The diagnostic method – which is known as clinical chemistry and is similar to approaches used in human and veterinary medicine – involves regular analysis of biomarkers in blood samples, such as mineral or electrolyte levels. Monitoring biomarkers and changes in fish behaviour could allow seafood producers to identify health concerns and pre-emptively manage fish health, using real-time results to inform treatment decisions.
Led by the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), the research project was recently awarded a significant funding package as part of the UK Seafood Innovation Fund, with support from the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC). The Scottish Salmon Company, Scottish Sea Farms, Mowi, Cooke Aquaculture, Loch Duart, Wester Ross Fisheries, Grieg Seafood and Kames Fish Farming are all also supporting the research.
One of the biggest challenges in aquaculture is understanding what "normal" fish biomarkers look like and how they change when there is an issue. As part of the initiative, researchers are therefore running tests on thousands of samples to develop a digital database that will allow future blood samples to be cross-referenced against a set of biomarkers that represent normal conditions.
Brian Quinn, professor of ecotoxicology at the UWS aquaculture health laboratory, said: “This type of proactive approach might seem a no-brainer, given that it’s already used widely in human medicine and agriculture. However, it’s a very complex process and we’re just scratching the surface when it comes to developing the system for fish health. Stage one is to establish a strong reference base, which will be crucial to the success of health monitoring – but this involves assessing thousands of samples with at least 30 biomarkers each.”
The new system could also boost the efficiency of the health monitoring process. Currently, fish farms tend to use a histological approach to check health indicators on a small sample of fish, which may not provide an accurate picture of the overall site and can take up to 14 days to return results. The new method of measuring biomarkers as an indication for kidney, heart or gill function, could return analysis in less than 24 hours with better data.
Using results from the research - also funded by SAIC, BBSRC and Innovate UK - to create a final product, the UWS team is planning to set up a spin-out company in around 12 months through the Scottish Enterprise’s High-Growth Spinout Programme.
Quinn added: “While taking blood samples from fish is not the easiest process in itself, fish farmers are already getting out on to the water to make frequent checks and observations and adding regular blood sampling could become part of this routine. The equipment used to test the samples is also readily available, however, it is largely designed for human analysis. Therefore, we have recalibrated the kit to create a version that can be used for aquaculture testing specifically.
“The project has received a great deal of support from the sector so far, with companies recognising the potential impact and benefits of a proactive, data-led approach to fish health monitoring. The system could trigger a fundamental change in fish farming’s approach to health management, based on proactive, informed interventions – it’s the first time we’ve been in a position to offer this.”
Polly Douglas, aquaculture innovation manager at SAIC, added: “Enhancing fish health and wellbeing continues to be one of the biggest priorities for the aquaculture sector in Scotland. It’s great to be helping to facilitate partnerships between academia and the industry that can find new, more efficient methods for monitoring and diagnosis. When it comes to complex projects, collaboration is key to success.
“Improving fish health is also a major focus of the Scottish Government’s 10-year Farmed Fish Health Framework. Innovation projects that can potentially boost efficiency and productivity will undoubtedly help Scotland’s main food export to grow sustainably.”