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Overview of project themes for regulatory research in aquaculture

Descriptions of the project themes funded by the Program for Aquaculture Regulatory Research (PARR) are as follows.

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Fish pest and pathogen treatment and management

Fish are susceptible to a variety of diseases and infections. Farmed fish are transferred into net-pens free of signs of disease. But they can become infected by pathogens or pests from the natural environment and wild fish. An infected farm population can then infect wild stocks.

We fund research projects to improve understanding of infections and infestations, and their management. This includes:

  • understanding where in the environment treatments may disperse
  • characterizing areas and times of the year when infection pressures from wild fish may be higher
  • understanding environmental factors that may change the effectiveness of a treatment or management approach

Regulators use this information to assess potential risks of different treatments and management approaches. They also use it to develop measures to minimize the risks of disease transfer between farmed and wild fish stocks.

Many funded research projects focus on sea lice. This naturally occurring parasite can weaken fish and increase their susceptibility to potentially fatal secondary infections. The information produced from these projects helps federal and provincial regulators understand the:

  • relationship of sea lice to the marine environment and fish
  • treatments and methods to reduce their numbers near wild and farmed species

The National Contaminants Advisory Group funds and coordinates research to inform regulatory decisions on the biological effects of contaminants on non-target aquatic organisms. This includes drugs and pesticides used in aquaculture.

Wild Pacific salmon and farmed salmon interactions

The salmon aquaculture industry in British Columbia (BC) is found in areas where wild Pacific salmon migrate. Licensing decisions are made considering the likely scope and extent of interactions between wild fish and farmed salmon. Understanding the scale and effect of these interactions on wild fish populations can inform regulatory decisions and the development of mitigation measures.

Research to understand interactions between wild and farmed salmon is a priority. In BC, this priority is focused on fish health. The program has an integrated research plan on fish health interactions between wild Pacific and farmed Atlantic salmon. The research plan helps us to strategically and systematically address research gaps, such as:

  • effects on wild populations
  • interactions that affect fish health
  • opportunities for mitigating these effects in BC

Research focusing on these gaps is being done by scientists both within Fisheries and Oceans Canada and outside of the department. PARR funds projects that integrate and analyze the results of research in the following key areas:

  • water circulation patterns and mixing near farm sites
  • migratory pathways of salmon and how long they spend near fish farms
  • pathogen shedding rates, survival and infectivity in the marine environment
  • prevalence of pathogens and susceptibility to diseases within wild and farmed populations

We use a systematic, integrated approach to assess the risk to wild populations from pathogens that may be released from salmon farms into the environment.

Related research projects include the following:

Interactions with wild populations

A number of research projects funded by PARR focus on the ecological and genetic interactions between farmed and wild fish. This research helps us to understand the potential effects on wild fish populations from:

  • farmed fish feeding on wild fish within farm containment structures or after an escape
  • farmed fish/shellfish competing with wild fish/shellfish for food or space
  • farming activities altering nearby aquatic habitats
  • introduction or movement of foreign pests or pathogens with farmed fish or shellfish
  • genetic interactions, including:
    • interbreeding of farmed shellfish with wild shellfish
    • interbreeding of escaped farmed fish with wild fish
    • interbreeding of escaped farmed fish with other escaped farmed fish in the wild

The aquaculture industry uses enclosures, like net-pens, to restrict farmed fish from escaping. These enclosures are designed to withstand local conditions, like storm events and water currents. They are regularly inspected, tested, and maintained. Despite these measures, some farmed fish still escape from aquaculture facilities. Escapes may occur if there is:

  • biological interference, such as predator attacks or vandalism
  • operational failures during routine operations, such as fish handling
  • infrastructure failure, such as damage to netting or support structures

Regulators use results from research and science advice to develop measures to reduce negative interactions between farmed and wild fish. This will improve the overall sustainability of the industry.

Genetic interactions between wild and farmed Atlantic salmon

Atlantic salmon is Canada’s top aquaculture export, and we are the fourth largest producer of farmed salmon in the world. Research to understand interactions between wild and farmed Atlantic salmon is a priority, specifically as they relate to genetic interactions.

The program’s integrated research plan on Wild/Farmed Atlantic Salmon Genetic Interactions helps us strategically and systematically address research gaps. It identifies research activities occurring through internal projects, and through national and international collaborative research projects. Collaborations exist with industry, academia, non-governmental organizations and other governments.

Results of the research and advice helps inform regulatory and policy decisions.

Related research projects include the following:

Release of organic matter

During aquaculture operations, organic matter is released into the surrounding waters and can accumulate on the sea floor or lake bed. If enough material accumulates, local benthic diversity can decline. Organic matter includes:

  • fecal matter
  • unconsumed feed
  • shellfish drop-off
  • fish scales and mucus
  • other organisms like biofouling tunicates

Aquaculture operators monitor the release of organic matter under the Aquaculture Activities Regulations, provincial regulations or as part of the conditions of licence to operate an aquaculture facility.

The program funds research to:

  • measure the impact of organic matter accumulation from aquaculture on benthic habitats
  • develop and validate models able to predict the magnitude and area of organic enrichment

The science advice generated enables regulators to make decisions on:

  • limits of acceptable organic matter accumulation
  • licences for new aquaculture sites or changes to existing sites

This contributes to the sustainable development of the aquaculture industry.

Related research projects include the following:

Other habitat impacts

Marine vegetation, such as seagrass and seaweeds, form the foundation of many nearshore ecosystems. They are considered critical habitat for many ecologically and economically important species.

Shellfish aquaculture has the potential to affect marine vegetation in a variety of ways. These effects may be positive or negative, for example by:

  • increasing water clarity and light penetration, which enhances growth of marine vegetation
  • impacting nearby marine vegetation, which alters the associated invertebrate and fish communities

We fund projects examining these relationships between shellfish aquaculture and marine habitats.

Related research projects include the following:

Cumulative effects and ecosystem management

Overall sustainability of the aquaculture industry can be enhanced by:

  • identifying possible cumulative effects
  • characterizing the capacity for an area to support aquaculture activities
  • increasing the number of indicators that can be used to predict, measure and quantify ecosystem effects
  • developing tools to support ecosystem-based environmental management, regulation and decision making

For shellfish aquaculture, research on carrying capacity and cumulative impacts supports the sustainable management of the industry. Results have increased our understanding of how much aquaculture production a bay or other area can support while maintaining wild species, communities, and the ecosystem.

For finfish aquaculture, much of the research has focused on modelling efforts that incorporate:

  • particle tracking
  • oceanographic information
  • pest and pathogen information
  • physical and biological information related to the deposition of organic matter

This helps to:

  • characterize the likely interactions between farms in an area
  • further our understanding of the connectivity between these farms
  • support the development of bay or area-based management zones

Related research projects include the following:

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