Australia’s aquaculture industry accounts for less than 0.1 percent of global production but what our nascent farmed-seafood sector lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, sustainability and world-leading innovation.
In the pristine waters of the Southern Ocean, oysters fitted with minute sensors are monitored for signs of stress. On the Gold Coast, tiger prawns from superior domesticated broodstock grow fat on sustainable, CSIRO-developed feed Novacq™.
Aquaponic facilities around New South Wales are slashing input costs and shrinking carbon footprints, while fish market and tuna cannery waste is being recycled as high-protein, low-cost fishmeal.
Australian aquaculture may represent only 0.1 percent of global production – dwarfed by the 60 per cent from low-cost Leviathan China – but our investment in industry innovations is placing us ahead of the global game by boosting productivity and reducing inputs.
“Our industry’s focus is on high-value premium products that are well regarded in domestic and international markets as being high-quality, wholesome and safe”, says National Aquaculture Council Chair Pheroze Jungalwalla, referencing our reputation for clean waters, tight biosecurity and stringent quality controls.
World-leading research and development – advances in breeding, disease management and feeds, and the associated technology – is boosting productivity and reducing environmental impacts, Jungalwalla says, affording aquaculture “the potential to produce seafood with the smallest use of environmental resources of any primary production sector”.
“What we lack in quantity, we make up for in quality,” contends Sam Gordon, founder of premium seafood marketing agency Blue Harvest. “Australian aquaculture is a relatively young industry and is changing rapidly. We’re seeing great advances in productivity, continuity and consistency in growth rates, size and quality, thanks largely to technological innovation.”
“With demand growing for premium seafood worldwide, I’m optimistic about Australian aquaculture’s future.”
1. SELECTIVE BREEDING: Bigger, better prawns
Currently, around half the prawns Aussies eat are imported – which presents significant opportunity for local producers.
This potential may soon be tapped thanks to a decade-long selective breeding program that fused CSIRO science with prawn farmers’ know-how, resulting in superior domesticated broodstock that produce bigger, tastier and more disease-tolerant offspring with each generation.
Raised in drought-proof saltwater ponds, the new strains of Australian Black Tiger prawn are hardy, sustainable and renewable. Better growth and survival rates increase pond yields by more than 50 percent, while a homegrown supply of breeding stock enables production continuity and consistency, “dramatically improving the efficiency and profitability of locally produced seafood”, says CSIRO.
Gold Coast Marine Aquaculture (GCMA) has been involved in the program since its inception and now farms the superior prawns commercially.
After a decade’s selective breeding, GCMA’s ‘super-prawns’ are breaking yield records, winning medals and commanding high prices in premium domestic markets. The company plans to expand its capacity to cater for burgeoning demand. Using 14th-generation domesticated broodstock, the “results are remarkable”, says GCMA General Manager Nick Moore.
“The prawns grow faster, survive better and need less feed, so production costs come down dramatically. Over years they’ve become so tame that you can hold them. They relax, and a relaxed animal feeds better, grows better and, I’d argue, tastes better,” he says.
The raw material may be world-class but “thanks to high post-harvest processing costs, we struggle to compete in export markets”, notes Gordon, who so far sells GCMA’s prawns exclusively into high-end domestic markets. “One exciting solution is to grow larger prawns than our competitors can.” Growers overseas will be hard-pressed to match the size and quality of GCMA’s souped-up tiger prawns, he says.
Independent economic analysis indicates that if the entire Australian Black Tiger prawn industry adopted this new breeding technology, it would add A$120 million to the industry’s value by 2020 with no expansion of current production area.
2. SENSOR TRACKING: Monitoring oysters’ mood swings
For aquaculture producers, the precise monitoring and timely management of environmental stressors is critical.
Now, a world-first mollusc bio-sensor developed by scientists at University of Tasmania and CSIRO is being paired with advanced Sense-T technology to help Australia’s oyster farmers minimise environmental impact, manage risks and boost productivity.
Tiny bio-sensors attached to credit-card-sized electronics boards enable growers and researchers to monitor the creatures’ heartbeats and temperature, with a telemetry system feeding bio-sensor and environmental data into a ‘Sensor Cloud’.
“The project aims to tie together a range of real-time environmental sensing, from salinity levels to water conditions, and present it in one place,” says CSIRO project leader John McCulloch.
The cutting-edge technology empowers farmers to make timely, data-driven management decisions that maximise oysters’ health and growth.
Barilla Bay Oysters GM Justin Goc says using the sensor technology helped the business surmount its biggest challenge: “getting a handle on … environmental cues that impact oyster growth”.
“Incorporating the sensor data into our computer-based management strategy allows us to grade on time, harvest on time,” says Goc, boosting production efficiency and oyster quality.
“There are significant applications for the wider aquaculture industry,” says Sense-T’s founding Director, Ros Harvey, including abalone and salmon farming.
3. COMBATING DISEASE: Breeding AGD-resistant salmon
Australia’s geographic isolation is a biosecurity boon but “there’s always the risk of serious disease outbreaks”, cautions Jungawalla.
Take amoebic gill disease (AGD), estimated to cost Tasmania’s Atlantic salmon industry $40 million a year in treatment and lost productivity, adding $1.50 per kilo to production costs.
Seeking commercially applicable means of combating AGD, the Australian Fisheries Research and Development Corporation and Tasmanian Salmonid Growers Association co-funded pioneering local research.
Working with Tasmanian salmon farmers, CSIRO scientists have been selectively breeding Atlantic salmon for disease resistance while studying the salmon’s AGD-resistant relatives, trout, seeking “genetic clues” as to why this interspecies hybrid tends to survive outbreaks.
Initial results are promising – and as AGD has become a costly problem in other countries, “a solution could be worth $1 billion internationally”, says CSIRO.
4. SUSTAINABLE FEEDSTOCK: Fish waste, microbes and lupins
Skyrocketing fishmeal prices have sparked a new, lucrative aquaculture industry: sustainable prawn feed.
Animal-nutrient supplier Ridley AgriProducts says the cost of fishmeal globally has near-doubled in the past year, now accounting for almost half producers’ input costs.
In response, Ridley has developed a sustainable fishmeal from recycled fish offcuts and by-products, being trialled at Australian Prawn Farms in Ilbilbie, Queensland. “Preliminary results show it’s ‘like for like’ with the prawns’ current diet,” says APF General Manager Matt West.
Currently, fish waste comes from a tuna cannery and Sydney Fish Market but West says Australia’s salmon and barramundi industries could be future sources.
Ridley is also the agent for CSIRO’s prawn-feed supplement Novacq™, a carbon-based additive produced by pond-grown, self-replenishing marine microbes, developed over a decade in collaboration with Australia’s $75 million prawn industry.
Overseas research also highlights the potential of lupins, which Australia produces in abundance, as a nutrient-rich fishmeal substitute.
5. AQUAPONICS: Barramundi with your salad?
Near Cobbity in Western Sydney, a $5 million, state-of-the-art aquaponics facility is growing barramundi and herbs simultaneously with minimal inputs and zero effluent.
On a seven-hectare site owned by The University of Sydney, herb beds are linked by a complex system of pipes to tanks containing barramundi. The patented closed-loop system, which developers Urban Ecological Systems Australia (UESA) claim is “the first of its size and scale in the world”, transforms fish waste into safe plant nutrients that feed parsley and coriander; with water recirculated and beneficial insects replacing chemical pesticides. It produces 15,000-20,000 kilograms of barramundi annually.
In 2013, UESA and marketing partner Edison Australia negotiated a five-year agreement with Coles to supply product to its stores NSW-wide, with an estimated 10 percent of revenue coming from the farmed fish.
Building on the success of its Cobbitty facility, UESA plans to develop other commercial- scale farms across Australia, most of them significantly larger than the existing one, enabling a broader range of produce to be grown, more consistent levels of supply, and greater economies of scale – meaning lower prices for the consumer and improved investor returns.
UESA is also working with researchers from The University of Sydney on converting household food waste into insect larvae that can be processed into fish food.
The company plans to export its ‘Blue Farm’ technology in the near future.
6. WHAT’S IN A NAME? Country-of-origin and eco-labelling
Increasingly, consumers worldwide are demanding (and paying top dollar for) seafood produced without exploiting the environment or wild fish stocks. While the ‘eco-conscious’ trend has been slow to arrive Down Under, says Gordon, our tightly regulated aquaculture industry is well positioned to cater for it when it does.
According to the NAC, consumer demand for sustainable seafood is already driving growth in the sector, aided by processes such as Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practice, global accreditation and eco-labelling of sustainable seafood producers by bodies such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), “which are promoting environmental and production credentials and building consumer and societal trust”, says Jungalwalla. Currently, competing eco-labels confuse rather than enlighten, Gordon contends, “but if we’re going to export, we need to adopt internationally recognised eco-labels. We assume everyone knows how good we are. Our regulatory bodies are so strict that virtually all the seafood we produce has to be sustainable.”
“Eco and country-of-origin labelling lets consumers know what they’re buying,” says Moore. “And as our aquaculture products are some of the world’s best, this can only be to our advantage.”
If the current push for national country-of-origin labelling (already operating in the Northern Territory) succeeds, “it will be a win for producers and consumers”, he says.