Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC)
Lateral thinking for fish farms…
Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC)
ADMIN HUB: University of Stirling
FUNDING: £11.1 million (initial investment)
Lateral thinking for fish farms
“The aquaculture industry has changed a lot over the last 40 years,” says the interim Chair of the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), John Webster. “But one thing will never change – we are in the business of producing high-quality protein for human consumption, and we’re interested in any innovative solution which will help improve the quality, sustainability and cost-efficiency of the industry.”
There are many issues which affect the production of finfish (e.g. salmon) – for example, naturally occurring sea lice, viral pathogens and other diseases, and the availability of feedstuffs – but according to Webster, the major producers know exactly what needs to be done because they face these issues every day in their business. And the challenge for the SAIC is to bring together industry and academic researchers to ensure the focus is on problem-solving, rather than science for science’s sake or the race to publish academic papers, and persuade business that investing in research will pay off in the long term, for their individual companies and the industry in Scotland as a whole.
Webster, who is also the technical director of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, has played a key role in securing the initial round of funding for the SAIC and appointing its CEO, and has been involved in aquaculture since the early days of the industry in Scotland, both as an academic and representing producers. In his view, there has always been a good relationship between academics and business, which has already led to some innovation – for example, the collaboratively funded TSB/industry wrasse project, based at Machrihanish – but there needs to be more emphasis on practical research, money-making services and products and sustainable solutions.
The organisation will “identify and commission problem-solving research and be responsible for knowledge exchange and training which will help improve the growth, efficiency and profitability of the sector,” with the research funded in a 'just in time' manner. The business plan also makes clear that “the success of the SAIC will be measured through the translation of its activities into growth and increased profitability for existing and new aquaculture businesses, the creation of new, high-quality sustainable jobs in all sectors of Scottish aquaculture and a demonstrable positive impact on the Scottish economy.”
The structure of the SAIC is also innovative in its own right. With its administrative hub based in Stirling, the organisation will be spread around the country, with possible sites in Dunstaffnage (at the Scottish Association for Marine Science), Scalloway (the North Atlantic Fisheries College) and Machrihanish (the Marine Environmental Research Laboratory) – or wherever the resources are located.
The SAIC brings together business, research and academic partners to promote “transformational change” in the future, but the structure of the industry in Scotland has already changed dramatically over the past few decades. At one time, there were over 100 salmon producers, but now the vast majority of farms are owned by only six or seven companies. These large firms drive the commercial success of the industry and are already investing in research, but there are many SMEs employing thousands of people who would also benefit from greater innovation, and who could also contribute ideas. The challenge is to make sure there is synergy between the different stakeholders, and persuade everyone of the potential for mutual success. Every company is always seeking new ways to sharpen its competitive edge, in international and domestic markets, but there are also opportunities to share new ideas – and earn money in the process.
The ownership of intellectual property (IP) is always an issue for organisations such as the SAIC, but if companies invest in the development of innovative services or products (e.g. a new food for salmon or treatment for sea lice) that are used by their competitors as well as by themselves, they will profit from sales at the same time as sharing the benefits with business rivals – so everyone comes out a winner. And when it comes to fish health and protection of the environment in which the fish are farmed, everyone must share solutions and know-how, because everyone shares the same risks.
In Webster’s view, another major challenge for the SAIC is to get the academic community to focus on getting some early results, so SMEs can see a quick return on their investment. “We need credibility and the credentials,” says Webster. “And we want the industry to see research as an integral part of their business – to see investment in innovation as something that will generate income.”
“The role of innovation centres,” he says, “is to get people to understand the nature of working together, rather than argue about who owns the associated IP.”
One of the SAIC's priorities will be to convince major industry players and SMEs of the value of investing in novel research and, in crude terms, this means they will have to put their hands in their pockets. Researchers will also have to change their approach, because if they want industry money, they will have to persuade their investors that they see the challenge as industry sees it and understands the problems that industry faces. “The research community will have to think in terms of innovations that solve business problems,” says Webster.
Opportunities for everyone
As well as meeting the technical challenge, Webster also thinks the SAIC must reassure the public and the government that the science it helps to support is solving problems at the same time as contributing to Scotland's GDP, “not just improving the status quo but helping to facilitate real innovation.” This means there will be tremendous opportunities for SMEs – especially if they have a talent for lateral thinking.
For example, the industry has made a lot of progress in the treatment of sea lice, developing the same kind of management techniques as any other food-producing industry faced with a similar parasite problem. “But maybe there are clever thinkers out there who approach the problem from a totally different perspective,” says Webster, “and come up with a new engineering solution, rather than another therapeutic intervention – for example, using filters, ultrasound or lasers, or changing the design of the cages.”
Innovations in aquaculture may also come from unrelated industries, says Webster – not just engineering but sensors and imaging systems or industrial biotechnology, both of which are also the themes of two other innovation centres currently being established in Scotland.
Food for thought
One of the areas where innovation is needed is feedstuffs for fish farms. Apart from the need to educate the public on the cost-efficiency and sustainability of salmon farming, addressing outdated perceptions about how much protein it takes to produce fish for human consumption, there is a huge need to develop alternative sources of feed. Salmon can be net producers of protein, producing more than one tonne for every tonne of feedstuff they are given, but the demand for feed is starting to accelerate all over the world as the demand for high-quality protein increases in developing countries such as India and China, turning fish oils into a commodity traded on exchanges.
To replace this scarce, increasingly expensive commodity is therefore at the top of the wish-list for many producers, looking for terrestrial or plant-based alternatives to feed their fish and stimulate marine growth – for example, phytoplankton and the algae or seaweed which are part of the food chain – which in turn can be used to feed fish.
“There are still enough sources of fish oil for salmon,” says Webster, “but the supply is much reduced and if the pharmaceutical industry continues to buy up more fish oils (rich in omega three), we will soon need alternative sources, with modern science and technology offering a range of options that will be taken up by food producers across the globe.”
In addition, attitudes to feed stuffs need to change, whether it is public perception or a marketing issue. For example, when salmon are growing, they use oils for energy as well as depositing some oils in their flesh. But they grow just as well by using plant oils, so using plant oils to fuel growth, then supplementing diets with fish oils that are rich in the important fatty acids towards the end of the growth cycle, is much more cost effective as well as further improving sustainability.
Seaweed cultivation is another theme that may get more attention in the future. As well as being used for fertiliser, it has potential as a food for human consumption and may also have a role to play in integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA). Although IMTA is gaining increasing attention from many researchers, Webster believes its commercial potential is limited for the time being – as soon as there is any problem in the multi-trophic system, the fish are protected before other species simply because they are worth much more money.
During the next five years, the SAIC will focus on “the big hits” first – as it gets up and running, it will need to show signs of progress in the areas which matter most to industry in terms of both bottom-line and universal benefits. The strategic priorities are fish health, breeding and stock improvement, feedstuffs and new engineering solutions, including hatchery technology, and the industry members of the SAIC consortium have identified four Priority Innovation Actions (PIAs) for urgent attention:
> The improvement of sea lice control – a major inhibition on the growth of salmon farming;
> Development of alternative feeds for finfish which are sustainable not just in carbon terms but in the optimal utilisation of global resources;
> Rapid detection methods for viral pathogens and diseases, drawing on knowledge from all academic fields;
> Development of secure health-certified Scottish mollusc spat production systems, to make Scotland competitive across all aquaculture sectors.
Other activities will include the development of advanced predictive modelling of the fate and behaviour of substances released from farms during fish production, development of integrated fish health management techniques and strategies, and examining new options for the deterrence of predators.
The SAIC will also support new educational initiatives, including funds for MScs in aquaculture. The universities of Stirling, Aberdeen and St Andrews already have successful undergraduate and post-graduate programmes in marine biology and aquaculture, and the SAIC will focus on developing new modules which emphasise the practical aspects of the science, including business management. According to Webster, graduates now spend more time in the field, seeing fish farms in action, and this will be key to the future success of its programmes, including fellowships and industry placements.
“We know what is stifling growth,” says Webster, “and we recognise that businesses have to make money. Our job is to strike the right balance between the need to help the individual companies to sharpen their competitive edge by developing new services and products and the sustainability and profitability of the industry as a whole – for example, there's a 'truce' when it comes to things like fish health because that is a common concern.”
The success of the SAIC will be measured in terms of economic impact, and the organisation will seek to be self-sustaining within the next five years by attracting new investment and additional funding, but it's hard to predict what will happen in detail. As Webster explains, there will not be room for “ethereal” research to start with, but some new graduates or SMEs may come up with some brilliant ideas which revolutionise the industry – in other words, expect the unexpected.
According to the SAIC, “the Scottish aquaculture industry has long called for a one-stop shop to help deal with the key obstacles to growth,” and it hopes the new facility will create “an opportunity to better link industry needs to high-quality science, and join up the problem-solving skills that exist within the industry with the knowledge and know-how in Scottish academic and research institutions to identify, develop and apply solutions to practical problems.”
“There is huge excitement in the industry about the new organisation,” says Webster, “and great enthusiasm about what it can deliver. We are absolutely clear about what we are aiming to achieve, and our first task is to get the Innovation Centre into the industry.
Finfish and shellfish production contributes a total of over £1.3 billion per annum to the Scottish economy. Current annual production of salmon is about 160,000 tonnes, worth more than £700 million and generating global retail sales of more than £1 billion. The government target is to increase production by 50 per cent by the year 2020, the equivalent of an additional £350 million in first sale value, worth over £500 million in the shops, and to double production of shellfish over the same period.
Every additional 10,000 tonnes of salmon which reaches the market creates an additional £96 million for the Scottish economy, worth £43 million at the farm gate.
Every new fish farm contributes an average of £10.5 million per annum to the Scottish economy, creating five to six new ‘high-quality’ permanent jobs, with salaries totalling about £200,000. In addition, the new farms will spend about £2.5 million on equipment and services, and £3 million on feed from Scottish suppliers, producing 2,100 tonnes of gutted weight salmon from every 1,500 tonnes of feed. Total farm gate value is about £9.1 million, for use by Scottish, UK and overseas processors, while retail value is about £11.8 million, including £8.3 million in exports.