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Scotland shouldn’t waste emerging aquaculture opportunity

CuanTec, which makes chitin from langoustine shells, is moving from the lab to commercial scale production. Photo: CuanTec.
CuanTec, which makes chitin from langoustine shells, is moving from the lab to commercial scale production. Photo: CuanTec.

Technology is offering more uses for fish farming by-products, but regulations must be simplified if we are to take full advantage of such advances, argues Polly Douglas, aquaculture innovation manager at the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre.

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Where there’s muck, there also tends to be brass, to paraphrase the old adage. As we move towards developing an increasingly circular economy in Scotland, that saying should only carry more resonance whatever sector you may be in – and with that comes opportunity for those who can find value where others see none.

There are few parts of the Scottish economy where that could be more relevant than aquaculture. The sector is set to sustainably grow by a significant amount over the next decade, with £200 million of capital investment planned per year to deliver Scotland’s goal of doubling aquaculture’s economic contribution to £3.6 billion by 2030, supporting 18,000 jobs.

SAIC's aquaculture innovation manager Polly Douglas.
SAIC's aquaculture innovation manager Polly Douglas.

Biotechnology

Increased production, whatever the sector, inevitably means greater amounts of waste. Yet, it is only waste if it is treated that way. Through the use of technology – particularly biotechnology – companies are in a better position than ever to turn the by-products of their processes into complementary parts of their businesses.

There are already some very interesting areas being explored in aquaculture. A company working towards commercial scale is CuanTec, which takes the by-products from langoustine, lobster and crab processing facilities – namely their shells – and extracts chitin for the production of biodegradable bioplastics that could be used in seafood packaging. It could be a much more environmentally friendly approach than sticking with single-use plastics.

However, CuanTec is a relatively rare example – in most cases, these ideas are still very much in their formative stages. One is the collection and removal of organic fish waste from farms, which could be used to grow worms or dried and used as soil enhancer to grow vegetables. A range of projects that are exploring the capture and use of organic waste from fish farms are already under way in Scotland.

Seaweed

Another area of opportunity is around the use of seaweed to extract food proteins and fibres that can be used for alternative packaging materials. In addition, microalgae can be grown to create a vegetable source of omega-3 oils for both human consumption and fish feeds. Experts are also exploring a range of ways in which other by-products of aquaculture can be used as biofuels.

Scotland should be at the forefront of these opportunities, helping businesses to turn ‘waste’ and by-products into a way of diversifying their businesses. Indeed, Zero Waste Scotland and IBioIC, the industrial biotechnology innovation centre, are currently looking to fund projects that could find ways of adding value to fish waste and byproducts.

Simplify regulations

For that to happen, though, there will need to be change, particularly when it comes to regulation. Current legislation would need to be simplified, making the prospect of re-using waste more attractive.

If, for example, a fish was to die on site and be taken away for re-use by a biotech company, the business would need to become a waste management facility. Doing so would introduce a lot more complexity to their business and mean complying with increased regulation. There are countless other examples that limit what can and cannot be done with aquaculture’s waste, where pragmatic collaboration between regulators and businesses could help ease the process.

Of course, robust regulation and a steady policy regime is at the heart of good business – it is to be welcomed by any sector. There is, however, a window of opportunity for companies in Scotland that could close as others take advantage of creating a whole new economy around what is currently considered the refuse of another – building a more circular economy in the process. If we fail to grasp it, this could be an opportunity wasted. 

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