A sustainable way to feed a hungry world

A team co-led by UNB's Dr. Thierry Chopin is helping aquaculture, a key source of food for the world, become more sustainable.

A research partnership between the University of New Brunswick, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the private sector is helping the world develop sustainable aquaculture practices.

A team of scientists, co-led by Dr. Thierry Chopin, a UNB Saint John professor, and Shawn Robinson, a St. Andrews Biological Station scientist and adjunct professor at UNB Saint John, along with private-sector partners Cooke Aquaculture Inc. and Acadian Seaplants Limited, is pioneering a new approach to aquaculture that’s environmentally responsible, economically profitable and socially acceptable.

“Aquaculture already produces more than 40 per cent of the seafood consumed worldwide,” says Chopin. “To continue to supply the demand, aquaculture needs to continue to grow. But it must develop innovative, responsible, sustainable and profitable practices."

A cleaner way to farm fish and grow other crops

Traditional fish aquaculture has faced criticism by environmental groups because it can lead to increased amounts of fish waste. That waste in turn can have a negative impact on local water quality.

The approach developed by Chopin, Robinson and their team is designed to mitigate the environmental impacts of aquaculture by growing multiple species - fish, mussels and seaweeds, all chosen to complement each other.

“Instead of doing fish monoculture, we do what we call Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA),” says Chopin. “We combine fed species, fish, with extractive species, seaweeds and mussels."

The seaweeds and mussels use some of the by-products from the fish and extra food to help grow. Both the mussels and seaweeds can be harvested for use as commercial crops, in addition to the fish.

"It's all about reducing, recycling and reusing the available dissolved nutrients and organic matter."

Better for the environment and for the industry

IMTA isn’t just good for the environment, it’s also good for the bottom line of aquaculture companies, says Chopin.

“Over 10 years, the economists of our team have calculated that you can make more money with IMTA than if you just have a salmon monoculture operation,” he says.

The team’s research isn’t just in a lab. They’ve put the IMTA concept into practice off the coast of New Brunswick, in the Bay of Fundy. The team’s private-sector partner, Cooke Aquaculture Inc., has converted four of its salmon aquaculture sites into IMTA sites. It hopes to turn another 11 sites over to IMTA in the future.

“One of the most satisfying aspects of my work is the ability to apply research outside the lab,” says Chopin. “This academic research can be applied and we have an impact on society. That’s what is interesting to me.”

The team’s work is helping change industry practices, government legislation and social acceptance of aquaculture, he notes.

National recognition

The research partnership’s work has been recognized by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which recently awarded the project with a Synergy Award for Innovation.

The award, which includes research funding and the hiring of postdoctoral fellows, is worth $360,000. Chopin says the award recognizes the innovative nature of IMTA and the success of the partnership between UNB, the federal government and the two industrial partners.

“It recognizes that we're doing an excellent job at university-industry collaboration and that R&D in aquaculture is competitive and can be celebrated.”