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EU fish farming: research to reel in the competition

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By Milthon Lujan

A chip to monitor fish health is just one innovation linked to an EU-funded project aimed at boosting European aquaculture by facilitating research. The possible future benefit for consumers is more high-quality fish.

Aquaculture is seen as one of the fastest growing food sectors and already produces half of the fish consumed around the world.

In Europe, the sector accounts for about 20 % of fish production and employs some 85 000 people. But while global production is on the rise, the EU’s output has remained largely unchanged over the past two decades.

In a bid to support the sustainable growth of European aquaculture, the EU-funded AQUAEXCEL2020 project is working to improve and advance related research in fields such as nutrition, genetics and technology. It does so primarily by providing scientists with free access to specialised facilities across the EU and Norway, thereby fostering both collaboration and innovation.

The project – which also offers training – has already led to ingenious discoveries to propel both EU research and the fish farming industry forward amid fierce competition.

‘Modern aquaculture is a technology-intensive sector and research is needed to help EU aquaculture be competitive,’ says project coordinator Marc Vandeputte of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.

‘This is where AQUAEXCEL2020 comes in – we are putting together top aquaculture research infrastructures at the EU level. We aim to coordinate them and develop new experimental approaches to improve our research capacities,’ explains Vandeputte.

Fish and chips

With more than 60 projects conducted so far, AQUAEXCEL2020 has led to a series of innovations – new tools that are then implemented into further aquaculture research or promoted for use by the fish farming industry.

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These novelties include a non-invasive chip that is implanted into the flap protecting a fish’s gills known as the operculum. The ‘FishBIT’ records a fish’s activity level and breathing frequency – key indicators of how healthy it is and difficult data to access when you have hundreds of fish in a tank.

Once technical issues are ironed out, this chip could be used at aquaculture facilities to monitor fish welfare, according to Vandeputte, who notes that the Spanish team working on it was already moving in this direction.

Other examples of project results with potential for commercialisation include new feed ingredients based on insect meal and 3D cameras to analyse fish behaviour in rearing tanks to also help detect potential animal welfare issues.

AQUAEXCEL2020 – which includes 22 partners from 12 countries – is also developing ways to simulate experiments so as to limit the use of lab fish.

In addition, participants are developing isogenic fish lines of salmon, trout and carp, described by Vandeputte as ‘the lab mice of aquaculture research, providing the possibility for extremely controlled, detailed and reproducible experiments to understand the physiology of different fish species.’

This increased precision and reproducibility comes from the fact that all fish within a given isogenic line have exactly the same genome, he adds, noting this could prove useful for discovering disease resistance genes and developing protective fish vaccines.

Ticket to top labs

AQUAEXCEL2020 enables researchers from around Europe to work on their aquaculture projects at a total of 39 facilities in 11 countries, making it possible for them to access tools and other resources they do not have at their home labs.

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Interested teams can apply to use the facility that best fits their particular focus and, if approved, will get their travel and research expenses paid. Participating projects last anywhere from two weeks to up to a year, with visiting scientists allowed to stay on site for up to three months.

By facilitating these visits, AQUAEXCEL2020 aims to get aquaculture researchers to innovate and collaborate with counterparts from other European countries –benefiting EU aquaculture as a whole.

‘Basically, what people often do is they work on their species with their specialty in their facility and they don’t think of doing things differently or applying it to another species – and that’s one of the things that we can propose,’ says Vandeputte. ‘In this way, we are defragmenting aquaculture research in Europe and pushing it forward.’

AQUAEXCEL2020 also offers both in person and online training to researchers and industry stakeholders. Courses include a focus on fish nutrition and feeding and using modelling of scale as a tool for designing experiments.

The project builds upon the successes of its predecessor AQUAEXCEL, which was active between 2011 and 2015.

Project details

Project acronym: AQUAEXCEL2020
Participants: France (Coordinator), Norway, UK, Spain, Greece, Hungary, Czechia, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Denmark, Portugal
Project N°: 652831
Total costs: € 9 708 867
EU contribution: € 9 708 867
Duration: October 2015 to September 2020

See also
Project website: https://aquaexcel2020.eu/ 
Project details: https://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/198193_en.html 

Source: European Commission

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