Techo wizardry yields functional means of managing welfare

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
22 August 2007, at 1:00am

NORWAY - 'AquaFunc' is new technology that gives a clearer picture of life under the surface. Developed by Norway's Marine Research Institute (MRI) Animal Welfare Group in Bergen, the continuous, electronic data profiling and recording system can monitor fish welfare practically, writes Jane Jordan, FishSite Editor.

The web-based recording and analysis system has been produced in co-operation with industrial specialists Tendo Tech AS, SAIV AS and Morten Hammersland Software. It has taken just over a year to develop and has cost two million Krone - which has been funded by the EU.

The technology, although complex, delivers a simple assessment of physical conditions within rearing cages and/or nets. The information can then be used to monitor or change management to ensure, and in some cases prove, optimum welfare is achieved throughout production.

Although fish farmers have access to copious amounts of data, much of it can be difficult to interpret into daily management routines. But AquaFunc is different, says its developer Mr Trygve Gytre, an engineer and senior scientist at the MRI (pictured above).

"This system is the first of its kind to collate the environmental data relating to fish welfare. It then processes it using a central database to produce an index, easy to follow reports and advice that fish farmers can use to assess production parameters," he explained.

Comprehensive and practical
AquaFunc uses electronic profiling and PC technology to provide a comprehensive assessment of aquatic conditions.

The parameters monitored include temperature, oxygenation, turbidity, salinity and fluorescence, which are recorded at varying depths within the cages/nets. The information is then relayed to a central database at MRI where it is compared against scores deemed 'ideal conditions'. These scores have been established through conclusive, proven research.

The data is used to produce a 'welfare index' that producers can use to compare with average or recommended ratings. The objective is to determine if welfare is compromised at any stage and if so, to alter management practice, feeding regimes, medication or stock densities etc.

"We have developed a computer programme that 'knows' the best parameters for the welfare of farmed fish. The index is achieved by cross-referencing the readings taken from the farm with those of a best practice scenario," explained Mr Gytre.

The results are easily assimilated into practical conditions and fish farmers across Norway are queuing up to get there hands on the technology.

"This is the future. We had enormous interest in the technology at Aqua Nor, where we unveiled the project. Producer feedback shows it is precisely what they want - a realistic and practical means of assessing welfare that fits in with their management," Mr Gytre told the FishSite.

And the information collected is valuable, too. Researchers have found that achieving an index close to the optimum can benefit farm productivity, confirming that good welfare offers economic benefits.

AquaFunc comprises a submersible sonic sensor unit that records physical conditions from the surface to the sea-bed. Data is usually retrieved from cages three times a day, although frequency can be matched to individual requirements. The data is relayed (via radio signal) to a land-based receiver, usually mounted in the winch. This processes the data and then sends it to a central database using GSM technology (mobile phone lines). The central database then stores and processes the information to produce an index and graphical analysis - as shown above. Red indicates poor conditions, yellow marginal/needs improvement and green signifies optimum welfare. Producers can view reports on their own PC via the internet.

Mr Gytre says the biggest challenge has been developing the submersible sensor. The equipment had to be robust; capable of the withstanding the rigours of active salmon cages, but sensitive enough to accurately collect finite information. "The IT and software technology was, to some extent, already available, we just had to adapt it to suit our needs," he added.

The information produced will help to improve welfare and environmental conditions for farmed fish and may aid health management. The technology also offers proof that welfare is optimised throughout the production phase - a factor that retailers and consumers are increasingly concerned about.

Dr Gytre said that AquaFunc should be available to the fish farming industry within a year. The system has been extensively tested on MRI research stations and pilot studies on a number of commercial trout and salmon farms in Norway are now underway. These trials will monitor the performance and functionality of the system.

Once launched, producers will be able to join the web-based service by subscription. Members will be able to access their records using the internet and compare their own welfare data and indices against other farms, national observations and MRI recommendations.

For more information visit : MRI