Research aims to improve king salmon feed efficiency

Cawthron Institute senior aquaculture scientist Dr Jane Symonds at the salmon facility at Cawthron's Aquaculture Park at ...
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Cawthron Institute senior aquaculture scientist Dr Jane Symonds at the salmon facility at Cawthron's Aquaculture Park at the Glen.

A groundbreaking research project aims to improve the feed efficiency of New Zealand king salmon, potentially saving the aquaculture industry millions of dollars. 

Nelson's Cawthron Institute recently received $12.85 million for the five-year-project spearheaded by senior aquaculture scientist Dr Jane Symonds.

Symonds said the project will look at understanding the biology of feed efficiency as feeding salmon a specialised commercial diet was one of the biggest costs to the aquaculture industry.

According to the New Zealand Salmon Farmers Association, 14,037 tonnes of king salmon were farmed in New Zealand in 2011. 

​"If you can produce more fish from the same diet, that makes the whole process more efficient," Symonds said. 

"If you improve feed efficiency by just a few per cent, that can mean millions of dollars saved cost."

Symonds said the kilograms of feed used to produce a kilogram of salmon was known as the feed conversion efficiency.

"We want one kilo of food to produce as much salmon as possible."

The current feed efficiency rate varied from approximately 1.5 to 2 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of salmon. 

Most of the overseas research focused on atlantic salmon, although some looked at king salmon. 

Cawthron's research project aimed to fill knowledge gaps in previous research on feed efficiency for king salmon, Symonds said.

"Over the five years we're trying to figure the puzzle out.

"Both New Zealand King Salmon and Sanford have a selective breeding programme so they can use the information we generate into their breeding programme.

"That's an immediate area they can use it in."

Symonds said diet trials had been done many times, but none of those necessarily looked at the individual fish within a tank. 

"So we're trying to develop and use methods that can look at individual fish within a tank that differ in their feed efficiency."

Symonds said the research looked at many different aspects of king salmon; behavioral aspects, health, gut bacteria, genetics, blood biochemistry and metabolite profiles.

Symonds said the whole salmon aquaculture industry and some universities, research institutes and international scientists were involved in the research project.

One of the project's aims was to provide the industry with a reference database of a healthy king salmon after the first two years, Symonds said.

"If you've changed your practices or you're feeding a different diet, you want to know early on how the fish are responding to it.

"Obviously that's really important to the farmer, that the fish are doing well and that they're understanding what's going on."

Symonds said one of the tools used in the project was the emerging omics technology, a scientific research tool used to understand the behaviour of cells, tissues, organs, and the whole organism at the molecular level.

She said bringing all the information on the different parts of the king salmon together was part of a new research area called integrating systems biology and it would mean the scientists would have an overview of the overall biology of the fish.

"This is a really important industry for New Zealand, and its good to farm fish in a sustainable way so the more we know about the salmon the more we can do that.

"To develop an industry and helping that grow has lots of benefits, there's healthy salmon for people to eat and also the social and economic development in areas as well."

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