UMaine hosts international salmon RAS event

International experts came to the University of Maine for the third annual Recirculating Aquaculture Salmon Network (RAS-N) and the first-ever Sustainable Aquaculture Systems Supporting Salmon (SAS2) conference.

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
29 October 2022, at 8:00am
Recirculating aquaculture tank
Recirculating aquaculture system

The RAS-N and SAS2 conference was held from 27 to 29 September at the University of Maine © AKVA

During the conference, which was held from 27 to 29 September, scientists, communicators and educators shared information and explored current challenges for the land-based production of Atlantic Salmon in the US. They also learned about new technologies, outreach strategies and cutting-edge research through presentations, panel discussions and field trips.

Industry members and researchers working in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) — a farming method for salmon and other species where water is pumped through treatment systems that clean and re-filter circulated water — discussed a wide range of topics, such as seedstock, health and welfare, off-flavour, feeds, workforce development, consumer education and marketing, community engagement and challenges experienced within the industry.

The various panels showcased the expertise of different stakeholders who participated in the conference, which demonstrated collaboration and networking across several areas related to recirculating aquaculture systems. Key themes from their discussions included scalability, improving efficiencies and regulations, and enhancing general knowledge and understanding.

“Using genomics and metabolomics, we learn more about the quality of eggs and develop non-invasive predictors for broodstock quality that is scalable, fast and inexpensive,” Heather Hamlin, director of the UMaine School of Marine Sciences and joint faculty member with the Aquaculture Research Institute, said during a session about seedstock.

Research and development of a domestic seed supply would be extremely beneficial for the US as recirculating aquaculture systems gain more traction, because most of the current seedstock comes from abroad. Similarly, studies into combating off-flavour — created when bacteria-like streptomyces produce compounds such as geosmin through metabolism that are absorbed through the fish’s gills — and more efficient feeds exemplifies the positive direction research into recirculating aquaculture systems is heading.

John Davidson, a research scientist with the Freshwater Institute in West Virginia, discussed studies focusing on biological mechanisms for the characterisation and control of microbiomes in recirculating aquaculture systems to reduce off-flavour, in addition to advanced chemical application and new advanced oxidation techniques. Sarah Cook from Skretting, the world’s largest producer of fish feeds, discussed the physical aspects of feed impacts to recirculating aquaculture systems as a whole.

salmon swimming in a RAS
Salmon swimming in a recirculating aquaculture system

The US RAS industry would benefit from a domestic seed supply

“It’s important to look at each individual system and work with farms to understand how best their system works, because all systems are so different,” Cook said.

The conference also focused on community engagement, understanding social license to operate and workforce development.

“Developing standards or competencies is needed on a national level,” said Scarlet Tudor, education and outreach coordinator at UMaine’s Aquaculture Research Institute. “We need people with different educations and backgrounds and we need to start them young.”

Placing recirculating aquaculture systems in classrooms and developing modules for aquaculture curriculum with technology integration and hands-on science could increase science literacy and related skills among students, training them for future workforce needs.

Recirculating aquaculture facility
The Kingfish Company's RAS facility in Maine

© The Kingfish Company

Conference sessions also emphasised that successful development of education programmes and materials about recirculating aquaculture systems should integrate traditional ecological knowledge and engage with Indigenous knowledge sharers. Co-creating curriculum through the Wabanaki Youth in Science Programme (WaYs) is one example of providing youth with education other than western science, enhancing and decompartmentalising their views. Through WaYs, Maine Native youth grades 6–12 have the opportunity to participate in science while engaging with their cultural heritage through summer camps, internships and after school programmes.

Additionally, sessions emphasised the need for a coordinated communications strategy to elevate and help with social capital, interest, technology transfer, advancing research and getting people from multiple disciplines involved in the workforce.

The conference culminated with University of New Hampshire PhD candidate Emily Whitmore discussing the importance of community engagement.

“Relational elements between a company and a host community are vital,” Whitmore said. “Consulting, trust building and building support instead of rebutting opposition will set you up for success.

King Fish USA, for example, faced opposition at first, but put in the social license work by gathering ongoing approval from the community and it paid off. The town of Jonesport rejected an aquaculture moratorium earlier this summer.

RAS-N started in 2019 with funding from the National Sea Grant Office for a three-year effort to build capacity and identify and address challenges. The multi-state consortium, led by partners in Maine, Maryland and Wisconsin is now transitioning into a new phase, the SAS2, with $10 million in funding from the US Department of Agriculture and USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. This new phase aims to increase public awareness and boost the economic and environmental sustainability of the industry.

“RAS (recirculating aquaculture systems) is the most viable path for growth in the US,” said Erik Heim from Xcelerate Aqua. “Improving time to market, keeping revenue on schedule, costs on budget and improving environment stewardship is key.”