Monitoring of farmed fish and their environment to be boosted as the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) invests nearly £250,000 in projects to improve biodiversity and fish health in farming.
The first project, led by Kames Fish Farming Ltd in partnership with the University of the West Scotland, Marine Harvest, Randox Food Diagnostics and Europharma, aims to create a method of assessing fish health with earlier and more specific diagnoses that reduces veterinary requirements and shortens the diagnostic period – which is typically seven days or more. Current practice can cause significant losses for farmers due to the effects of illnesses on the fish before diagnosis and treatment; a cost that could be halved with this new technology, with a potential saving of £75,000 per cycle.
“The unique project consortium of academic, aquaculture and medical diagnostic partners will, for the first time, enable rapid advances in the assessment of fish health in aquaculture,” states Stuart Cannon, managing director at Kames Fish Farming. “We believe that this new technology will not only improve the health and wellbeing of farmed fish across the industry; it will add considerable value to the thriving Scottish aquaculture industry.”
The project will re-purpose diagnostic technologies designed for humans and will rapidly test biomarker responses in the liver, kidney and cardiac function for various diseases. The use of automated technologies allows testing in large numbers of salmon and rainbow trout in a non-lethal method. The test will initially be focused on the impact of sea lice treatments, but will ultimately form the basis for a process that will scan for a wide range of health issues in fish leading to earlier disease diagnosis and intervention. The year-long project will cost £242,470, of which £94,457 will be contributed by SAIC.
“The measurement of biomarker response in clinical chemistry is the cornerstone of human health management,” says Dr Brian Quinn, Reader in ecotoxicology at the University of the West Scotland. “Our project harnesses these principles and technologies, and applies them to fish health practices. It empowers fish farmers to make faster, more effective decisions for the good of their stock allowing them to take a more pro-active approach to fish health management.”
A second, 18-month long project sees Marine Harvest Scotland partner with the Scottish Association for Marine Sciences (SAMS), UHI Inverness College, Rivers and Lochs Institute and the Scottish Environmental Agency (SEPA). The consortium will develop a new, more efficient method of monitoring the diversity of organisms living in the seabed around fish cages, a legal requirement of fish farm consent-compliance.
“The current approach to assessing environmental conditions is time consuming, strenuous to organisations and costs the industry around £1 million per year,” comments Ben Hadfield, managing director at Marine Harvest Scotland. “Metagenomics is a growing area of scientific expertise and one that the Scottish aquaculture industry can utilise to streamline processes and enable further growth. Our collaborative project will benefit organisations all over the industry, even as far up the chain as the supermarkets, as compliance standards are better met and production increases.”
The project, to which SAIC is contributing £154,248 of a total of £274,375, will develop a method of testing seabed diversity using metagenomics, a technique that takes DNA samples direct from the environment and analyses them to see what species are present. This is a radical step change to the current method, a painstaking process of picking out organisms from samples of mud and identifying them visually, a process which can take months to complete. These existing barriers to assessing environment health and conditions in real-time can make it harder for organisations to adhere to consent conditions. The new metagenomic method, initiated by the industry, will deliver results within days and is set to save around 60% of the cost of traditional analysis.
“Not only will we see an improvement in the timeliness of the data that can be collected, working with a regulator like SEPA allows us to build in protocols that help the farmers to become more compliant and for SEPA to have a clearer picture of the industry at any one time,” says Dr Tom Wilding, lecturer in benthic ecology at SAMS.
These two projects meet key objectives of the centre, supporting innovative technologies which will boost the productivity of the aquaculture industry in Scotland, adding significantly to the country’s economic growth.
Heather Jones, CEO at SAIC, adds: “The Scottish Aquaculture 2030 Vision for Growth group aims to double aquaculture’s contribution to the economy by 2030. In order to deliver such ambitious growth, the industry needs to develop new, innovative technologies which change the way in which we work. Working with our project partners, we can harness existing concepts – such as rapid diagnostics or new research methods like metagenomics – and apply them to our industry. All of this is made possible by bringing partners together from across the sector, from farmers to feed experts, researchers to MDs and, for the first time, regulators such as SEPA. Together, we can develop sustainable practices and support the growth of one of Scotland’s most important industries.”