Embracing sustainability through control technology

How an innovative approach helped Sustainable Blue create a clean, safe and sustainable environment for fish production

Global production of fish and seafood has quadrupled over the past 50 years, with aquaculture – the practice of fish and seafood farming – now outpacing wild catch fishing. Against this backdrop, consumer tastes and preferences for fish products are also changing – desiring not only optimal taste, but also more ethical and sustainable means of production.

To capture this change in consumer demand, Nova Scotia-based salmon farm Sustainable Blue has pioneered a new method of farming that optimizes the quality and sustainability of the breeding and nurturing process. With the assistance of Fairfield Control Systems, BlueTech Systems and Rockwell Automation, Sustainable Blue has integrated an advanced control solution to improve the water treatment and purity across its network of farms. The company is now focused on scaling its operations to branch into new markets and serve more consumers.

Turning a sustainable vision into reality

The story of Sustainable Blue began on the other side of the Atlantic, in Plymouth, England. Dr Jeremy Lee, who serves as both technical director of BlueTech and CTO of Sustainable Blue, has had a 25-year career designing recirculation aquaculture systems (RAS), having previously developed the water treatment system used in the popular National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth. In 2008, Dr Lee began an ambitious project to adapt his treatment technology in the burgeoning salmon-farming sector.

Having identified a business opportunity in Eastern Canada, Dr Lee founded Sustainable Blue as an inland farm with the goal of providing a safe and managed environment for the salmon to grow. In this farm, fish would be introduced from the ocean and bred over the course of 12 months, before ultimately being sold to customers including leading supermarkets and restaurants.

While land-based farming is an efficient way to breed fish, the practice has conventionally come with certain trade-offs. In normal cases, the fishery needs to maintain interaction between the farm and the open sea for discharge and replenishment. This brings several potential issues. 

Firstly, it alters the temperature of the water used in the farm, limiting the control the fishery has over the breeding process. Secondly, it has implications for quality and safety as the water entering may contain diseases or other impurities. Thirdly, it typically influences taste, introducing an ‘earthiness’ that’s the result of geosmin, a compound that is produced within many land-based farming systems that brings with it a distinctive, unpleasant smell. 

As a result, inland farms have found difficulty in consistently providing customers with fresh, clean produce. Dr Lee sought to address this issue by developing a RAS that avoided the need for an external water supply, meaning the farm could maintain complete control over water purity and, therefore, the quality of the produce. He composed a team, involving system integrator Fairfield Control Systems, along with Intelligent Motor Control technology from Rockwell Automation, to work on the solution.

Adapting to limit risk

Fairfield Control Systems, as a central part of the company’s character, thrives on risk. The company has built a strong reputation for taking on the types of tasks that other companies would shy away from. They specialise in projects where the cost of failure is high, with a track record that reinforces their credibility in developing systems that won’t buckle under pressure.

According to Peter McMorrow, Engineering Director at Fairfield Control Systems, this approach to risk helps differentiate the company as a control systems partner. “In everything we do, we apply our own set of procedures and principles to make sure that risks are mitigated and the cost of failure is minimal. Our customers know they can trust us to think through the worst-case scenarios and plan accordingly.”

Sustainable Blue’s project fitted into that category. Across six farms – Red Bank Road (RBR) numbers 1-6 – Sustainable Blue houses more than 1,000 tonnes of fish. If the systems were to fail, the fish would not survive for more than 10 minutes, with the potential cost spiralling into the millions of dollars. The focus, therefore, was on developing a control system that was resilient to pressure and offered the availability to handle extreme situations. 

“As soon as we met with Dr Lee, we knew we could really assist with his project. He wanted to scale the operations, going from farms the size of rooms to those the size of football fields – but such growth would bring complexities. He needed a partner network that could assist him on the process side in the evolution from small-scale to mass production. We really bought into the ethos of the farm and wanted to help fulfil the vision,” McMorrow added.

In 2016, BlueTech (Sustainable Blue’s technology arm) entered into an arrangement with Fairfield Control Systems to commission the water treatment system for RBR 3. The choice of control technology to use was straightforward. Fairfield Control Systems had a relationship with Rockwell Automation that had existed for more than 30 years and is a Silver SI member in the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetworkTM, and BlueTech also had a history of using Rockwell equipment. Both companies had strong familiarity with Rockwell’s systems and confidence that they would be appropriate for the task of ensuring a standardised and easily maintainable control environment.

Nurturing clean, healthy produce 

The control solution the team created serves a crucial function in the farm. Each unit within the facility contains a 100% recirculation RAS, processing 5,000 tonnes of water every hour in total. The process control system provides closed-loop control of many environmental variables for each system, such as the temperature, pH levels, oxygen levels and water pressure. As well as control, the system provides reports of historical data and has an alarm-handling solution to ensure any issues receive a prompt response.

Dr Lee says that with this infrastructure, the farm can operate on a self-sustaining basis – a unique feature in the industry. “Fish are very sensitive to their environment. The temperatures in our tanks are held within a tight band that’s optimal for fish growth and vitality, which means we can produce fish in half of the time without having to introduce any antibiotics or growth hormones. Furthermore, the system offers us complete transparency, visibility and traceability of the process from end to end, which is ultimately reflected in the purity of the water and the taste of the fish.”

The value of the system extends beyond just the quality of the produce; it has been instrumental in consolidating the farm’s philosophy.

“It’s been a big benefit for us in terms of morale as our team is passionate about sustainability,” Dr Lee explained. “It also helps us to attract customers who care about the welfare of the fish and the impact on the environment – it’s a strong marketing platform.”

Now that the blueprint is in place for a scalable, reliable and high-quality fish farm, Sustainable Blue is taking steps to expand operations, both within Canada and in other markets. The model that’s in place provides assurance that this growth won’t come at the expense of the environment.

“Not only is our produce sustainable and ethical but steps have been taken to make our entire operation more environmentally friendly. We’re moving to 100% renewable energy and planning to replicate the model across new sites – the closer the farm is to the end customer, the shorter the supply chain, which benefits freshness and environmental consciousness,” Dr Lee added.

Dr Lee recognises the contribution that the control partners have made in helping him to realise the vision he’s been pursuing for nearly 15 years: “Our farms are process-heavy and, for all our good qualities, humans are not very good at tasks that involve repetition and accuracy, which is the case for managing and modulating a RAS. 

“It quickly became apparent to us that automation was something that we needed early on in our development. We’re delighted to have had the benefit of Fairfield Control Systems and Rockwell Automation’s expertise to maintain a clean, stunningly clear environment for the fish at all times.”

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