A System Designed Around Circularity: Pre-summit interview with John Diener, CEO, Vertical Oceans

Vertical Oceans enables fresh, safe and healthy seafood to be available anytime, anywhere with the lightest environmental touch possible. We caught up with CEO John Diener ahead of the Blue Food Innovation Summit to learn about multitrophic recirculating aquaculture and why it is one of the most impactful examples of circularity in aquaculture and beyond.

What does circularity look like in aquaculture?

John Diener, CEO, Vertical Oceans

Circularity in aquaculture can take many different forms. Multitrophic aquaculture is one of the most impactful circularities as it up cycles waste nutrients into harvestable biomass. Multitrophic systems can be applied in any aquaculture system, whether sea cages, ponds and recirculating systems so it is very flexible. The other circularity is the conversion of byproducts from processing and moralities into feed ingredients like fishmeal and fishoil, or other compounds, for example using chitin from shrimp and crab shells to make human supplements such as glucosamine. Even tilapia skin can be used as a wound dressing for burn victims. All of these applications cycle the waste into useful products.

How does your process or technology enable a circular system?

Our whole system is designed around circularity. Multitrophic recirculating aquaculture is a core element of our model and a lot of our tech is designed it. There are many of benefits of operating a multi-trophic system beyond just handling waste and inorganic nitrogen so we see this as both part of our sustainability platform, but also efficiency and quality. But it goes way beyond that. We are 100% recirculating, which presents its own challenges because even if we wanted to, we can’t discharge effluent because it is full salinity seawater. So we’ve had to develop a system which can fully refresh the water. Everything in our system therefore has to be up cycled in some form or other and we’ve worked out how to do that.

How can utilising waste make production more circular?

Our framing is that we’re not dealing with waste anywhere in our system, we are dealing with nutrients. While ammonia is considered a waste by product of growing shrimp or fish, it’s an essential fertiliser for algae. Our approach therefore was to look at the total organics cycle in our system and evaluate each component from the perspective of usefulness or nutritional value for some species. In this way, our whole biological system is completely circular, except the feed we use to grow the shrimp – but even there, we’re able to upcycle some of the algae into our shrimp feed.

What innovations are you excited about that are helping advance sustainable blue food?

Of course, I think inland recirculating aquaculture is the most exciting area in blue food. It combines so many different technologies and disciplines and is a powerful too to enhance food security in a very sustainable way. I also think seaweed (macro algae) has massive potential in blue food. They are fast growing, generally beneficial to the aquatic ecosystem, a carbon sink, a source of proteins, oils and micronutrients – there’s just so much there. Lastly, I look forward to seeing the equipment suppliers to the industry start innovating in areas like filtration and sensors, etc. As digital systems become more pervasive, the demand for sensors will be much stronger than it’s ever been in the past. This will attract some new entrants into the aquaculture space with some fresh ideas and technologies. But there’s so much in this space, these are just a few of the many interesting areas in blue food.

Why is the Blue Food Innovation Summit an important date in your calendar? Who are you hoping to meet there?

Blue Food Innovation Summit is the signal of this sector gaining sufficient momentum to stand on its own. In the last few years we see a lot more startups and a lot more funding coming into this space which historically lagged technology adoption. It’s also the first conference I will attend in Blue Food since COVID so I am looking forward to catching up with old friends – as well as meet some new people, and we have a long list of people we want to catch up with at the event including investors, suppliers,  sustainability partners and others.

Vertical Oceans is a silver partner for the Blue Food Innovation Summit on June 14-15, 2022, and John will join the session ‘Future Production Technology in Focus’ alongside leaders from Ocean Arks Tech, FishGLOBE and Hofseth Biocare. See the full agenda.