Latimeria uses artificial seawater to upend fish breeding

Israeli startup desalinates drinking water, then adds salt to create cheaper, healthier, environmentally safer way to raise fingerlings

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Grey Mullet swimming in Latimeira's Water Ring (Courtsy)
Grey Mullet swimming in Latimeira's Water Ring (Courtsy)

You probably know that when you eat a meal of sea bass on a bed of pureed vegetables alongside a chilled Chardonnay, the fillet on your plate was likely not fished out of the water but grown in a marine breeding center near the sea. Now, an Israeli company is trying to revamp that growing process.

These centers breed baby fish — fingerlings — in seawater pools and, like seeds, sell them to farmers who raise them and sell them in turn to their clients. The marine breeding centers commonly pump water from the sea, use it for fish breeding purposes and then return the water back into the surf. This pumping happens on average five times a day, with a 500 percent daily water exchange rate.

“The process is easy and straightforward, but it suffers from some chronic disadvantages,” said Eitan Sessler, the CEO of Latimeria, an Israeli startup that has developed a system to breed fish in artificially made seawater. “The energy consumption to pump the water from the sea is very high and seawater contains a large number of pathogens — be they bacteria, viruses or parasites — that induces diseases in fish. In addition, regulations regarding discharging the water back to the sea have become more stringent globally for environmental reasons.”

Latimeria is aiming to change all of this by avoiding the use of seawater: it desalinates drinking or agricultural water — using off-the-shelf desalinating technology — and then adds regular marine salt to re-salinate the liquid. This water is then placed in special polypropylene tanks called “water rings,” in which the fingerlings are bred and raised.

Latimeria's Dr Gilad Heinisch. right, and Itai Ivry checking fish ovaries (Courtesy)
Latimeria’s Dr Gilad Heinisch. right, and Itai Ivry checking fish ovaries (Courtesy)

Latimeria’s Aquaculture System recirculates the water between the fish tank and a set of mechanical and biological filters to keep it clean.

“We replace 0.8 percent of our water daily with fresh artificial seawater to get rid of impurities generated by the fingerlings,” said Sessler. “An average family consumes more water a day than a water ring system uses in a week.”

“This new system enables breeders to grow their fingerlings in salt water at any location, away from the sea, and helps better control the growth environment by minimizing the risk of introducing pathogens and the total consumption of energy and water,” he said. The water rings are modular and independent from central systems, so they allow the easy scaling up of operations, he added.

“We use 20 times less energy than a normal breeding center,” said Gilad Heinisch, Latimeria’s chief biologist. “Our working procedures are very much like the other breeding centers, yet we maintain a very high biosecurity level. To break even, breeders using our system would need to produce just around 3 million fingerlings a year compared to somewhere around 6 million at a regular marine breeding center.”

Because the seawater is artificial, water pH, alkalinity, salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen need to be constantly monitored.

Grey Mullet larvae binocular in Latimeria's water ring (Courtesy)
Grey Mullet larvae binocular in Latimeria’s water ring (Courtesy)

Fisheries and aquaculture play an important role in eliminating global hunger, and never before have people globally consumed so much fish, according to a 2014 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Fish is a key source of protein and nutrients in a world where more than 800 million people suffer from chronic malnourishment. The share of aquaculture in global fish production is projected to rise to 62 percent of all fish for human consumption by 2030, up from half in 2014, the report said.

Marine culture is the farming of marine plants and animals. The industry developed around the world and in Israel in the early 70s and Israel today operates two marine culture centers in Ashdod – where the Ardag and Dag-Suf companies produce sea bream only. Due to environmental concerns, the Israeli government in 2008 shut down marine culture operations for the production of sea bream in Eilat.

The core team behind Latimeria is made up of an expert in aquaculture technology, Itai Ivry; its chief biologist Heinisch; Sessler, the CEO; and Yoav Bar, who established Israel’s first commercial fish breeding center in Eilat. The company is named after a fish, the last living member of an ancient and endangered fish group, the lobed-fin, and the team members jokingly call themselves the “Lords of the Water Rings.”

Latimiera operates currently from Kibbutz Ein Shemer in the north of the country, where it has set up a pilot project in two large rooms with some 11 water rings in which sea bream fingerlings were swimming swiftly and densely in one of the tanks on one warm June morning. Adult grey mullets were silently swimming in another.

Latimeria's Itai Ivry working on a Water Ring (Cropped)
Latimeria’s Itai Ivry working on a water ring (Cropped)

“The quality of the fingerlings we grow here is as good as any other, but perhaps even better because of their lower exposure to pathogens,” said Heinisch.

The company is now seeking to raise some $2 million from strategic partners to start building its first commercial site in Israel. The team — which operates out of a refurbished container in the leafy and quiet kibbutz — has already identified a couple of sites that could be used for its first manufacturing plant. The idea is to initially sell the fingerlings to farmers — locally and globally — and then sell the projects, including the knowhow and the technology, globally to marine breeding centers, to wean them off their need for seawater, and to farmers who want to move upstream in their production process.

“Farmers need a supply of at least 100,000 fingerlings at a time,” said Sessler. “We are scaling up and for that we need partners and new facilities.”

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