Innovative steps towards truly sustainable aquaculture

By Tom Ashton, Operations Director at Xelect Ltd.

Xelect is a fast-growing business, regularly recruiting PhD-qualified academic and industry experts to serve the exciting and fast-paced aquaculture industry around the world. Genetic-led selective breeding works alongside a range of other exciting new technologies to shape fish farming for a more sustainable future.

Aquaculture – a rapidly changing industry

More than half of all the seafood eaten around the world comes from aquaculture, or fish farming as it is more commonly known. Capture fisheries are simply unable to keep up with the growing demand for fish and shellfish, so the farming industry is growing fast. Global aquaculture is not only getting bigger but more diverse. Today major farmed species include barramundi, tilapia, kingfish, tiger prawns, chinook salmon and hundreds more. This is a far cry from the situation a decade ago when a small number of species such as Atlantic salmon dominated production. As production volume increases so ever more innovative solutions are required to maintain sustainable production systems.

At the heart of all good farming is the genetics of the stock. Traditionally farmers used meticulous pedigree records in order to maintain healthy stocks that did not fall foul of the perils of inbreeding. Now, with the incredible advances in molecular genetic tools, farmers are able to DNA fingerprint their broodstock, allowing optimal mating schemes to be designed, while selecting animals with the ideal traits for farming. However, these techniques are not readily accessible to the farmers because their implementation requires an interdisciplinary team of highly qualified experts – which is where Xelect comes in.

Bringing fish on land promises a bright future. Traditional marine fish farming takes place in cages anchored in shallow coastal waters, where the waste discharges and escapees are potentially harmful to the environment. The farmed fish are also exposed to pollution and natural diseases and parasites which can then multiply and cause economic losses and threats to nearby wild stocks. Science and technology offer a solution in the form of Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS). These facilities replicate the fish farm in a land-based environment, where water quality is continually monitored and maintained at its optimum by mechanical systems. The use of strict biosecurity protocols at RAS facilities means no pollution or fish can escape into the marine ecosystems, and no diseases can enter the farm, offering multiple benefits for the industry and for the marine environment. Fish grown in land-based systems are also free of plastics, antibiotics and pesticides and because such farms can be situated close to population centres their carbon footprint is potentially less than for cage culture.

“On-shore aquaculture has a great potential to solve many of the problems of modern fish farming, but, breeding programmes will need to be tailored to the new systems, and Xelect provides the solution”

In traditional aquaculture, enormous cost and effort is dedicated to breeding lines of robust fish with high survival against disease and parasites, and yet these are still a huge problem worldwide. Bringing aquaculture on-shore with RAS effectively eliminates the need to prioritise disease resistance in the breeding programmes, meaning that greater emphasis can be placed on growth, feed efficiency and product quality.

RAS is new, and has a long way to go, but technology is moving fast, and substantial investment is being made around the world with facilities for Atlantic salmon already operating in Miami and other farms planned for Japan, Italy/France and Southern Africa. As this radical new type of fish farming gains momentum there will be a rush to use the latest genetic techniques to breed strains of fish optimally adapted for land-based culture. This is not done by genetic modification; GMOs are not the answer. Instead selective breeding is used, combining sensitive genetic analysis with powerful computational techniques to pick the best individuals and coordinate breeding schemes for optimal results.

From St Andrews to the world

From their headquarters in the ancient seaside town of St Andrews, Xelect is delivering the latest in genetic science to the rapidly changing global aquaculture industry. The company was founded in 2012 by Prof Ian Johnston and Dr Tom Ashton from the University of St Andrews.  Today it serves some of the most progressive companies in the industry, managing 14 breeding programmes in 13 different countries with a team comprising 14 specialist staff, 10 of whom have PhD degrees.  The total number of customers for the genetic and molecular services provided by Xelect now exceed 50 from all over the world.  With a strong R & D capacity Xelect is working to set up breeding programmes for species new to aquaculture to provide consumers with an ever-wider choice of healthy seafood.

With thanks to Tom Ashton and everyone at Xelect Ltd. 

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