True from Universitad Autónomia de Baja California, Ensenada, Mexico, have designed, built, tested and installed a denitrification system geared to service multiple RAS systems while maintaining biosecurity between them.
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Symposium on Genomics in AquacultureWed Mar 21, 2018 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
Salmonid Restoration ConferenceWed Apr 11, 2018 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
Asian-Pacific Aquaculture 2018Mon Apr 23, 2018 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
Seafood Expo GlobalTue Apr 24, 2018 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
International Abalone SymposiumTue May 08, 2018 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM