Impact success story: Aquaculture

Can we protect the ecosystem in the North Sea and at the same time make more room to aquaculture? Can artificial oyster reefs break waves so that we no longer have to spray sand to preserve our coasts? Scientists from the blue growth research groups at Ghent University are looking for an answer to these questions.

On its campus in Ostend, the university has been investing in labs and staff via Greenbridge NV. The university has also teamed up with the port and the province of West Flanders to create Ostend Science Park that will serve as a truly blue science park. The university’s goal is to bring several areas of expertise to work together, so that what’s ‘good for the ecosystem’ also rhymes with what’s ‘good for the economy’.

Health of farmed fish and shrimp

AquacultuurBusiness developer Margriet Drouillon coaches groups that work on promising projects. Take the team that works on the analysis of water microbes to improve the health of farmed fish and shrimp. By taking snapshots of the bacteria in the water, scientists can detect infections early and take preventive measures against diseases. This reduces the need for medication and thereby the mortality of young fish. Ghent University has specialised in this type of research for years and is among the leaders in the field worldwide. “One half of aquaculture worldwide is fish farming (people also grow seaweed, shrimp, mussels and oysters). 90% of that activity is in Asia. Up to 80% of young animals die in the first two to three months. In Flanders we have become very good at preventing this type of death. We use all means possible to improve the survival rate. We make the animals healthier and stronger by monitoring the water quality, optimising the feed and reducing stress. We have also been looking for alternatives to antibiotics, for example by working with probiotics and vegetable components such as green tea extracts.”

This sector has grown enormously in recent years. Thirty years ago it accounted for barely 10%, but today more than half of our consumption comes from aquaculture. And it should continue to grow with the rise in the world population.

In Europe we import 70 to 80% from Asia, but the middle class there is growing and consuming more, which means that prices are rising. “As a result, we can already see that a number of retailers are also considering producing locally, but the high wage costs in Europe make it difficult to turn a profit. That is why there is a strong focus on automation. This is one of the knowledge leaps that we have to make in Europe over the next 5 years to remain competitive.”

Read more: no prawns or scampi without Ghent University

But is aquaculture possible in the North Sea?

Our sea is heavily navigated, we generate energy there with windmills and we also want to preserve a thriving ecosystem. In addition, the conditions in the North Sea are very tough and a large part of our waters is not deep enough for fish farming. Shellfish and seaweed farming is possible. So we are faced with a major challenge, but this doesn’t scare Margriet: “Maintaining a good ecosystem in the North Sea doesn’t mean that you cannot cultivate anything there. If you’re creative, you can combine many different activities.

All in all we have a small stretch of sea, but if you can do it in these conditions, you can do it anywhere. Our sea is actually our test room where we demonstrate our technology.

At the same time, we want to preserve a functioning ecosystem. This is also embedded in the Marine Spatial Plan which outlines which activities can be carried out in which part of the sea: nature preserve, military use, energy at sea, passive fishing, passage for ships, ... This has made us a global leader. The Norwegians, for example, are very interested in testing their technology here. It’s a quality label. If it works with us, it can work anywhere.”

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UGent Blue Growth