Saving farmed Atlantic salmon from climate change

Published: November 6th 2018
Dr. Kurt Gamperl, Memorial University. Photo credit: Memorial University

Dr. Kurt Gamperl, Memorial University. Photo credit: Memorial University

Warming sea temperatures in the North Atlantic are a big concern for Atlantic Canada’s aquaculture industry.  Rising summer water temperatures of even a few degrees, especially in combination with low water oxygen levels, can pose a number of challenges to salmon aquaculture including an increase in the incidence of disease and mortalities.  But help is on the way, thanks to a $4.4 million Atlantic regional research project called Mitigating the Impact of Climate-Related Challenges on Salmon Aquaculture (MICCSA).

The project is using genomics and genetic sequencing to provide the east coast salmon aquaculture industry with tools and knowledge that can be used to adapt its production to rising ocean temperatures and to select more disease-resistant broodstock.

Announced last year in St. John’s, NL, MICCSA was enabled by Genome Atlantic and funded by $3 million from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA)’s Atlantic Innovation Fund, $0.5 million from Innovate NL and another $0.5 million from industry and national academic partners. The project is co-led by researchers at Memorial University and the University of Prince Edward Island.  

There’s a lot riding on the MICCSA project.  The aquaculture industry is growing in economic importance to Canada, accounting for 14 percent of total Canadian fisheries production and 33 percent of its value – or more than $2.1 billion. The Canadian aquaculture industry provides 15,000 jobs (direct and indirect) and is a significant economic contributor to coastal, rural and aboriginal communities on Canada’s east and west coasts.   The Atlantic salmon is the main species produced by Canada’s aquaculture industry and is Canada’s third-largest seafood export by value. 

Water temperatures are expected to rise 2-4 degrees Celsius in the next two-three decades, and these higher temperatures are likely to be associated with oxygen levels that are lower than normal (a condition termed hypoxia). Without counter measures, these shifts could make the culture of Atlantic salmon in some locations untenable and result in more disease, exacerbating proclivities for known chronic conditions and destabilizing the industry.

Dr. Kurt Gamperl, a fish physiologist in the Department of Ocean Sciences at Memorial University, and one of two principal investigators for the project, says that “fish are already experiencing temperatures in the 18-20º degrees Celsius range at some sites during the summer, sometimes in combination with hypoxia. Anecdotally, it is believed that diseases have become more prevalent and that treatments for some disease are less efficacious at high temperatures.”

A genomics solution

MICCSA aims to help safeguard the region’s economically important salmon aquaculture industry and contribute to its sustainability and continued growth. Gamperl explains that through the MICCSA project, researchers are using genomics to examine the response of Atlantic salmon families from the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, to conditions of elevated temperature and hypoxia, and to evaluate their susceptibility to infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) and sea lice. Researchers are also looking for gene expression biomarkers of fish health, stress and disease status that can be developed into diagnostic tools known as Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assays (ELISAs). Genetic markers for improved physiological and immunological traits are also being developed, and these will help the industry select Atlantic salmon that can survive higher temperatures and hypoxia, and resist disease.  Finally, the project is expected to yield information to improve vaccines for salmon.

“This research,” Gamperl says, “should provide the industry with much needed information on the environmental conditions where their fish grow best, what fish to select – breed – for such conditions, and where to site sea-cages so that the fish are not exposed to unfavourable environmental conditions. Overall, this will increase the profitability and sustainability of the industry,” he says, adding, “if the research can improve cultured salmon health and decrease antibiotic usage, consumer demand and acceptance for cultured salmon are likely to grow.”

MICCSA project industry partner the Centre for Aquaculture Technologies (CATC) based in Souris, Prince Edward Island, agrees that this research is critical to the aquaculture industry.  “The ability to predict what strains of Atlantic salmon perform better under elevated temperatures could soon become an urgent need for commercial breeding programs,” said Debbie Plouffe, the company’s executive vice president of research. 

Plouffe believes that aquaculture will play a key role in supplying economical, high-quality and sustainably produced protein for human consumption in the coming years. “In order for the industry to reach its maximum potential, the application of state-of-the-art approaches to breeding are going to be essential.  CATC’s participation in this collaborative project is one of the many ways that our company is working with Genome Atlantic and Canadian public and private sector partners to drive innovation in the aquaculture sector.”

Project already yielding significant results

Gamperl says that the MICCSA project is already yielding significant results. “We’ve made tremendous progress towards reaching the program’s goals,” he says, outlining several important findings. 

So far, researchers have validated the use of data loggers that simultaneously record several physiological variables such as heart rate, activity/swimming speed and body temperature that can be used to monitor free-swimming Atlantic salmon in sea cages. The project is providing researchers with a better understanding of the salmon’s stress physiology including how high temperatures (20-23ºC) alone, or in combination with moderate hypoxia, impact production characteristics and the salmon’s innate immune response to viral and bacterial antigens (i.e., vaccination). 

Researchers have also identified several key immune- and stress-related genes (biomarkers) that are responsive to environmental temperature challenges and have produced antibodies and ELISAs to several biomarkers so that their protein levels can be quantified and monitored.

Gamperl says the project team is now looking forward to another important phase of the work.  “We’ll be receiving salmon from the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in the summer of 2019.  This will allow us to embark on family-based experiments, this phase of the project that is critical to identifying Atlantic salmon families that have an enhanced capacity to adapt to environmental challenges and mount robust pathogen-specific immune responses.”

The back story

Large-scale research projects like MICCSA are the product of leading-edge science, strong collaborations, solid investments and help from the local Genome Centre. 

It was the genomics potential that brought Genome Atlantic to the table for this research initiative. Genome Atlantic played a significant role in enabling the project, shepherding it through its final stages of proposal development to ultimate success.

First developed as a potential Genome Canada Large-Scale Applied Research Project (LSARP), the project came up short given the level of stiff nationwide competition for major Genome Canada funding programs.  However, Genome Atlantic and the research team knew that the project was strong and had regional significance.  So, they carefully considered the feedback provided through the LSARP evaluation process and refocused the proposal for ACOA’s Atlantic Innovation Fund.  The proposal was ultimately successful, scoring a big win for the future of Canada’s Atlantic salmon aquaculture industry.

The feeling when the funding was announced was “fantastic” says Andy Stone, Genome Atlantic’s director of business development. “We worked quite closely with the researchers and the industry partners and we became part of the team when the proposal was being developed, so there is certainly an emotional attachment.”

Beyond that, he says, there is another level of satisfaction, “especially given the gravity of the challenge for climate change, you know that you are part of something that has potential impact.”

Kurt Gamperl praises Genome Atlantic for its advice and persistence. He maintains that the organization’s decision to hire a consultant to write and improve the commercial and intellectual property sections of the funding proposal was decisive for the outcome. “These sections were key to our successful grant application,” he says.  “We continue to ask advice from Genome Atlantic staff with regards to the project and how to ensure that it has maximum impact,” says Gamperl.

The MICCSA project is a collaboration between Memorial University (Drs. Camperl and Matt Rise) and the universities of Prince Edward Island (Dr. Mark Fast), Guelph (Dr. Roy Danzmann) and Waterloo (Dr. Brian Dixon) along with Huntsman Marine Science Centre and industry partners Somru BioScience and CATC. Along with Dr. Gamperl, Dr. Mark Fast, an associate professor at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Atlantic Veterinary College, co-leads the project.  The MICCSA project compliments ongoing aquaculture research at Memorial University and the University of Prince Edward Island, including work that Dr. Fast and Dr. Matt Rise of Memorial University are doing as part of another large-scale collaborative research initiative, funded by Genome Canada and managed by Genome Atlantic, aimed at developing therapeutic feeds to combat co-infection in Atlantic salmon.

Sidebar:  A customized approach to genomic solutions 

The MICCSA project is one of many examples of how Genome Atlantic works with clients, partners and research teams to find the right solution.  Andy Stone, Director of Business Development, says that a “customized approach” is needed with each opportunity to help Atlantic Canadian business and industry access the potential of genomics. 

Genome Atlantic’s “small but mighty” business development team manages a portfolio of opportunities across seven different sectors including human health and environment, along with the resource sectors of agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture, energy, the environment, forestry and mining.  The team helps clients to explore opportunities, find potential partners and develop proposals. “We get involved in every stage of development and the service we offer is very unique,” said Stone. 

“These are all competitive processes and we want to make sure our proposals have a  peer review in advance to identify any potential weaknesses or challenges with the science and address those,” said Stone. “But also, we will run a copy edit type of review to make sure it reads well. So ultimately, we’re packaging proposals and putting a bow on them, and after they are successful, we offer project management services as well.”