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Marifish: Reducing barriers to sustainable aquaculture and mariculture innovation

E. Bader
January 16, 2024

The collaborative project, launched in November 2023, is an all-in-one incubator, accelerator, and innovation community that supports the next generation of fisheries entrepreneurs.

Aquaculture has the potential to produce sustainable protein amid climate concerns, declining natural fish stocks, regulatory pressures, and shifting demand from a growing global population. The key, however, is sustainability. Aquaculture farms are linked to many environmental issues from habitat destruction, fish waste and degraded water quality, to the spread of disease and genetic threats for wild stocks. And many farmed fish rely on wild caught food sources with declining numbers.

One major innovation needed is the development and scaling of land-based aquaculture systems, a closed-loop approach that uses biofilters and recirculated water. Other innovations include health monitoring and management software such as ReelData, which reduces loss and optimizes fish and feed management. New approaches to aquaculture can also include shellfish, seaweed and algae production, and the means to reduce environmental harm from offshore aquaculture. The potential, need, and demand for sustainable aquaculture are limitless. Resources to develop the practices, however, are not.

Aquaculture innovation has many barriers. These include building profitable operations and the cost and resources required to build new solutions. Developing aquaculture systems is resource-intensive, requiring not only capital, but access to facilities, technology, markets, and even permitting for water use.

Marifish.Inc vzw, a Belgium-based incubator project, aims to solve barriers and help foster the next generation of aquaculture technology. The collaborative project, launched in November 2023, is an all-in-one incubator, accelerator, and innovation community to develop the next generation of sustainable aquaculture and mariculture.

The need for the project came to founder, Sylvie Becaus one “blue Monday” as she contemplated the declining state of fisheries and her multi-generation family business, the Flemish Fish Auction in the Ostend fishery port, in Belgium. The plan for an aquaculture innovation center then came to life in collaboration with the Voka - Chamber of Commerce and Industry West Flanders.

“What we’ve seen over the last 20 years is that the fisheries are having difficult times and face challenges such as the Brexit regulations. We have the decline in fish stocks, among other issues. The next generation isn't going to be fishermen anymore. So, if we want to keep activity in the ports, we need to find a new way of doing things. And that's why we founded Marifish with the hope to foster innovative fisheries,” said Becaus.

Marifish founders include the European Food Centre, the parent company of the Flemish Fish Auction, Voka - Chamber of Commerce and Industry West Flanders, and the West Flanders Development Agency. The incubator project provides innovation space including a “living lab, ”processing units, access to markets and support, business mentoring, and community for start-ups and scale-ups in the aquaculture industry. The project makes use of permitted access to sea water and facilities, critical and costly infrastructure for new entities. The unique model also incorporates academic and technical support from the University of Ghent, the Institute of Agriculture and Fisheries of Flanders, and the Flemish Institute of the Sea. Marifish is also made possible through the generous support of stakeholders including The Nest.

The Ostend harbor

Sustainable aquaculture is part of The Nest’s mission to increase regenerative food production, both on land and in the ocean: “The ocean is a crucial food source as well as a major climate regulator, employer, and the home to an abundance of biodiversity. Overfishing, traditional aquaculture, and pollution threaten the natural ecosystems and the climate and economic services they provide. Marifish is looking to address these issues here in Belgium, where fishing and marine activity are important pieces of our cultural history  and economic fabric that have seen declines in recent years. We are excited to be a part Marifish´s work to support the entrepreneurs creating and scaling solutions that seek to rebalance the health of our oceans while supporting the local community.”

Marifish officially launched in November2023. The project is unique in that it fosters collaboration across all sectors, public, private, academic, and business. The only stakeholders needed now? Entrepreneurs, says Becaus.

“There are five elements for aquaculture. You need biological knowledge. You need money. You need water. You need space, and you need a sales organization. Most of the time, entrepreneurs are very strong in the first one, biological knowledge, but they don't have money. They don't have a clue where to sell products. They don't have water and they didn't haves pace or the money to get the space. We solve their four other problems,” said Becaus.

“There are other incubators in the world, but one that offers coaching, access to seawater, and the sales organization is really something quite unique. It's premier,” said Charlotte Dekimpe, of Voka -Chamber of Commerce and Industry West Flanders. Becaus, Dekimpe, and Evy De Bruyker, also of Voka - Chamber of Commerce and Industry West Flanders, are the leadership for Marifish.

Fishing of gray North Sea shrimp

The team anticipates onboarding three to five start-ups in their facilities and coaching programme in 2024, then plans to scale that number up to a dozen in the future. Their mission hopes to benefit the port community as well as the start-ups, keeping activity in the ports, and building economic opportunity for the coastal community. Marifish entrepreneurs may be key to increasing exports to a global market. However, the export will be more than just seafood, noted Because, explaining that the project will help establish Belgium as a leader in sustainable aquaculture. With world-class aquaculture knowledge from academic institutions and the resources and community of Marifish, the country’s bigger marine export may be its innovation.