Israeli company takes to deep seas for fish farming

Subflex’s flexible cages are tethered to a single point on the seabed or an accompanying vessel using ropes made out of space-age materials. Fishing today isn’t what it used to be, according to Yechiam Shapira, CEO of Israeli startup Subflex. …

Subflex’s flexible cages are tethered to a single point on the seabed or an accompanying vessel using ropes made out of space-age materials. Fishing today isn’t what it used to be, according to Yechiam Shapira, CEO of Israeli startup Subflex. There are fewer fish near the coasts, and more trawlers ply the high seas, making catching fish more difficult and challenging.

In fact, fish – their taste and quality – aren’t what they used to be, either, he says. The fish farms located in bays and inlets, where much of the fish sold today are raised, cause pollution and other environmental problems – and the fish they produce just don’t taste that good, either.

The answer to both problems, says Shapira, lies with the deep-water fish farming system developed by his company. “Our system is modular and flexible, and solves many of the technical problems that have prevented deep sea fish farming from taking off until now. And, the fish produced in farms using the Subflex system taste great,” he explains.

Overfishing depletes fish reserves

Overfishing has been a problem for years, but the problem is getting acute. “More people are eating fish than ever, and with almost all major stores of fish near the coasts depleted, fishing expeditions now go out into the deep sea, where they are beginning to go after the basic stock – the main breeding colonies – of many species of fish,” says Shapira. And once a species’ basic stock is gone, it’s more or less extinct.

One solution to the problem of overfishing has been the rise of aquaculture, including the deployment of “fish farms,” basically underwater cages used to raise fish for the marketplace. About 40 percent of commercially available fish are raised on a farm, but several of the most popular farming methods – especially underwater cage farms – have come in for heavy criticism by environmentalists, and have even been banned in some areas.

“The easiest place to set up a farm is in a bay or port, where the winds are usually calm and the waves controlled by breakers and the surrounding land. But because the sea is calm, the waste produced by fish tends to remain, polluting the water.” Shapira says.

Fish in these farms tend to get sick, he says, with as many as one third succumbing to disease – and the heavy concentration of fish and waste sometimes leads to severe outbreaks of parasites among fish, like sea lice.

“In Eilat, the government finally decided to remove the fish farms that had been there for decades because of the damage they were doing to the coral reefs,” he added, citing arguments made by environmentalists. “It’s happening not just here, but around the world.”

So if deep-sea fishing and fish farming are out, what’s left? Subflex’s user friendly, single-point mooring, submersible, flexible net cage system, says Shapira. “With our system, you can raise almost any kind of saltwater fish away from shore, without having to worry about weather, waves, predators, or pollution.”

The patented Subflex system is basically a flexible series of large cages – using ropes made out of space-age materials – moored to a single point (on the sea bed or an accompanying vessel), that is designed to move with the waves.

Designed to roam the sea

Unlike moored competing systems made of more rigid materials, the Subflex system is allowed to “roam” from its mooring point in any direction necessary, reducing stress on the cages and enabling natural diffusion of fish waste into the open sea. And, because of its modular nature, new cages can easily be added to a Subflex system to expand capacity when necessary.

One of the biggest problems with deploying a deepwater fish farm is the potential for inclement – even wild – weather that buffets the cages about, with the fish bumping into and damaging each other, causing wear and tear on the cages from the heavy waves, and, with enough stress, possibly causing the whole thing could come apart.

But the Subflex system has that covered, too, says Shapira. “When bad weather arrives, the crew can submerge the whole setup as far as necessary – up to 200 meters – thus keeping the fish out of reach of the heavy waves and winds.” Close to the surface, Shapira says, the Subflex system has proven to be stable in surf of up to four meters – “but if necessary, the option exists to drop the cages, and raise them back up after the storm passes.”

And while humans and fish are different in many ways, they seem to share one common characteristic: Just like people are healthier when they get lots of fresh air, saltwater fish are healthier – and tastier – when they get lots of open sea.

“We’ve set up a couple of projects here in Israel and overseas, the largest one being for an Israeli company called Royal Fish, which raises sea bream near Ashdod. By the end of this year they will have sold 2,000 tons of fish, in only their second year of working with our system.”

Royal Fish’s success is due to the quality of its product; the fish is so tasty, says Shapira, that the company is able to demand a premium price for its product – and as word gets out on how tasty the open-sea raised bream are, the company can’t keep up with orders.

But the better quality of the fish shouldn’t surprise anyone, says Shapira. “With the Subflex system Royal Fish is using, fish are being raised in as close to a natural, free environment as possible while still being managed. The fish run with their schools in a clean environment, without the problems endemic to other forms of fish farming. As environmental concerns grow, along with unprecedented consumer demand, there’s no question that the Subflex method of fish farming is the wave of the future.”