Updated: Dec 15, 2021
10/12/21 - Meet Dr Catherine Wingate, a Research Associate with UWA’s School of Molecular Sciences and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development. Catherine has been developing a blood test which can be used in the global aquaculture industry to improve productivity and industry sustainability. Aquaculture is the world’s fastest-growing food production sector and set to overtake capture fisheries as the major source of seafood. We chatted to Catherine to find out more about her research and what we can all learn from WA’s thriving aquaculture industry.
How did you end up researching fish health and welfare?
I have expertise in muscle function having completed a PhD in muscle Physiology and Biochemistry but hadn’t initially considered researching fish health and welfare. Within a week of handing in my thesis in April 2019, I started working on an industry supported grant from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) which had been secured by Dr Gavin Partridge (former Principal Research Scientist in Aquaculture R&D at DPIRD) and my PhD co-supervisor Dr Peter Arthur (UWA Biochemistry Academic). The collaboration between Dr Partridge and Dr Arthur initially came about by a soft introduction as Dr Arthur had been exploring opportunities to use laboratory developed technology to address industry problems. I was then approached to apply my expertise to the research problem and take the project forward. I find the area of fish health and welfare very fulfilling, it is scientifically challenging and the industry is open to technological improvements. My transition into fish health and welfare research is an example of the benefits of networking and professional introductions.
Can you tell us a bit more about your research?
In our research, we have developed a novel blood test and blood capturing device along with proof-of-concept data that shows metabolic health of fish and oysters can be monitored by measuring specific protein biomarkers in their biofluid (blood from fish and haemolymph from oysters).
The advantage of aquaculture is that it doesn’t directly deplete ocean stocks, but growing seafood (fish and shellfish) in captive environments poses a set of challenges for the industry. Fish and shellfish are sensitive to pollution, temperature variations, pathogens, parasitism and various animal husbandry practices such as temporary removal from water, overcrowding and general management procedures. There are also changing conditions relating to fish feed as the industry works to develop more sustainable and cost-effective feeds. These environmental factors can affect the metabolic health of fish and shellfish which can flow through to vulnerability to illness, decreased growth rates and increased mortality as well as poorer quality product. This is where our metabolic health monitoring blood test fits in.
Our testing requires a small amount of blood which is non-lethal, and has shown to be sensitive, reliable and accurate in detecting metabolic health changes in fish and oysters. This technology can be used as a monitoring tool in primary stock production and as an outcome measure in research and development programs. There are also opportunities for this tool to be used for environmental monitoring of non-commercial aquatic species such as corals. Our research is currently supported by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, the UWA Pathfinder fund and the Oceans Institute Supporters fund with funding secured until mid-next year.
How could this research bring benefit to the aquaculture industry in Australia?
Aquaculture is an important industry for Australia currently providing around $1.9 billion in annual revenue. State governments have signalled strong commitment to the development of a large-scale aquaculture industry and there is already considerable investment from private companies such as Tattarang here in Western Australia. But to be able to scale up and be competitive and sustainable, the industry will need to make better use of technology. Monitoring metabolic health of fish and oysters can be used to better manage stock which will allow the industry to produce cost effective product that can compete with global imports and strengthen profit margins. It will also allow the industry to use research to develop more cost-effective feeds and develop breeds that are more resilient to climate change and other future challenges. And last, but not least, monitoring metabolic health of fish and oysters can be used to assure the public of the ethical treatment of animals in the production process.
A part of our research that I am particularly proud of is supporting the work to reduce fishmeal in carnivorous marine fish diets by ensuring fishmeal substitution does not impact negatively on fish welfare. The reduction in the use of fishmeal in aquafeeds will increase the sustainability and profitability of the Australian aquaculture industry. I am also working to develop standard operating procedures around husbandry practices for lowered stress levels, which can be used for routine monitoring of stocks and improved management of animals in research projects to further improve nutrition and animal husbandry. These are a couple of examples of how our research can benefit the Australian aquaculture industry. I hope to see further applications that will increase profitability and grow the industry.
What potential for growth and what opportunities are there to grow the aquaculture industry in Western Australia?
We are lucky here in Western Australia with our expansive coastline and diverse environments to support both on-land and off-shore aquaculture production. The Western Australian State Government is committed to the development of a large-scale aquaculture industry to diversify the economy and create significant regional employment opportunities. A detailed aquaculture 10-year development plan was released last year by the state government which estimated jobs will grow from 280 to almost 6000 through the expected expansion plans within the industry and the downstream businesses which will benefit. Strong support has come from private entities to support this sector as well. It is an exciting time for aquaculture in Western Australia and this will be a space worth watching. We can all help support this growth too by trying to buy local produce where we can.
What are the top three challenges facing the aquaculture industry?
The aquaculture industry is dynamic with environmental pressures, as well as changes in supply and demand. Given the expected growth of the industry, the first challenge that comes to mind is that of establishing and maintaining an optimal environment for the species being produced. Offshore operations have to contend with pollution, disease and temperature variations with climate change while on-land operations have the manage systems to mimic optimal conditions in the wild. As fish and shellfish are very sensitive to environmental stressors effective monitoring regimes will be important for optimal health and wellness - and to assure the public that animals are being treated ethically.
The market share concentration in the Australian aquaculture industry is rated by IBIS as moderate with four large industry players accounting for 40% of industry revenue and the rest of the industry being quite fragmented with many small businesses. For the smaller players it is more difficult to upgrade infrastructure and establish other economies of scale. Supporting small industry associations and businesses is important to maintaining some diversity in the industry.
Finally, the aquaculture industry is cost sensitive. The profit margin is quite small (9%) and there is pressure from international imports. Feed is one of the industry’s major cost inputs so helping the industry with the development of more cost effective feeds would be well received. The industry would also benefit from the development of premium products which could be sold at higher profit margins.