Article is available in full to IFST members and subscribers.

Register on the FST Journal website for free

Click the button to register to FST Journal online for free and gain access to the latest news


If you are an IFST member, please login through the Members Area of the IFST website. 













Sustainable Aquaculture Futures

sustainable aquaculture

Lisa Bickley and Nicola Rogers introduce the new Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture Futures (SAF), which is a collaboration between the University of Exeter and Cefas (the Centre for Environment, Aquaculture and Fisheries Science). It was launched in 2017 to facilitate wider collaborative opportunities in the aquaculture sector.

The growth of aquaculture

Aquaculture remains one of the fastest-growing food producing sectors in the world. The annual growth rate of fish consumption has now surpassed the growth rate of meat consumption (all terrestrial animals combined)[1]. As capture fishery production has been relatively static since the late 1980s, aquaculture has been responsible for the continued growth in the supply of fish for human consumption[1]. A significant milestone was reached in 2014 when the consumption of fish from aquaculture exceeded that from wild-caught fish for the first time[2]. However, with an increasing world population, for global fish availability to meet projected demand, it has been estimated that aquaculture production will need to more than double by 2050, rising to roughly 140m tonnes produced[3].

Aquaculture has the potential to play an important role in improving global food security. Increasing the proportion of farmed seafood in human diets could reduce agricultural land use (one of the largest pressures on the planet) compared to current food system trends[5]. However, aquaculture is not without its own challenges and any development must be conducted with high regard for sustainability of expansion and intensification.

Disease, or the achievement of high aquatic animal health status, is recognised as one of the major barriers to achieving enhanced sustainable production in aquaculture to 2050[6]. Mitigation of the negative impact of disease on yield is a central tenet in fulfilment of global production targets. Conservative estimates predict at least $6bn losses per annum from the global aquaculture industry due to disease[7]. Losses associated with disease caused by high-profile listed and emergent pathogens not only have the ability to inflate background losses, but also to implicate farmers from the most vulnerable producer communities in developing countries and to affect the globalised trading of foods.

Furthermore, disparity in the level of sectoral development and uneven production distribution remain significant[1]. Globally, aquaculture is dominated by Asia, which accounts for 89% of world aquaculture production[8]. Of this, China is by far the world’s top fish producer and the largest exporter of fish and fish products. Sixteen of the top 25 global producer countries, responsible for producing 94.4% of total aquaculture protein, are considered ODA (Official Development Assistance) eligible[2]. Therefore, solving problems in aquatic food security must take account of diverse scientific, commercial, sociological and political dimensions. In this respect, working in partnership and an increased focus on translation of scientific research to beneficiaries (farmers, their families, industry, and government) is key.

Coastal aquaculture in Bangladesh is comprised mainly of shrimp farming. Photo: Charles Tyler

Solving problems in aquatic food security must take account of diverse scientific, commercial, sociological and political dimensions.

Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture Futures

Since its launch by Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, in October 2017, the Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture Futures (SAF) has established a strong presence within the UK and overseas via a range of programmes focused on aquatic animal health, diagnostics, host-pathogen interactions, AMR (anti-microbial resistance), human health and the social sciences. SAF has been developing collaborative partnerships with academia, governments and industry, and seeks to establish a network of world leaders in the fields of aquatic animal health, food safety and protection of the aquatic environment. To address the global challenges faced in aquatic food security and safety, sustainable intensification of aquaculture production will require innovative research and the translation of this research into practical solutions.

Key issues SAF is addressing include:

• providing scientific support to reduce global losses due to disease in aquaculture;

• providing evidence and tools to ensure that fish, shellfish, crustaceans and seaweeds produced in the global industry are safe to eat; • understanding how cutting edge molecular diagnostics, pathology, animal breeding and nutrition can be applied to assist seafood farmers, particularly in more vulnerable societies;

• ensuring that aquaculture is developed sustainably, for the benefit of communities, economies and the environment.

Under the guidance of co- Directors Professor Charles Tyler (University of Exeter) and Professor Grant Stentiford (Cefas), scientists at the centre are working with experts across a variety of disciplines, spanning all scales of biological organisation from molecules to ecosystems, combining fundamental research with applied science, and working collaboratively with a wide range of partners locally, regionally and across the world to shape positive changes in practice, policy and innovation.

Mussel lines, below, in St Austell Bay, Cornwall. Photo: Ross Brown

A unique combination of capabilities

At SAF the complementary expertise and capabilities of a cutting edge government laboratory and a leading university is supported by the combined offering of excellent research facilities and equipment.

The University of Exeter is a UK top ten Russell Group University with a worldwide reputation for research excellence and award-winning impact in: investigating anthropogenic influences on marine biodiversity, chemical, particle and noise pollution, ocean acidification and offshore renewable energy. The Exeter team is also part of the group leading the RCUK’s Aquaculture Initiative Network – Aquaculture Research Collaboration Hub UK (ARCH UK[9]), which seeks to engage and expand UK expertise in aquaculture research and communication networks, and advise on funding for supporting the UK based aquaculture industry. The University of Exeter facilities include:

• Aquatic Resources Centre - a world class research and teaching facility that incorporates 14 aquaria rooms for both freshwater and marine studies (including 3000 tank zebrafish unit), preparative and analytical laboratories and a dedicated Wolfson Foundation-funded imaging unit.

• Sequencing Service - providing state of the art genomics and bioinformatics analysis using Illumina (HiSeq and MiSeq), PacBio (Sequel and RSII) and Oxford Nanopore Technologies (Minion) sequencing technologies.

• Bioimaging Unit - state of the art optical, laser and electron microscopes to enable advanced cellular imaging techniques across the breadth of biological research.

• Mass Spectrometry facility - metabolomics analysis specialising in small molecules.

Cefas (Weymouth) is home to the Aquatic Animal Health Centre of Excellence, which has a number of designations including the UK National Reference Laboratories for Fish, Mollusc and Crustacean Diseases, and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Reference Laboratories for Spring Viraemia of Carp (SVC), Koi Herpes Virus (KHV) and Crayfish Plague. It is also the OIE Collaborating Centre for Information on Aquatic Animal Diseases, which incorporates the International Database on Aquatic Animal Disease (IDAAD). These designations reflect the breadth of experience in health issues affecting a wide range of cultured and wild aquatic animals. Other Cefas capabilities include:

• Experimental aquarium facilities - authorised to operate as an Aquaculture Production Business by the Fish Health Inspectorate (FHI), offering biosecure tank and aquarium facilities.

• Specialist viral identification and pathogenesis units.

• Aquatic Testing and Assessment Services – support, analysis and research underpinned by the full range of accreditation and certification of quality.

Research case studies

A number of collaborative projects are currently ongoing at SAF. Some examples are described below.

Assessing and Mitigating the risks of Harmful Algal Blooms (AMHABs)

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) or ‘red tides’ are a global issue and are increasing in frequency and impact, apparently in conjunction with climate change and nutrient enrichment. The production of biotoxins by HABs and/or the depletion of dissolved oxygen by decaying blooms, threaten shellfish and finfish aquaculture, including in UK coastal waters. In particular, HAB toxins can build up within marine species, such as shellfish, and become harmful to human health if ingested, even at relatively low toxin levels. In UK waters, HABs are currently estimated to cost marine industries over £20m per year, and their increasing frequency threatens to curb the growth of aquaculture.

The AMHABs project (led by Dr Ross Brown) is funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and aims to develop a regional model for predicting the HAB risks, both temporally and regionally (around the UK’s South West peninsula). Data for the model are collected based on environmental conditions known to promote blooms, including increasing solar radiation, sea surface temperature, rainfall, nutrient runoff and seasonal succession in plankton communities. Model predictions complement ‘real-time’ monitoring via in situ sampling and ‘remote’ satellite sensing of high biomass, surface-forming algal blooms. Predictions will allow existing aquaculture businesses to minimise the impact of HABs (e.g. by providing data to support the timing of shellfish harvesting, safeguarding food quality and human health) and will be used to guide the placement of new infrastructure in the UK’s forthcoming Marine Spatial Plan for SW England (e.g. locating new farms in areas that have a low risk of HABs).

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) or ‘red tides’ are a global issue and are increasing in frequency and impact, apparently in conjunction with climate change and nutrient enrichment...

Flexing your mussels: futureproofing shellfish aquaculture in the face of global climate change

This project is investigating the adaptive capacity of marine mussels across their global range when exposed to changing environmental conditions. Mussel aquaculture is worth $1.5bn globally, and is the primary aquaculture sector in Europe by weight. Cultivation of filter-feeders, such as mussels and oysters, has relatively lower environmental impact and arguably offers one of the main routes for sustainable expansion of aquaculture globally. However, mussels and oysters are also traditionally considered to be amongst the most vulnerable with respect to climate change. Consisting of three closely related species, which readily cross-breed (hybridise), marine mussels also offer a unique opportunity to investigate the impact of hybridisation on climate change tolerance.

NERC Industrial Innovation Fellow Dr Rob Ellis is employing novel genetic technology to develop an innovative, globally relevant tool (SNP array) to study hybridisation. Using a multidisciplinary experimental approach, combining genetic techniques with traditional measures of mussel performance and physiology, and measuring these responses in multiple populations from across the global geographic range, Dr Ellis and his team are addressing the overarching question ‘does hybridisation confer an advantage to multi-stressor exposures in a commercially important bivalve species?’ This is a key knowledge gap that when addressed will enable the improved management of both natural and farmed mussel populations worldwide.

Newton project: working with farming communities to develop the skills of the next generation, building future capacity to develop aquaculture for small scale farmers. This project engages and trains farmers in accurate disease diagnostics and establishes communication and training networks using bespoke apps and social media that will disseminate the outputs of the project as widely as possible.

Novel molecular tools for managing disease outbreaks in aquaculture for small-scale farmers

Demand for fish in Asia and Africa is increasing and there is an associated expansion of aquaculture in these regions. In Bangladesh and India, shrimp and finfish culture sustains the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. Disease is the biggest single factor limiting growth in aquaculture[7] and thus, combating disease is critical for both the protection of the livelihoods of farmers and for achieving national and global targets for aquaculture growth in support of poverty alleviation.

This Newton Fund project is led by Professor Charles Tyler and Dr David Bass and brings together an international consortium of biologists, social scientists, policy experts and NGOs from the UK, India, Bangladesh and Malawi. This multi-national team of scientists is seeking to develop and apply innovative and state-of-the art methods in molecular biology, environmental DNA (eDNA) and histopathology for use as early warning tools to prevent disease outbreaks in aquaculture. Field-collected data is used to develop models for predicting the drivers of disease outbreaks. The ability to make these predictions will allow farmers to harvest their fish before disease onset, thus preventing major crop losses. This will increase crop productivity and, in turn, the health, well-being and profitability of small-scale farmers. The provision of training and knowledge exchange is also enhancing regional research capability. This is developing the skills of the next generation of local scientists, building future capacity to develop aquaculture in the region.

The project team has developed bespoke mobile phone apps to collect large data sets on farm management practices from hundreds of small-scale aquaculture farms in Bangladesh and Malawi. These data are used to identify trends in farm management practices that lead to the best production outcomes for farmers (e.g. pond size, location, water chemistry and hygiene). Through stakeholder engagement with farming communities and policy makers, scientists and aquatic health professionals are ensuring these advances are effectively communicated for the greatest benefit.

Research in eDNA is an expanding field in ecology, evolution and systematics. The findings from this work will be directly relevant to industries developing field-based molecular biology tools and applications to monitor aquaculture production. The research will also be relevant in disease diagnosis and mitigation beyond the confines of aquaculture. Outcomes from the project will be of interest to scientists researching human and animal diseases and also to the medical profession.

Reducing global hunger and poverty

WorldFish is an international, non-profit research organisation that harnesses the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty. Globally, more than one billion people obtain most of their animal protein from fish and approximately 800m depend on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods.

SAF scientists are partnering with WorldFish to help harness the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty. Collaborative research projects include: understanding the prevalence, spread and impact of key diseases in tilapia culture, and studying the impacts of antibiotic exposure on skin microbiomes and disease resilience in fish in aquaculture. Further work aims to highlight the importance of surveillance for antimicrobial use to identify the drivers and associated risks of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) emergence in aquaculture systems.

The future role of fish in global food security

The supply of sustainable food to a growing population is one of the critical challenges facing global society. It will require application of multi-disciplinary approaches, integrating data from different specialisms, and placing production in context with the environmental and human costs of meeting demand. Aquatic food is recognised as an extremely important part of world food security and nutrition. Importantly, we see aquaculture as a sector rather than a subject, where a broad range of stakeholders are brought together to consider how best to achieve a sustainable aquaculture future.

Dr Lisa Bickley, Industrial Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Sustainable Aquaculture Futures, University of Exeter and Cefas Collaborative Centre


Dr Nicola Rogers, Impact and Partnership Development Manager, University of Exeter


To find out more about the centre, or speak to one of our researchers about collaboration, please visit the website at


  1. FAO. 2018. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 - Meeting the sustainable development goals. Rome. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
  2. FAO. 2016. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016. Contributing to food security and nutrition for all. Rome. 200 pp.
  3. Waite, R. et al. 2014. “Improving Productivity and Environmental Performance of Aquaculture.” Working Paper, Instalment 5 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. Accessible at
  4. Froehlich, H.E. et al. 2018. “Comparative terrestrial feed and land use of an aquaculture-dominant world” PNAS 115(20): 5295-5300.
  5. Stentiford, G.D. et al. 2017 “New paradigms to help solve the global aquaculture disease crisis” PLoS Pathog 13(2): e1006160.
  6. FAO. 2014. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014. Opportunities and challenges. Rome. 223 pp.
  7. Bostock J. et al. 2010 “Aquaculture: global status and trends” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365(1554): 2897-2912.

New FS and T website!

We encourage you to visit the new home for our Food Science and Technology quarterly magazine. This now sits as part of Wiley's Online Library. There, you can access all our past issues from 2017 up to our current issue. Access the new website here: 

View the latest digital issue of FS&T or browse the archive


Click here

Become a member of the Institute of Food Science and Technology