Gregg Arthur, aquaculture manager at Shetland UHI, with the FlowCytobot bought with £185,000 from HIE. Photo: Ben Mullay / HIE.

‘Game changing’ algae scanner to be deployed in Shetland

Shellfish and finfish businesses are set to benefit from new technology acquired by the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) campus in Shetland.

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The university has secured £185,000 investment from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to purchase a piece of equipment known as an Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB).

The IFCB can scan water samples for phytoplankton (microalgae) using flow cytometry, lasers and cameras. It then beams this data to the internet ‘cloud’ for specialist analysis allowing phytoplankton detection and monitoring.

The Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB) scans water samples for phytoplankton. Image: McLane Research Laboratories, Inc.

Works on its own

Phytoplankton are crucial to the success of mussel farms, but some species produce toxins or can be harmful to fish when they bloom in large numbers.

The device is submersible and can work unattended in-situ at an aquaculture site or monitoring station.

By working around the clock, the IFCB detects early signs of harmful algal blooms, and this rapid detection can help to inform early stock management decisions that can protect the welfare and security of aquaculture stocks. 

Better understanding

Farm operators will be able to use the information collated to better understand the quality of the water and the impacts of this on their operations. They will also be able to understand how their activities impact on the natural environment.

Over time, the plankton data can also be used to identify impacts of climate change on the marine environment.

UHI Shetland is currently preparing the device for deployment and will then investigate data handling solutions.

Deep learning

Working with the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), machine learning capabilities, using a deep learning artificial intelligence approach, will be developed to identify and count individual species present in a local waterbody from the tens of thousands of images captured by the IFCB every hour.

Running alongside these developments will be a PhD studentship, led by SAMS UHI, Marine Scotland and The DataLab, which is currently being recruited.

Some of the phytoplankton images that can be captured by the IFCB. McLane Research Laboratories, Inc.

Second in the UK

Gregg Arthur, aquaculture manager at Shetland UHI said: “This autonomous device is a game changer and this second IFCB to come to the UK complements a project already running in the Isles with Seafood Shetland, which includes the first IFCB and is supported by the SIC’s Coastal Communities. We’re excited to see the instrument’s capabilities. The IFCB gives us a much higher resolution picture of phytoplankton abundance at any given time and is a specialist tool for monitoring numbers and species as these change throughout the seasons.

“This will be a very important dataset allowing us to improve our approaches to sustainable aquaculture. Successful aquaculture relies upon understanding our interactions with the natural environment and this device will enhance our capability and knowledge significantly in the area where it’s deployed.”

New opportunities

Elaine Jamieson, head of blue economy and food and drink at HIE, said: “The ambition for continuous improvement by utilising new data driven technology is a credit to both academia and businesses in the aquaculture sector. 

“This investment creates new opportunities that are aligned to our ambitions for sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and community prosperity.”

Half of the HIE funding approval is from the Scottish Government Islands Green Recovery Programme, which was administered in the region by HIE.

Rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon said: “As well as being a source of nutritious, low-carbon food, aquaculture is a significant contributor to the rural economy, providing well paid jobs in some of Scotland’s most fragile communities.

“It is an essential part of our green recovery and transition to net zero and I welcome the development and acquisition of this technology to help protect the welfare and security of aquaculture stocks.”