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Salmon Aquaculture: An Interview with Soul of Japan

This is part of a series of blog posts and videos exploring how we can design sustainable food systems. Food production for human consumption generates negative impacts on the environment, creating trade-offs between human activity and ecosystem integrity. We listen to the voices of people on food supply chains–e.g., farmers, fishers, foresters, traders, retailers, and consumers–to understand some challenges, contradictions, and trade-offs that underlie the foundation of our food systems. This also contributes to and is linked to integrating sustainability into university curriculum and everyday teaching. By accumulating a wealth of knowledge through research and interacting with students through teaching, we collaborate with concerned people and amplify our voice for the need of alternative food systems, which are based on the principles of social-ecological justice and sustainability. 

In this post, we feature an interview with Erol Emed, CEO of Soul of Japan. Established in 2018, Soul of Japan is an emerging company incorporating advanced global technologies and developing Asia's largest land-based aquaculture farm, centered in Mie Prefecture. The company is becoming a leading presence in sustainable aquaculture in Japan.

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Q1: Given the current state of our global environment, engaging in sustainable practices is more important than ever. In this context, why is land-based salmon farming considered a sustainable practice?

The concept of land-based aquaculture can be applied to various fish species, not just salmon. However, salmon's unique characteristics make it particularly suitable for land-based closed recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS). In other words, it is easier to calculate, which increases the likelihood of successfully raising salmon. From a production standpoint, land-based salmon farming has a very high likelihood of achieving success.

Another key point is the feed conversion ratio (FCR) of salmon. FCR measures how efficiently feed is converted into fish meat (protein). The more fish meat (protein) that can be produced with less feed, the more efficient the fish is considered to be. Generally, compared to other animals like cows, pigs, and chickens, fish have a lower FCR, meaning they are more efficient. Among fish, salmon is particularly economical in aquaculture because it consumes less feed to grow into mature fish. This is because salmon are very calm by nature and are less likely to fight or compete for food, even when there is feed. As a result, it is possible to minimize feed consumption, which increases the overall efficiency of salmon aquaculture. Considering the amount of feed required to produce one kilogram of protein, electricity costs, and other aquaculture-related expenses, salmon demonstrates excellent cost efficiency. In the aquaculture industry, feed costs typically account for about 60% of total expenses, so having a low FCR is particularly important. Additionally, salmon is rich in nutrients like omega fatty acids and, of course, tastes delicious.

Lastly, the global aquaculture industry is growing, with Norway at the center of this expansion. This has led to the formation of a global market supported by a well-developed ecosystem. This ecosystem includes various elements such as feed production, quality control of fish eggs, improvement of fish processing quality, and yield. On the other hand, without adequate support, the aquaculture business would face difficulties due to challenges such as inadequate supply of feed and fish eggs, and underdeveloped processing technologies. Against this backdrop, the market for farmed fish, including salmon, continues to expand, which is crucial not only for providing sustainable protein sources through aquaculture but also for addressing these challenges. In particular, the low FCR demonstrates that farmed fish are efficient sources of protein. Furthermore, amid concerns over depletion of natural resources and environmental impact, aquaculture is seen increasingly as a promising alternative solution. Thus, the growth of the aquaculture industry plays an extremely important role not only in ensuring sustainable food supply but also from the perspective of environmental protection.

Q. 2: What are the advantages of land-based salmon aquaculture compared to conventional offshore aquaculture?

First, I want to talk about land-based aquaculture, specifically closed recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS). While salmon farming has a history of about 40 to 50 years, land-based aquaculture has been around for approximately 15 to 20 years. Although this might seem relatively short, the actual practice dates back even further. Norway, for instance, has been producing salmon smolt on land for over 15 years. The most vulnerable period in a fish's life cycle is from the egg to the smolt stage. During this time, smolt, living in freshwater environments, are highly susceptible to pathogens, resulting in high mortality rates. This has been a longstanding challenge in the aquaculture industry, particularly for salmon farming. Once smolts mature and are released into the sea, they are prone to diseases, causing many to die off or to be thrown out.

Given this background, the aquaculture industry has adopted land-based farming methods for salmon up to the smolt stage. This method, known as RAS, involves growing smolt in a controlled environment free from pathogens. Smolts are raised until they reach a certain size and are then transported to the sea. In Norway, about half of all smolts are raised using RAS. These smolts then grow to 4-5 kilograms before being harvested. Norway has numerous RAS facilities of various sizes, demonstrating a long history in this technology.

In our company’s land-based aquaculture operations, we can raise fish not only to the smolt stage but also up to 4-5 kilograms. This ensures that fish grow in a safe environment, reducing the likelihood of disease and lowering mortality rates. Additionally, there is no need for vaccinations that are typically carried out before releasing fish into the sea. Vaccinations are labor-intensive and pose potential risks to humans, as vaccine components could potentially transfer to people and lead to antibiotic resistance. Therefore, avoiding vaccinations offers significant advantages in mitigating these risks.

In offshore aquaculture, even though locations are carefully selected, fish feed and waste can flow directly into the sea, causing serious environmental degradation and diminishing the value of that environment over time. This issue is sometimes reported in the media. For example, the well-known brand Patagonia recently protested against aquaculture practices. In contrast, in a closed-loop land-based aquaculture system, all waste is managed within a controlled environment, reducing risks of environmental pollution. Waste such as fish feces and leftover feed is treated within the tanks, ensuring it is discharged into the sea in a clean state. Therefore, land-based aquaculture has a lower environmental impact and is more sustainable than offshore aquaculture. While various countries have introduced regulations to address these issues, moving aquaculture operations futher offshore does not necessarily resolve the problem. In fact, some countries have issued bans on offshore aquaculture.

In offshore aquaculture, there are several challenges to consider. For example, there are issues with fish escaping from nets, as well as problems related to the management and disposal of these nets. Careful handling during net repairs is necessary to prevent accidents involving workers, and proper measures need to be taken when disposing of unusable nets. Companies like Daiwa often feature in the news regarding these issues. In some regions, the inadequate disposal of nets raises environmental concerns. In contrast, land-based aquaculture not only achieves high production volumes with low mortality rates but also avoids the use of antibiotics and other chemicals, ensuring the production of safe and high-quality fish. For Japanese consumers, land-based aquaculture offers substantial benefits by providing food in an environmentally friendly and safe manner.

Finally, another crucial point to note is that salmon, despite being a global market with significant demand worldwide, is limited in its production areas. Due to the requirement for low water temperatures, major production regions include Norway and Chile. While some production also occurs in northern regions like the UK and Scotland, approximately 90% of salmon is produced in Norway and Chile, which is then exported worldwide. The main problem with this is that transportation involves the use of ships and airplanes, creating a large carbon footprint. Every year, Japan imports approximately 100,000 tons of Norwegian fish (primarily fresh salmon and trout for sashimi), and most of these fish are transported by air freight. Therefore, this industry can be said to have a significant environmental impact.

In Norway, salmon is caught, processed, and then transported by truck to consumer markets via airports or sea ports. When transporting the fish to Japan, it takes a minimum of about five days. Therefore, even fresh salmon bought at local supermarkets has typically been landed for at least three days. While there are no health concerns, the taste may differ from salmon that is just a day out of the water. This makes apparent the advantages of locally produced salmon, like those from facilities such as our Mie plant, FRD's Kisarazu plant, or Proximar's Shizuoka plant, which offer benefits like lower carbon footprints and greater freshness.

Q. 3: What challenges have you faced in commercializing land-based aquaculture, particularly from the perspectives of environmental regulations and sustainability?

When we began this project at Soul of Japan, we received inquiries from various places asking, "Can you do this here as well?" Our goal is to produce 260,000 tons globally, with 10,000 tons targeted in Japan. However, several conditions are necessary for successful land-based aquaculture using closed recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS). Ultimately, this involves building facilities that can operate around the clock. Key requirements include a stable power supply, availability of industrial labor, a well-developed logistics network, and a reliable water supply. Meeting all these conditions is challenging in any country. In nations with unreliable power supplies, the use of generators might be considered, but this raises environmental concerns. While the ideal is to produce locally and consume locally, achieving this requires substantial infrastructure, particularly in terms of power supply, labor, logistics, and water availability. Only a limited number of countries can meet these conditions, making local production and consumption difficult to realize.

Operating an aquaculture facility incurs electricity costs. In our case, we prioritize environmentally-friendly practices by recycling wastewater. Of course, running filters and pumps for this circulation requires electricity, and larger facilities naturally consume more electricity. Therefore, electricity costs are a part of the overall cost of aquaculture. However, RAS contributes to lower mortality rates in fish, which help offset the electricity costs. Land-based aquaculture is also highly efficient and yields high-quality products, contributing to market expansion. As a result, the benefits outweigh the costs.

When it comes to environmental regulations, I’m not in a position to directly compare Japan with other countries, especially in Europe. However, I don’t perceive Japan's regulations as particularly lenient. Standards regarding water and environmental regulations based on environmental engineering criteria are very similar among developed countries. However, there can be subtle differences between countries and regions. For example, Japan may have particularly stringent regulations in some cases, but generally, the standards are similar, with slight variations in numerical levels and definitions.

Until the 1970s, Japan's fisheries industry enjoyed a high self-sufficiency rate in fish production and even exported seafood. However, with the establishment of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which restricted fishing activities to these designated areas, Japan's fisheries industry underwent significant restructuring. During this period, as catches decreased, the industry shifted focus to processing. Previously, fishermen could freely catch fish wherever they wanted, but now this is no longer possible, leading to a sharp decline in Japan’s self-sufficiency rate for fish. Consequently, this left a gap that needed to be filled with meat, and this shift is reflected in increased meat imports to Japan. Meat consumption has increased from 10-20 kilograms per person to about 50 kilograms today, while fish consumption per person has decreased from around 70 kilograms to about 40 kilograms. This reversed trend shows how the market shifted from fish to meat to satisfy demand. This is one major trend in Japan's food consumption patterns.

Another factor is that as the population ages, the required calorie intake per person decreases. Consequently, overall calorie consumption decreases, potentially leading to a decline in food demand. Specifically, except for salmon, the demand for fish in the market is decreasing. Since salmon is not naturally found in Japan's surrounding waters, it is imported from other countries, and the demand for salmon has been growing. Norway leads in salmon production, and the demand for salmon continues to remain high.

This increasing demand is partly due to the fact that salmon cannot be caught domestically. As Japan's self-sufficiency in fish has declined, salmon has been recognized as a new supply source and began to be imported. Salmon is highly nutritious, offering nutrients that other fish cannot provide in a single serving. Moreover, it tastes good, is reasonably priced, and maintains high quality compared to tuna, leading to steadily rising market demand. Since around 2010, sushi chains, including Maruha Nichiro, have consistently ranked salmon as the most popular fish. This popularity has continued for 13-14 years because salmon procurement is stable, prices do not spike like tuna, and it remains affordable while maintaining high quality. Additionally, salmon is versatile in cooking and safe to eat, making it a favorite among many people.

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