Seafood is a popular and healthy food product in Ireland with the average Irish person consuming about 22kg of fish per year.
People recognise the health benefits with fish being low-fat and a good source of omega-3 fats, which are vital for brain function, heart and many other benefits. Salmon is the most popular fish bought by Irish families. In Ireland most of our salmon are farmed, and along with mussels and oysters, are the main farmed species in the country. Aquaculture is the farming of animals in the water and has been practised for centuries, with the monks farming fish in the middle ages. More recently the technology has progressed and the aquaculture sector is now producing in the region of 50 thousand tonne annually and provides a valuable food product as well as much needed employment in many rural areas of Ireland.
A typical fish farm involves keeping fish in pens in the water column, caring for them and supplying them with food so they grow to market size. Or for shellfish, containing them in a specialised unit and allowing them to feed from natural plants and materials in the water column until they reach harvestable size. While farming fish has a lower carbon and water footprint to those of land animals, and a very efficient food fed to weight gain ratio compared to beef, pork or chicken, farming does require protein food sources and produces organic waste which is released into the surrounding waters. Finding sustainable food sources, and reducing the environmental impacts are key challenges facing the sector as it continues to grow.
One innovative solution being investigated to deal with these issues is called integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, or IMTA.
IMTA is a different way of thinking about aquatic food production and is based on the concept of the ´food chain’. It involves farming multiple, complementary species from different levels of the food chain together for their mutual benefit, where the waste by-products from the fish providing food for another species. Shellfish filter out microscopic plants and organic content from the water column to grow, and seaweeds and plants absorb the minerals from the water for them to grow. Growing shellfish and seaweed species in close proximity to fed fish mimics these natural cycles in the seas and creates a local ecosystem where the wastage and impacts are reduced, and the productivity and diversity of products from the site is increased.
The Marine Institutes’ aquaculture research site in Lehanagh Pool in Connemara is an example of IMTA, where salmon are reared on site, with scallops and seaweeds growing alongside helping to remove the organic inputs. IMTA is seen as a promising solution for sustainable aquaculture development.
The Institute is coordinating the innovative Horizon2020 IMPAQT project which is working to promote aquaculture production based on IMTA, by addressing the lack of data and tools to assess the factors that affect IMTA, and to enable a real-time response to production challenges, environmental impacts and seafood quality.
The project is developing a computerised, artificially intelligent, management platform which analyses the environment, the fish behaviour, and data from other sources such as satellite data, image analysis, and inputs from the farmer on site. This is used to inform fish welfare and water quality and to provide real-time operational feedback and advice to the farmer on the management of their site. The technologies include new sensors, wireless communication systems, and state of the art software utilising the internet of things. This system is being designed and tested at the Institute’s research site in Lehanagh Pool, at Keywater Fisheries IMTA site in Sligo, in collaboration with our international partners at other sites across Europe, and in Turkey and China.