Gill health is an increasing challenge for salmon farmers in Scotland and elsewhere. Photo: SAIC.

Scotland's £3.5m bid to improve salmon gill health

Two Scottish consortiums, backed by the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), are embarking on initiatives valued at a combined £3.5 million to improve gill health and resilience among farmed Atlantic salmon – one of the industry’s most significant challenges.

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The projects will bring together the expertise of several businesses and academic institutions, led by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC); the Roslin Institute (part of the University of Edinburgh); salmon farmer Loch Duart; and salmon breeding business Landcatch Natural Selection, part of Hendrix Genetics.

Another ten organisations, including the Scottish Salmon Company and Grieg Seafood Shetland, will also contribute to the two consortiums. Their work will complement an £800,000 SAIC co-funded project announced in April 2018, which is aiming to develop new feeds to promote salmon health and devise diagnostic tools for monitoring gill health.

Unique approach

In a press release, SAIC said that by combining the consortium’s expertise, skills, and data, the first project is taking an innovative and unique approach to explore the factors which can cause gill damage or disease to occur – such as the local environment, water quality and temperatures, as well as nutrition, farming practices, and equipment – while also examining how better to prevent and control the condition.

Researchers hope to breed fish with enhanced resilience. Click to enlarge image.

The second of the new projects is analysing the genetic characteristics which cause some salmon to be more vulnerable to gill disease. The results could allow the industry to breed fish with enhanced resilience to gill infections and other health issues, such as sea lice.

International issue

Robin Shields, senior aquaculture innovation manager at SAIC, said: “Gill health is up there with sea lice as one of the biggest challenges facing salmon farming, not only in Scotland, but across all salmon-producing countries. This is an internationally significant issue, which we’re aiming to address through this focussed effort from some of the top minds in the field.

“The health of a fish’s gills is absolutely critical to its overall wellbeing. The outcomes we are looking for from these projects are to help provide the industry with the knowledge and tools it needs to manage and control outbreaks, and – further down the line – to prevent disease as far as we can by breeding fish with greater natural resistance.”

Rising temperatures

Giada Desperati, research and development coordinator at Loch Duart, said: “Rising water temperature is adding to the gill challenges facing our salmon. Ensuring the best possible health and welfare for our fish is massively important to our company.  Not only is Loch Duart investing heavily in new technology to counteract this problem, but we welcome with open arms the opportunity to work together with other salmon farmers on this important health issue.

“Our industry is resilient and innovative and, in collaboration with the SRUC, we are confident that this project will improve understanding, prevention and control for gill health challenges.”

Genomic selection

Alastair Hamilton, senior geneticist at Landcatch Natural Selection, added: “Amoebic Gill Disease (AGD) is emerging as one of the most important challenges to the salmon industry worldwide, with treatment costs presenting a substantial financial burden to the industry. Since introducing genomic selection as a means to enhance resistance to AGD in 2014, Hendrix Genetics has demonstrated that the use of this technology can substantially accelerate genetic progress compared to conventional breeding programs, with evidence suggesting gains are both cumulative and permanent.

“A significant constraint on wider deployment of this technology is the cost of genotyping. Although Hendrix Genetics has introduced innovations to tackle this, cost remains a significant obstacle. In this project, we will develop and apply methods to further improve the cost-efficiency and the accuracy of selection for disease resistance.

“The University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, and Landcatch have an exemplary track record in collaborating to develop industry-relevant innovations, and we believe that progress achieved through this project will be of benefit across the salmon industry in Scotland and beyond.”