Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC)
Aquaculture casts the net wider…
Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC)
WHERE: University of Stirling
FUNDING: £11 million
WHO: A consortium of 46 businesses and 16 higher education institutes
Aquaculture casts the net wider
The aquaculture industry in Scotland generates over £1.8 billion a year for the Scottish economy and its supply chain contributes about 8,300 jobs, in locations all over the country. It is also a major exporter, second only to whisky in the food and drink sector, sending over £500 million-worth of products overseas. But this success depends on innovation in fish health and welfare, as well as improved productivity combined with more sustainable and cost-effective sourcing of feed, and this is the challenge for the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) as it searches for partners across the university and industry spectrum – and new ideas based on everything from whisky production and treatments for cancer to broad beans and insects...
Scotland has always been known for its premium salmon, but Heather Jones believes the country will also soon be known for world-class aquaculture science and technology; as well as its premium talent and industry know-how.
Since Jones took up her job as CEO of SAIC, the organisation and its members have played a key role in a number of initiatives, including an experimental shellfish hatchery in Shetland, developing new vaccination techniques, and research into lumpfish and wrasse – the “cleaner fish” that help control sea lice. The industry-led board is also proud of the fact that for every single £1 spent by SAIC in its first 12 months of operation, it has attracted £3.60 in industry and academic funding.
By the end of 2015, SAIC had announced five major projects, worth over £9.1 million, including £2.3 million from SAIC. SAIC has also helped its partner universities win extra funding of £1.6 million from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to buy new equipment; for example, three liquid-chromatography-tandem-mass spectrometry systems for analysing vitamins, lipids and proteins. In addition, there are currently 20 new SAIC scholarships (at the Universities of Stirling and Dundee), with 20 more due to be added this year (with plans to add Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt).
SAIC has been busy since starting up in late 2014, but Jones says “most success is led by industry at industry speed,” with SAIC smoothing the way and encouraging collaborative partnerships, rather than dictating the agenda to business.
Jones is also pleased that different people and organisations in fields with no previous links with aquaculture have turned their attention to the challenges faced by commercial producers in Scotland, and are beginning to realise the huge potential for exporting their skills and solutions all over the world. Physicists and statisticians, engineers, whisky producers and big pharmaceutical companies have all been keen to get involved, either through funding, research or providing resources. Leading supermarket chains (including Sainsbury’s, M&S, Tesco and Waitrose) are also part of the consortium, partly because they have similar interests in “pre-competitive” issues such as fish health and welfare. One way they can help is funding MScs in aquaculture and marine engineering, and research in sustainable feeds, fish genetics and fish health. Feed producers also have a big role to play, including companies in other markets; for example, converting by-products from distilleries (wash is a good source of sugars and carbs) into fish feed, in partnership with drinks giant Diageo. According to Jones, there is also very promising research into broad beans and insects as possible sources of protein for fish, while algae still has huge potential. To support progress on sustainable feeds, SAIC recently launched a call for “expressions of interest” on solutions for alternative feeds for finfish. Another area where SAIC is supporting progress is the use of engineering and automations solutions in aquaculture, with companies that previously worked in oil and gas now turning their attention to fish farms, focusing on cage design, robotics and computerised feeding solutions. “It’s a small number of companies compared to other industries,” says Jones, “but this helps us keep tightly focused.”
Companies such as Gael Force Marine, one of the largest suppliers of marine equipment and chandlery in the UK, have also been enthusiastic supporters of SAIC, because they see the value that will come from innovation in the sector as a whole – including forming partnerships with engineering companies more used to oil rigs than fish farms.
“As well as fish biology and fish farm equipment, we focus on environmental impact,” says Jones, citing the example of research into seawater currents. Another example of the scope for attracting new talent and ideas to the aquaculture sector is mathematicians from the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, who are more used to modelling problems in human epidemiology, who are now turning their attention to diseases in fish.
Among the other “pleasant surprises” for Jones have been several firms in the human or veterinary medical sectors who think they may have something to offer aquaculture that hasn't been thought of before. During workshops and meetings, several researchers have come forward to offer ideas, including an ingenious solution developed for testing Ebola in West Africa, called “Lab in a Suitcase.” Because this innovative device was originally designed for use in areas remote from any lab, it could possibly be modified for testing fish health on fish farms.
Cancer researchers have also been talking to SAIC about how they can help in translating drug delivery technology from humans to fish. New syringes ergonomically designed for use with fish are another solution to emerge from the veterinary medical field. “We are taking new ideas from other disciplines and offering them to the people who care for the fish,” says Jones, “adapting techniques first developed for humans or cattle and sheep.”
“Scientists have studied human health for two millennia,” Jones continues, “and animal health for about the last 500 years. The aquaculture industry has only existed for about 50 years, so we still know very little about fish biology compared with the biology of ruminants, for instance.”
Attracting new ideas from other areas of science and technology is part of what Jones calls the “Connect and Collaborate” service which SAIC can deliver, bringing in investment and co-funding projects with commercial potential – researchers may be passionate about a particular strand of research, but unless it appeals to commercial producers, it will not be funded. “We ask the industry to tell us what their problems are, rather than funding research for its own sake,” says Jones. “For some academic researchers, this is a big change in culture, but they soon see the benefits of what we are trying to do – they are now getting funding they may not have seen in the past. They are also beginning to see the opportunities in Scotland and beyond. In 2015 alone, we launched five projects worth over £9 million, and in our second year we will fund nine new projects. In addition, SAIC has a target to attract UK and EU funding worth £5 million by 2020.
Jones, who has a public policy background, working for the Scottish Government in various capacities including three years as the head of Aquaculture, Freshwater Fisheries and Marine Licensing, is also excited about the international potential of the aquaculture industry – not just in terms of exports but economic development. For example, researchers from the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling are applying their know-how to aquaculture in Malawi, a country where fish protein is vital, but where over-fishing – in Lake Malawi, for instance – could be counter-balanced by farming fish instead.
In her new job, Jones has also visited Tasmania to check out a new shellfish hatchery there – a vertically integrated operation that could serve as a model for the new pilot hatchery supported by SAIC at the NAFC Marine Centre set up in Scalloway, Shetland, under industry leadership through the Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group, with support from the University of the Highlands & Islands. The aim of the 30-month trial is to grow mussel spat (baby mussels) and sell them to commercial producers, then scale up the operation over time, as in Tasmania. According to SAIC, it is “a trial to test the commercial viability of a mussel hatchery in Scotland which could lead to higher productivity in the shellfish industry and support rural businesses and jobs.” The project will also conduct R&D to support the development of new technologies and processes, to increase the yield of farmed mussels.
Food security is also important to Jones and SAIC, including reducing dependence on imports. Scottish salmon may be a quality product (a good source of Omega-3, Omega-6 and Omega-9 oils) and have a good reputation for welfare, but Scotland and the UK as a whole have to think about long-term domestic supplies and sustainability. Exports are important, but being close to market is a major strategic advantage. Europe imports more than 60 per cent of the fish it consumes, but Scotland is an ideal location for salmon, and could play a big role in plugging the trade gap as well as improving our health.
SAIC has already changed many people's perspectives. Businesses have worked together and formed new partnerships with academics. Academics and students have become more aware of the industry’s problems, and the opportunities this will create for researchers, including many who have never even dealt with fish before except at mealtimes. “We are brokering communications among a diverse group of people and organisations,” says Jones. “We are also reaching out much wider to researchers and business in general, to stimulate new ways of thinking. Engagement with the industry is critical to our success.”
Education is another key part of the SAIC strategy, funding scholarships and introducing students to potential employers at workshops and via work placements. “We're creating the next generation of industry leaders and academic researchers who appreciate what each sector can offer the other,” says Jones. “We must be forward looking if we want to build a sustainable industry, based on economic, social and environmental benefits.” Part of this means the creation of jobs, especially in rural and coastal communities, as well as new career paths that do not exist yet.
In its second year of operations, the work of SAIC will continue, “bringing people together, accelerating change, and drawing in new commercial and research partners, from both inside and outside the aquaculture sector.”
The sector may be relatively young, but it is catching up fast, thanks to SAIC's open-minded approach. Adapting new technology developed for treating diseases such as cancer may seem like a clever idea for fish, but the question is how to commercialise any solution. And perhaps in the future, new healthcare solutions developed for fish may be used to help humans.
Aquaculture in Scotland
The aquaculture industry in Scotland involves the farming or culturing of fish, molluscs, crustaceans and seaweed. The major product of the industry is salmon, but it also produces significant quantities of rainbow trout and mussels.
Current annual production of salmon in Scotland is about 160,000 tonnes, generating global retail sales of more than £1 billion and making Scotland the largest producer of salmon in the EU, exporting to over 50 countries.
Innovation in aquaculture could boost industry revenues and sustainability, improve food security and counter threats such as overseas competitiaon and emerging diseases. And that was why the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) was established in 2014, with 26 aquaculture companies and 13 research organisations driving the bid.
Where is innovation most needed?
SAIC focuses on innovative projects and research that tackle urgent industry issues, promote sustainability, or mitigate risks for producers. The current priorities are:
> improved sea lice control;
> alternative sustainable feeds for finfish;
> rapid detection methods for viral pathogens and diseases;
> development of secure health-certified Scottish mollusc spat production
Visit the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre website: scottishaquaculture.com