Using physiology to improve the sustainability of fish production in aquaculture

Lead Research Organisation: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
Department Name: Biosciences


Aquaculture is rapidly growing and recently overtook wild-capture fisheries as our dominant source of seafood1. Aquaculture needs to minimise non-sustainable feed requirements (i.e. marine fishmeal), water use, and the environmental impact of released effluents. Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) offers these benefits but also generate other potential problems associated with water quality (specifically accumulation of excreted CO2) both in marine and freshwater settings. High levels of CO2 can cause acid-base disturbances in fish which have energetic costs and physiological consequences on vital systems (e.g. respiration, ion balance, and nitrogenous waste excretion) as well as growth and behaviour. However, it is not known how the impacts of CO2 (causing blood acidosis) may be influenced by a) the natural blood alkalinisation that occurs during digestion (called the "alkaline tide" - first discovered in teleost fish in our lab2 or b) elevated ambient ammonia (also causing alkalinisation3) often prevalent in aquaculture.

The student will join a dynamic and well-founded team using in vivo physiological and molecular approaches to investigate how these factors affect homeostasis during digestion, excretion, energetic costs, and the growth efficiency of aquaculture fish. Rotation projects will be:

1) in vivo and in vitro physiological analyses of how elevated CO2 and ammonia impacts upon blood acid-base chemistry and oxygen transport, ion regulation and energetics of digestion using in vivo physiological techniques including automated respirometry (Wilson laboratory).

2) gene expression changes (qPCR) relevant to physiological processes and environmental conditions of the above in vivo physiology experiments (Santos laboratory).

This project will benefit from BBSRC projects with Skretting (the largest global producer of aquaculture diets), and Anglesey Aquaculture Ltd (the largest sustainable marine aquaculture system in Europe). Ideal model species available for this research include salmon, trout and seabass. This research environment provides excellent support to develop the PhD student scientifically as well the industrial collaborations to focus on solutions for truly sustainable fish production in the global aquaculture industry. Specific objectives are to determine the individual and combined effects of elevated CO2 and ammonia on the physiology of digestion and growth in fish, and to suggest solutions (either dietary or environmental) to optimise growth efficiency for sustainable recirculating aquaculture systems.

1) FAO (2010). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010. Rome:FAO.
2) Cooper CA, Wilson RW (2008). Post-prandial alkaline tide in freshwater rainbow trout.... J.Exp.Biol:211:2542-2550.
3) Wilson RW, Taylor EW. (1992). Transbranchial ammonia gradients and acid-base responses to external ammonia in trout. J.Exp.Biol:166:95-112.

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M009122/1 30/09/2015 31/03/2024
1921484 Studentship BB/M009122/1 30/09/2017 28/02/2022 William Davison
Description We have developed a novel method of drawing blood from fish without the need for the surgical implantation of a catheter into a fish's blood vessels. This allows users to take blood samples for a variety of reasons in a manner that is much less stressful for the fish and requires less surgical training than existing methods.

We have also seen that the high CO2 levels often observed within fish farms can cause an increase in the amount of energy fish require to digest a meal.

We have seen that high co2 significantly alters the physiological conditions within a fish during feeding and digestion
Exploitation Route The blood sampling method can be used by other researchers around the world in order to take blood samples from fish without the need for surgery.

Our results can also be used to inform aquaculture practices with respect to optimal water chemistry parameters.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink


Description Using physiology to improve the sustainability of fish production in aquaculture
Amount £6,628 (GBP)
Funding ID 1921484 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 12/2022
Description I'm A Scientist Engagement 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Took part in online chat rooms discussing what its like being a scientist with school groups. It involved discussions with the pupils and breaking stereotypes about what its like to be a scientist.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020