Successful salmon farming requires striking the right balance between numerous factors. Some things, such as ocean temperatures, can’t be controlled. Others things can be controlled, such as the amount of feed and the density of fish in a pen.
The aim is to create as much biomass as possible at the lowest cost, while ensuring the fish stay healthy and the operation remains sustainable. To achieve this, accurate metrics matter – and one in particular: FCR.
Feed Conversion Rate is mostly unheard of outside of farming. But within aquaculture it is incredibly important.
It refers to the relationship between the amount of feed a fish has been given and their weight gain. The lower the FCR, the better.
Tasmanian Atlantic salmon farming giant Tassal is on a mission to get its FCR down to 1.15. To get there it has rolled out a technology packed, company-wide, centralised ‘Feed Centre’.
“Feed is our largest single cost so improvements in the efficiency of this process translate to significant improvements in overall company profitability,” explains Tassal Group CIO Matthew Leary.
“Centralising the feeding process was viewed as a crucial step in improving management and coordination of the process.”
The project has involved putting sensors on each pen to monitor water temperature, tidal flow, salt and oxygen levels and more than 300 cameras above and below the surface to record fish activity and feeding patterns. The data generated flows into livestock management and analytics systems so the business can better react to changes, and identify trends.
“These improvements along with increased collaboration and improvements to data analysis have translated to significant improvements in our FCR results since the feed centre become operational,” Leary says. “Additional benefits that have flowed include reduction in the requirement for divers to dive our pens to check for net hygiene and fish mortality as these processes can now be done remotely using the new camera technology we have implemented.”
Rolling out the Feed Centre, and being able to oversee and control it from Tassal’s headquarters in Hobart was no small feat. The technical challenges included how to transmit the video feeds from the fish pens, which are located anywhere from 500m to 3km from shore, in some cases more than 100km from the office. Each farm network also required a 300-500Mb/s link to transmit the simultaneous HD video signals.
“To solve this problem, we installed a combination of in-water fibre optic networks and microwave radio links to extend the network from the farms back to Hobart. We have had to use various stabilisation technologies to transmit the network signals from the feeding barge, which floats and moves around subject to swell and tidal movements. These networks were aggregated into zones with aggregated backhaul between 1 and 2 Gb/s, and were custom built for this project,” Leary explains.
More sensors will soon follow, and the next phase of the project will deploy machine vision algorithms to further increase efficiency.
Of course, automating much of the salmon feeding operation has inevitably led to fewer feed operators, which have reduced from 60 to 22. It has taken considerable diplomacy and tact to make it happen.
“From a cultural perspective we faced some opposition and scepticism from the staff that were previously performing the roles,” Leary says. “Myself and a key member of the project team personally visited every feed barge to talk through the impact of the change and listen to feedback from all the existing feed staff.”
Having a small team means Leary regularly gets his hands wet.
“Getting out of the office to see what is happening across the organisation, listening to people and understanding their challenges is extremely important,” he says.
Key to the success of the project though is “having the right people in the right roles” Leary explains.
“Whether this in relation to the IT team, or on specific projects the people you have with you ultimately determine the success or not of any initiative,” he adds.