The Life of RAS

The Life of RAS

By Amy Stone

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write.  But here we go!  Based on my last several months, I thought it might be a good thing to do a general overview of the nuances of RAS (Recirculating Aquaculture Systems).  Not because I think it is anything earth shattering but more because I think we get so focused that we often overlook things that seem minor but are ultimately very important to the success of a facility.

Key things to consider.

When deciding to either enter the RAS world or modify existing systems, it is important to consider several things.  Here’s the caveat: to be clear, this article is not exhaustive nor am I willing to make the statement that it includes everything.  Now that we have dispensed with that, these are the items that consistently crop up during discussions with colleagues and customers.

First and foremost, it doesn’t matter how much or how little you spend if at the end of the specified timeframe, you have not made a profit.  The timeframe to profit varies greatly based on the animal that is being raised in the system.  For instance, tilapia has a shorter growth period than sturgeon. It also depends on the funding sources and ultimately your business plan.

Capital Expenses vs Operating Expenses

The ratio of capital vs operational is often reliant on the cost of labor.  In many cases, focusing on earmarking money to spent on the capital side of the equation will allow a sustained savings on the operational side.  Meaning, the more sophisticated the system, the less labor it requires and the longer the equipment will last before replacement.  There is a point of no return as well as the consideration of whether the work force and local infrastructure can maintain the more automated systems.

In all cases, your return on investment should be a major factor in deciding how to proceed.  How long will it take to recover the expenses of owning and operating the equipment.  In some cases, capital expenses drive the entire project with less thought given to the operational expenses as those can supposedly be manipulated later. 

Here is an example.  When making a pump selection, there are a multitude of options.  Ranging from the more expensive more energy efficient composite pumps to the less expensive less energy efficient plastic or cast-iron pumps.  Plastic and cast-iron are often less expensive than reinforced fiberglass or composite materials.  However, the FRP and composite materials have a longer lifetime than straight plastic and don’t erode like cast iron.  Electricity is one of the biggest expenses in a RAS system and anytime a more efficient filtration piece can be used, the better.

But does it work?

It’s easy to make things look good on paper.  But does it work?  That has to be something that is explored thoroughly.  Does the engineer, designer or new farm manager actually have experience working with your animal.  As much as we all think we can do anything, we really can’t.  I will likely upset some with this comment, BUT a warmwater marine specialist has little to no business trying to design a cool freshwater system and vice versa.  The two are really only alike in that they both have water.

I honestly can’t stress this enough.  There are experts for everything but no one person is an expert at everything. Please, if you do nothing else, research your experts, consultants, designers, engineers and make sure they are experienced at the applications your facility will need to be successful.  If there is no one on your team that has experience with a similar species, you need to keep looking.  Please don’t be fooled by a fancy CV. 

Now that I have aggravated a bunch of people, please know that after close to 30 years of working in this industry as a farmer, a technical support person at Aquatic Eco-Systems and now a business owner, I wish only the best successes of those out there willing to stick their neck out and start a farm.  There is nothing easy about it.  And when the team isn’t as robust as it should be, dreams and livelihoods can be shattered.

Skills, skills, skills…..

A facility can have the most high-tech equipment known to the industry and still fail.  Each facility should be unique in its design and include consideration on the skills of the local workforce.  If the people running the system are unwilling or unable to learn how to work with it properly, it will still fail.  As the owner/manager of a facility, you can spend an enormous amount of time and money training staff.  It is also incredibly difficult to hire trained staff.  In many cases, facilities are starting from scratch.  And while that can be a very good thing, it can also present difficulties.  Take the time to train the staff and set expectations for success.

It's almost as important to have employees committed to success as it is to have a robust business plan/facility design.  If a facility is lucky enough to have the trifecta of a great workforce, a great facility and a great business plan, the sky will be the limit.  This is almost impossible to achieve.  However, it should always be the goal.

Keep in mind, your ego and preconceived notion of your own knowledge may just be the downfall of the entire project. It is critical that you question yourself as much asor even more than you question your team.  It’s easy to delude ourselves with thoughts that we really know what we’re doing all the time.  I have said it a million times, if I’ve said it at all.  That minute when your ego surpasses your knowledge, will be the minute that everything falls apart.  We’ve all seen it.  We’ve all heard it.  In many cases, we’ve all lived it.

There is no shame in admitting you do not know everything.  In fact, it is better to surround yourself with those who know more about the things you don’t so that you can always have a good set of checks and balances.  If you sit back and watch a room, or listen to those around you, most often it’s the humble people who are winning.  And even more likely, you never knew they were as successful as they are because, they aren’t making a big deal about it.

It’s also important to listen to your team.  It seems so mundane to write that we need to listen.  Isn’t that in every management book, every self-help book and really every time we turn around, we’re told to listen? However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a meeting with clients who are not actually listening to employees or teammates who actually know how to solve the problem.

The take home….

Keep reviewing everything as often as possible with the most critical eye you can muster.  Make sure to surround yourself with people who are willing to tell you when you are wrong but also when you are correct.  Dig deep and make sure people aren’t selling you a bill of goods.  The more thorough you are on the front end, the less likely you are to be bamboozled.

Throughout my entire career, all I have wished for is that aquaculture be successful both in the United States and abroad.  I know this is not my typical article subject, but I feel that it is important that we pull the curtain back on the things that are really holding back our industry.  Food security and availability should be our number one priority and I firmly believe successful aquaculture is a huge part of making that happen.