Producing healthy and sustainable fish with precision aquaculture

Much of the fish we consume is farmed, half of which comes from Asia. For Europe it is strategic to invest in increasing aquaculture production, safeguarding animal welfare and ensuring adequate profits for farmers.

This is why, through the Horizon 2020 programme, it funded the European project GAIN, coordinated by Ca 'Foscari, which is developing innovative management processes and models to eco-intensify aquaculture.

The project considers different aspects of the production chain: from feed production to the reuse of production waste, without neglecting the regulatory aspects that, at present, set some limits on implementing the principles of the circular economy in this sector in EU countries.

This challenge involves 21 universities and companies from Europe, Canada, China and the United States, coordinated by Roberto Pastres, professor of Ecology at the Department of Environmental Sciences, Informatics and Statistics at Ca' Foscari.

An important step towards eco-intensification is the development of innovative management models based on the principles of precision aquaculture. As is the case today in agriculture and other livestock sectors, large data sets (Big Data), collected by sensors or satellites, are processed by means of models, providing farmers, remotely and in real time, with information that can help them to optimise management of their farms: this improves the welfare of the species reared, reduces waste and provides the consumer with a healthy product with a lower environmental impact.

The first test cases included an Italian fish farm in the province of Trento. Scientists at Ca' Foscari, in collaboration with the Edmund Mach Foundation of Trento and Troticoltura Leonardi of Preore, have developed an experimental farm monitoring system that collects data related to both water quality and fish activity.

A device, tested for the first time in trout farming, monitors the weight of the fish in real time, without the need to pick them up, thus reducing stress for the animals. Every hour two sensors detect a series of water parameters, such as temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH and ammonium concentration.

The data are used to develop fish behaviour models (a bit like how social media platforms deduce our preferences from our data) which will help the aquaculture farmer to manage their farm. In particular, it will help with decisions on feeding and adding oxygen to the water, two important items of expenditure.

“The first results are very encouraging, - explains the coordinator, Roberto Pastres, - we are able to model the dynamics of the main metabolic processes and therefore identify margins for improvement in the farming process. Compared to countries such as Norway, Italian aquaculture is a sector made up of small, often family-owned businesses that have limited investment capacity. This project can pave the way for the development of innovative, low-cost management systems, showing how, by combining continuous monitoring and modeling systems, we can increase profits and reduce the environmental impact".

Another step in eco-intensification is to reduce the ingredients derived from industrial fishing in the feed, replacing them with micro- and macro-algae and secondary materials, such as waste from the food industry.

Innovative feeds, produced by the Portuguese company SPAROS, are also being trialled in Italy: early results indicate similar rainbow trout growth to that achieved with the feeds currently in use. The picture will be completed by the determination of physiological parameters, able to highlight any negative effects on fish welfare and, finally, by an assessment of the environmental impact of new feeds, through the Life Cycle Analysis.