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What has suddenly made fish exciting?
  1. Adele Waters

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There aren’t many vets who specialise in aquaculture. In the UK, out of 865 specialists currently registered with the RCVS, there are just three fish experts.

But the global aquaculture business – worth around US$232 billion annually – is set to grow phenomenally over the next decade and the number of vets choosing to work within the industry is likely to grow with it.

Aquaculture is now regarded as a bright young thing

Far from the ‘plodding’ perception that many may have of the sector, it is vibrant and primed for development and growth. Indeed, aquaculture is now regarded as a bright young thing on the investment stage – the fastest-growing and most dynamic protein-producing industry.

At a recent aquaculture conference in London (Aquaculture Innovation Europe), industry insiders talked in terms of a ‘technological and innovation explosion’ occurring across the sector.

So what is driving this market growth and what has suddenly made fish exciting?

The key driver is demand – the world’s population is growing and it needs feeding. The global demand for protein is expected to double by 2050. Demand is particularly strong in Asia, where fish is the largest source of protein and the continent’s population growth and burgeoning middle class ensures year-on-year growth.

And it is this demand that is driving innovation and investment. While no one would claim that the level of investment is anything like other food production sectors, it is heading for a bigger scale and large companies have begun to enter the market.

Innovation is focused around the three main challenges the industry faces – optimising feeding, managing disease and risks due to global warming.

First, the cost of feed – traditionally fishmeal and soy – is high and a sizeable amount is lost during production, so areas of innovation here are concerned with optimising and monitoring nutritional intake efficiently. Start-up companies operating in this space are looking to alternative sources of feed – algae, insects and even wood, as well as automated feeding systems.

Second, the scale and cost of animal loss due to pathogens is colossal. Losses due to sea lice, for example, account for some € 590 million each year in Norway alone. Immature fish can be particularly vulnerable when they are returned to the sea for maturation. Areas of innovation here are concerned with optimising fish health through, for example, diet, development of oral vaccines, genomics and better diagnostics to ensure early detection (because treatment windows are so short – a matter of days for fish, and hours for shrimp).

Third, global warming is a huge threat and one of the reasons why many intensive fish farming operations cannot get insurance. Extreme weather events can capsize off-shore farms and changes in temperature can bring with it new pathogens, which can not only devastate fish stock but also business. In 2016, harmful algal blooms in Chile wiped out an estimated US $800 million of income in just one week so innovation in this space is concerned with better farm design and finely controlling production environments.

It helps to follow the money to follow the story. Most innovation in the sector occurs in the salmon industry because this product attracts a premium price. Developments here pave the way for other fish markets. Vaccine use in the UK, for example, has wiped out the need for the use of antimicrobials.

Which brings us to a second driver for this sector – technology. Its application is enabling producers to realise efficiencies, improve their productivity and output quality. Managing fish health in the future is going to be less reliant on people and manual intervention and more based on precision farming, big data and intelligent machinery.

So while aquaculture may lag behind other food sectors in terms of investment, the signs are the industry is set for a serious injection of cash. That may entice more vets to contribute their talent.

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