An innovative new test for seawater readiness, co-funded by the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), could boost Scottish exports – both of farmed salmon and the country’s technological expertise.
The 12-month Rapid Response project will see Europharma Scotland Ltd, PrimerDesign Ltd, the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling and SAIC invest a combined £78,190 to address a key decision faced by managers of salmon hatcheries: when to transfer young salmon from freshwater hatchery and nursery facilities to seawater salmon pens.
Currently, tests to determine whether salmon have completed the physiological changes necessary to migrate safely – a process known as smoltification – can take 48 hours or more and involve sending samples elsewhere in the UK or to Norway. These delays can make it difficult for vets and producers to pinpoint the best time to transfer the fish, sometimes resulting in salmon being transferred too early or too late, both of which can cause stress or health problems to the fish and lower harvest volumes.
Now however, the SAIC-supported industry-academic collaboration is developing an on-site molecular test to provide farmers with near real-time information on whether salmon are physiologically ready to transfer to seawater.
If successful, the new test will result in quicker decision-making, healthier fish and higher survival rates. There is also scope to extend the project techniques into a multi-purpose ‘lab in a suitcase’ platform, enabling farmers to test almost instantly for a variety of diseases and pathogens.
According to Nikos Steiropoulos, Managing Director at Europharma Scotland: “Around 50 million salmon juveniles are stocked in UK sea cages each year, each one needing to undergo the change from freshwater to seawater. The commercial possibilities of this project are, therefore, significant; production people know how challenging the smoltification process can be for fish health and that a good start in seawater is key. In addition, we will continue to work on extending capacity for on-site rapid diagnostics on key salmon pathogens.”
Lead researcher Professor Manfred Weidmann of the University of Stirling, adds: “This research will provide the industry with new techniques they can use in non-lab settings and with minimal training. Not only can these new protocols significantly improve fish welfare and health, they can also ease the day-to-day decision-making for a key industry in Scotland.”
As well as boosting harvest volumes through innovation, the project could create new export opportunities for Scottish technological expertise. Says Heather Jones, CEO at SAIC: “Aquaculture is a growing global industry, and we see real scope for the project partners to develop and export their on-site testing equipment in different contexts to the likes of Norway, Canada and Chile. SAIC’s funding is offering a helping hand to an innovative idea that has the potential to boost both production and exports of Scottish salmon, as well as the country’s global reputation for innovation.”